Being the change: protest as performative discourse in the Occupy Portland encampment
Some protest actions create awareness of injustice, call attention to movement goals, disrupt the status quo, pressure authorities, build collective identity, or make the cost of change less than the cost of ongoing protest. However, Judith Butler’s (1988) notion of performativity provides a foundation for suggesting that some protests also constitute the change that is sought by the movement. Sit-ins by African-Americans at white-only lunch counters, Saudi American women driving automobiles; (legally unrecognized) marriage ceremonies by same-sex couples, and occupation of public spaces across the globe are among the protest actions that are qualitatively different from other forms of social movement demonstrations in that these protests embody the new discourses of race, gender, or social relations being sought through the social movement. Though sometimes short-lived, each of these created a kinesthetic experience and memory for protestors as well as visual images for audiences of performative discourses that disrupt and challenge existing norms and dominant discourses. In that way, they are symbolic performances. At the same time, however, they performatively actualize desired changes. Moreover, such protests demonstrated that the power necessary for change exists and is embodied in those seeking such change. Thus, Gandhi’s admonition to be the change we seek in the world can be interpreted not as a call for inspirational behavior, but as an understanding of the power of performative action to contest dominant discourses.