Gosh, how embarrassing - my mom called up to let me know that she saw me in the paper. Apparently she thinks I'm getting too skinny and need to eat more.
I suppose I hadn't thought this all the way through when I tabled it at the weekly Monday night Artists Against War meeting. Past experience had indelibly demonstrated to me that these activists, beyond their radical and queer politics, were also the type prone to disrobing at the slightest opportunity - it's just that historically these opportunities had presented themselves at post-demo parties - not as the protests themselves.
"So I read a news item that might well interest you folks...
a Californian group called, uh... UnReasonable Women of West Marin...
they got a lot of press from a picture of themselves
spelling out the word 'Peace' with their,
uh, naked bodies.
That sound like the sort of action that would interest anyone here?"
In bringing the matter to their attention, I had no real intention of volunteering my furry pelt towards the cause (I was always a bigger fan of the Lysistrata project, myself - a couple of millennia as canon adds an air of literary legitimacy to impropriety 8) but quickly picked up from the enthusiastic response that it would be an act of poor faith to urge others to disrobe while taking care to hide my, uh, hide. "Hey, Wang - I think it would make a great photo if you were to go and stand in front of that tank column. I would but, y'know, the rheumatism's acting up."
"The only Bush I trust is my own!"
Our event broke from the feminist pattern set by Donna Sheenan's original all-woman group (against war as a traditionally overwhelmingly male pursuit) on November 14, 2002, in a couple of important ways. "Uh, Conrad... they had the photo taken at a secluded location, and just sent the resultant photograph to the media. You, on the other hand, want to provide a spectacle in a public place, trusting the media circus to present us in a positive light?" "Rowan, it has to be in a public, publicised place, otherwise people sitting on the fence and passing by can't join in! Those pictures were taken from way back, and you can't make out any details! But we don't have to cover our ass - we've got nothing to hide! Besides, we want to impress everybody with our fit bikesexual physiques, and they have to be able to get up close to see!" "That reminds me, I saw on the press release you said something about 'spelling out an anti-war message with naked bodies and bicycles.' I mean, of course there's a connection between fossil fuel consumption and war in the Middle East, but I think that the relation may be a bit abstract to the average newsmedia consumer." "Nonsense, people are smart - of course they'll get it!"
(background: crowd chanting "Less gas, MORE ASS!")
Radio interviewer: So, this group is holding up a banner reading "Bikes not Bombs."
What do you think they mean by that?
Passerby: Well, I guess they want more people to be riding bikes...
and fewer people to be riding bombs.
(A more obvious wit on Indymedia lamented the cruel inhumanity of ceasing the dropping of bombs on to innocent Iraqi citizens ... only to resume the bombardment with bicycles instead. They could be put to such better use!)
"How many people do we have so far? I count... 20 thousand!
But we still need more naked people!"
"Conrad, it's hard to get more naked than we already are."
"Rasputin, you're practically wearing a sweater!"
A bit of an optimistic announcement, tongue-in-cheek allusion to the unprecedented attendance at the ongoing antiwar rallies, our peace sign ultimately featured around 65 people of all ages and body types (reported as ranging from the ages of 6 months to 65 years). Held in the famously queer-positive West End of Downtown Vancouver, on Sunset Beach, I'm sure it was the first opportunity more than a few people had to witness in a firsthand manner several different types of body piercings. After two weeks of bitterly cold rains, the ubiquitous Vancouver overcast cloud cover broke early on in the day and we enjoyed an unseasonably warm (for the Pacific Northwest - winter protests in the nude lose a bit of bite in the milder January climates of California and Australia, but I have nothing but mad props for the hardcore Michigan and New York witness-barers with snow up to their ya-yas 8) half-hour of sunbathing. (No cloud cover makes for cold nights, however, resulting in a bizarrely spectrum-spanning day in which I received both chapped cheeks and a sunburned ass.)
What made the proceedings so wacky was that there were approximately four photographers, cameramen, journalists, onlookers and rubberneckers for every single participant in the peace sign. We hadn't known what to expect, but the media's appetite for covering people uncovering provided us with opportunity for exposure on the national level. (Apparently our event got mentioned in the weekly review on This Hour Has 22 Minutes - I didn't see it, but hopefully their jokes were better than mine 8)
"You know, if you all put down your cameras and join us, we could triple the size of the peace sign and you wouldn't have to worry about anyone taking pictures of you taking part!"
