Protest & Chill:
Where Vice Meets Virtue
By Miles DeSouza
Illustration by Beau Murphy
It’s the week following the murder of George Floyd and cities across Amerca are fully in the throes of civil unrest. A revolution against a long corrupt establishment is happening.
Instead of finding myself in the center of the protests, riots, and demonstrations in NYC, I'm watching idly from the seclusion of my room at my mother's place in Philly. I have FOMO. In what was surely a common sentiment, I wanted to be outside for more reasons than one. I especially wanted to join my brothers, sisters, friends and allies in the fight against police brutality and systemic racism. But, beyond that, was a compounded feeling of being caged in. Up until that point, most Americans had already gone months without so much as a hug or friendly conversation with another sentient being—pets notwithstanding. And now, whatever conversation people planned on having was certainly going to take a different shape.
These feelings of anger, coupled with a bubbling urge to get outside, created the proverbial whirlwind of emotions for myself. Full disclosure though: This isn’t another story of frustration with social and systemic ills that we’ve all likely to have read many times over by now. This is more about how internal dialogue gave light to cultural realization. My thoughts were spurred by a personal conflict of interest—what I’ve termed a tug of war between vice and virtue—of wanting to protest and also wanting to indulge in other, less emotionally taxing activities. A sentiment that I have now gone on to see exhibited by many other Americans who hope to protest wrongdoing (virtue) while also enjoying the freedoms they associate with everyday, pre-COVID normalcy (vice).
In my mind, the conflation of vice and virtue was inevitable, sociologically speaking, but nonetheless interesting to watch as the concept of “protest and chill,” “protestchella,” protest partying, or whatever the euphemism will be, evolved in real time. Whether joking or not, Twitter conversations, actions, and articles have quietly begun to substantiate the notion that protests will soon become a commonplace, flexible social vehicle used by Americans hoping to “enjoy” themselves while also rattling the cages of the establishment.
My story, again, begins the week following the murder of George Floyd as I sat waiting until I left Philly to go out and protest, otherwise too nervous about bringing COVID into my mom’s house. Weeks prior to this ambition, I had another desire. To go on a date. Or at least have a social interaction of whatever shape they take these days. (For the record, New York is looking a lot like New Orleans right now in all the best open container-style ways.) Once I realized that these were my two prevailing desires, I reconciled with the fact that my wanting to do something at once politically active and also motivated by romance wasn’t the most far-fetched idea. What was more interesting was what came next.
Eventually, when I returned to NYC, I found myself arranging a date. Check. Cool. Exciting. The vanguard of 2020 post-COVID courtship. The only issue now was that I had yet to arrange my participation in a protest. Immediately I felt guilty when I realized that one came before the other. “What's up with my priorities?” I questioned. My subconscious was talking shit to itself, telling me that I care more about one cause than the other—and, while I know this isn’t true, the self-loathing was inevitable.
Then came the moment of unfiltered, “creative strategist”-inspired clarity, shining bright on whatever synapses I have left upstairs. “Hypothetically speaking,” I said to myself. “Purely hypothetically speaking: Imagine what it would be like to go on a date at a protest? Lol…” But seriously, what would that be like? “Probably, no, definitely, weird at first. And then maybe not so much?” This stream of consciousness went on much like that until I concluded that I couldn’t possibly be the only one playing around with the thought.
So, after some good ol’ internet sleuthing, I found out I wasn't wrong. Mental vindication. Some screenshots here and there interspersed with threads and other internet dialogue that had lightly dipped a toe into the idea. And, while detractors might say that with enough due diligence proponents of any ideology can be found online, these discoveries were enough to spark additional inquisition into how protests might soon take different shape and morph to fit increasingly niche tastes all in search of the same result: A 5-mile protest for avid runners, skating protest for board pushers, dancing and partying (and protesting), or simply laying-out-in-the-park-as-protest, and so on. Which, since I was well in the train of thought that all things being sort of equal in love and uprisings, wasn’t a bad thing, but potentially a slippery slope of a war on images.
