Getting naked for social justice

Back when I was young and idealistic, there was nothing I loved more than a good protest.

I vividly remember the first time I attended a demonstration — it was on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada and were were protesting the incarceration of Nelson Mandela. After that, I was hooked.

I’ve  marched against police violence in Seattle, white supremacy in Montreal, and sexual assault in Iowa City. I’ve taken back the night more times than I can count, and I’ve  faced off against loggers (one of whom was wearing this T-shirt)  in British Columbia’s Clayquot Sound as part of a protest against clearcutting.

I once demonstrated against impending restrictive abortion regulations in Seattle, and carried this sign:

On my way home, a young boy stopped me and asked me to explain what the sign meant. Awkward.

I used to get goosebumps and a thrill at the first sound of a good chant. I loved rousing speeches promising social justice, peace and equality. During the Bush reign of terror administration, I took a bus from Iowa to Washington,DC to protest the invasion of Iraq. The experience was thoroughly exhilarating at the same time that it was extremely depressing. Enormous demonstrations were held all over the world, but we all know what happened in the end.

It was this lifelong interest in social justice that propelled me to seek employment in the non-profit women’s health field. When I finally got a full-time job writing for a major reproductive health and HIV organization, I was beyond excited.

But instead of rousing speeches and radical movement toward social justice, I found career climbers and male dominated board rooms. Public health initiatives seemed top-heavy and destined to fail, success was measured in tiny percentage points. People talked about “stakeholders” and “gender champions” and said things like “scale-up” and “roll-out” and “capacity building.”

The employees at this non-profit didn’t protest, in fact, they found protestors to be quite threatening. I was enlisted to help write a paper about the travesties committed by ACT-UP. And yes, dear readers, I did it.

This morning, there was an article in the L.A. Times  about a group of young people disrobing in front of John Baynor’s office in protest of cuts to domestic AIDS funding.  I found myself thinking about the importance of this type of dramatic, confrontational action. There’s no worry about funders disapproval or concern that you might be burning bridges with potential allies. This kind of action  reminded me that there are still plenty of people who are able to concoct creative ways to engage with the political process, to express rage at inequality, and yes, even to demand social justice.

I’m not much of a sign-holder anymore, perhaps those kinds of actions are best left to the young and idealistic. But while I might not be one of the people who strips naked on Capitol Hill, I’ll always be sitting on the sidelines, silently cheering them on.

What do you think? Do you go to demonstrations? Do you think that protests like these are good tools for political change, particularly when it comes to health policy?

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