As I was walking around the Westminster Abbey area, looking for the Underground Station, I happened upon a large protest taking place in a grassy square nestled between several large historic buildings. Upon first glance, I could not tell what the protest was about or who was involved. I walked closer to the protest, crossing several busy streets to do so, and discovered that it was a primarily student-organized rally calling for awareness about climate change and the effects of global warming. In addition to the large printed signs, many young people had signs of their own made from cardboard and marker.
Calling a protest a performance is not a stretch. We already use the term “demonstration” as a synonym for this type of gathering. The protesters were trying to get the attention of passersby to either join their rally or sign various petitions. In order to get attention, they shouted repetitive slogans, or lines, (“This is what democracy looks like!”) and utilized several marches in place, or blocking. The leader of the protest led the group through a series of call-and-response chants. Their posters, or props, were brightly colored and attractive to the eye, and they even played music to garner interest in their gathering. Each detail of the protest could be considered performative.
The largest group of spectators were the police officers that created a perimeter around the square where the protesters gathered. They did not look threatening, but they were not exactly in league with the protesters either. Notice how the officers were facing inward, toward the space where the protesters were gathered. If they had been there to protect the protesters, they would have been facing away from the gathering and toward directions from which outside threats might invade. Instead, they stood on the curb around the grassy square and stood facing the protesters; forming a human corral around the gathering.
It is unclear if the presence of the police aided or devalued the performance of the protest. It is possible that they may have discouraged other bystanders from joining the protest. However, for me, a tourist and a bystander, the presence of the police was simply another interesting part of the performance as I walked to the tube station.