Though I never realized my half-baked, social experiment protest date, days later, I began to see more people virtue signalling all over dating apps than ever before. Now, with less nuance, people were subconsciously floating ideas to potential suitors that I had only jokingly hypothesized about. Profiles splattered with provocations like “If you don’t support BLM, swipe left,” took over summaries of personality traits and statements of individuality. Were these people serious or were they just paying lip service to come off as that much more eligible on a platform that rarely encourages depth beyond physical traits? If they were serious about their claims of allyship, they were also presenting them within the context of what we’ll herein describe as protest & chill. They were, presumably, the type who would be open to talking politics at the dinner table, if that dinner table were sitting at the center of Occupy City Hall.
“Were these poeple serious or were they just paying lip service to come off as that much more eligible on a platform that rarely encourages depth beyond physical traits? If they were serious about their claims of allyship, they were also presenting them within the context of what we’ll herein describe as protest & chill.”
The more I wrestled with what I was uncovering, the crossover of vice and virtue set against the backdrop of protests and social unrest, the more I realized that pleasure in political revolution—demonstrations taking different forms outside of markedly traditional ones (marching, sit-ins, etc.)—is not novel. Literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin uses the term “carnivalesque” to describe the resplendent, chaotic energy of festivities where social norms, hierarchies, and prohibitions are subverted—allowing us to sing, dance, and be merry out of the existing social order (and no surprise that his thinking is favored by rave culture theorists).
“The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit… frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities,” he wrote. “Festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over death; it also means the defeat of power, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts.”
Considering Bakhtin’s analysis brought to recent happenings culturally adjacent to the protest date like YG shooting a music video at an LA protest, a Black couple getting married at a protest, and people needing to “get lewks off” in whatever public gatherings were available to them, and I have developed new context into the social pathology of my hypothesis.
The theater, indulgence, and hedonism surrounding the fight is part and parcel of the whole war. I think about the genesis of hip-hop in the 80’s in the Bronx. Each break, scratch, and lyric was a direct translation of the pain and wounds festering within the Black community. People were able to take to their streets against oppressive white systems but did so happily and in a way that often allowed for vice to creep in. The inherent ethos of dissent that was expressed through music at the time was a prime example of protest taking a seemingly untraditional, broadly speaking, form.
But this malleability can’t go unchecked. YG’s protest music video was met with Twitter criticism that questioned his intentions. People opined that his appearance was more for cinematic optics than for the cause, despite him helping bring 40,000+ Angelinos out that day. And while I can’t comment on YG’s intentions, I think the overarching message is quite clear: If you are going to approach protests differently (theatrically, emotionally, politically), expect to be held accountable for your actions and intentions because in a time where looks can be their most deceiving, people remain vigilantly scrupulous on behalf of the core issue. American racism has etched pain, heartache, and destruction into the lives of generations of its people, and those fighting on the behalf of Black lives will not have narratives of their efforts led astray by people hoping to profit, posture, cloutchase, or delegitimize the cause.
In a bid to reconcile my own thoughts and observations, I don't intend to reduce the efforts of what’s going on today or equate BLM protests, protest dating, or any of the newfangled takes on demonstration one-to-one with LGBTQAI+ rave culture or hip-hop protest art. Instead, in my own way, I was, and still am, hoping to draw parallels between the development of subconscious tendencies of oppressed people (and allies) in their attempts to be heard.
From my first-hand experiences riding with skater groups at Occupy City Hall to the camp-inspired, glamourous performances atop refurbished school buses I observed from afar, the sociopolitical protest ecosystem continues to morph, bringing into its fold pleasure and vice (though I have yet to see any physical proof of the fabled protest date). And as we continue to protest against social injustice and police brutality, we should expect that younger generations continuously redefine the social and functional fabric of protests to fit within a set of circumstances that potentially allow a different feeling of ownership, agency, and voice, but not without internal checks and balances.
In this way, the music videos, streets rife with “lewks,” and general protest “partying” have followed in the footsteps of activism that we still see exhibited today. And though the light may not shine as brightly on the movements that predated our current iteration of BLM, a reflection onto these subcultures can help better contextualize the varying forms in which freedom fighters may decide to express their anger and dissatisfaction in the months and years ahead. All we can do now is continue to hold each other accountable so that if we are to marry vice and virtue, we don’t let hedonism obfuscate the reason why we took to the streets. ︎