No dice. I suppose they were trying hard to maintain their journalistic objectivity. Still, surprisingly, maybe a dozen of our final number were cold-calls walking along the beach who decided that they, too, could do no less than show their peace. "Jean-Paul! Where'd you find out about this? Are you on the velolove list?" "I didn't know anything was going on, but I saw you there on the grass and knew that anything Rowan's involved with is always worth taking part in!" The rest of the picture-snappers seemed dedicated to taking as many close-ups as they could get away with, but after we realised that nothing short of objectification could be accomplished without their pulling out far enough to see the symbol in its entirety we got them to move back. Have you ever tried telling 300 photographers to step back about 20 feet? It's darned near impossible keeping them from their shot until you send out the nude Quebecois fellows to give hugs to anyone lingering too close, at which point they all magically become quite compliant.
"Naked dogs! Naked dogs are all right." Someone draws our attention to a pair of Mounties watching from two hills over:
"Naked horses... being ridden by clothed pigs!"
After the clothes were put back on and the crowds summarily dispersed, Jonah and Kari Winters of Indymedia went up to the police, asking "what the policy was on such public nudity, and one officer answered that the laws on nudity were becoming more flexible in Canada. After all, the officer pointed out, it's also illegal to block traffic, but no-one objected to the crowd of 25,000 people (anti-war protesters) that packed Vancouver's downtown streets the previous weekend."
The way Canada's laws in these matters tend to be interpreted, for charges to be pressed by Regina (the state) there must be compelling evidence suggesting people were being not only naked, but obscene - the dividing line being generally a sexual context. It's not like we were jumping out at people from the bushes masturbating - and though there were plenty of nervous jokes about boners, stiffies, boobies and bums among people who thought the whole venture wholly outrageous, there was never the slightest risk of the most mild tumescence; for as any Holocaust survivor or disillusioned nudist beach voyeur can tell you, there are few things less sexy than naked people in large numbers.
In any event, so long as they're not corrupting children or taunting nuns my experience suggests police would generally rather not deal with naked people - because you just know they're gonna have some jive-ass answer about their other pair of pants when you ask them for ID, and then there's the consideration do I really want to throw this naked guy in the back of my cruiser? I just had that thing cleaned! Of course, this is no reason to be provocative or rude to the officers of the law, because they can always take you to the station and hassle you for a few hours if you get on their nerves - and then you get to walk home, still naked, from the Downtown Eastside lock-up at Hastings and Main. Fresh meat! (Your experience, p_i? I must confess, this was not the first time I have gone skyclad in public. In my defense, however, I was not totally naked then: I was wearing the scarf jessicapierce knitted for me. AND all the proper safety gear. Let me just assert here that you haven't truly lived until you've been tailed by a police car at 2 am on a bicycle with no clothes on. But that's a different story.)
Some people, both in and out of activist circles, responded poorly to this ilk of event. "U.N. inspectors now focusing attention on nude protesters in search of weapons of mass erections." "Naked for Peace was great - now would you please stay Clothed for Peace?" One friend's poor reaction I can only chalk up to Baring Witness' homonymic similarity to the tradition of bearing witness espoused by the Quakers whose philosophy she is so fond of. Another tie to that tradition, especially relevant to our British Columbian context, is our precedent of disruptive nudity as protest practiced by the Doukhobor Sons of Freedom. Marching nude for a different cause in 1999, Patch Adams was quoted as saying "Non-violent people like us really have so few tools to face a capitalist system... All we really have are ourselves and our ideas. Our ideas have not done the job."
My rationale was that, though the act might well portray anti-war activists as attention-mongering flakes (which they aren't necessarily NOT), this approach meant our issue was pretty much guaranteed some media coverage, furthering the presence of opposition to the war in the news and hopefully furthering discussion about its non-necessity among news-consumers. (February 6th headlines - "Bush tells Iraq: Enough is Enough" rather than "The World tells Bush: Enough is Enough." After all, we're just a focus group - but you have the photographers to thank for us not being too in-focus.)
Are these clothing-optional events having any significant impact? You can look at the Bush administration's mature response to opposition and despair, but one thing for certain is that the more people who hear about these more-defying protests, the more people think that they're a good - and perhaps necessary - idea. A solitary photograph taken in November has spawned dozens of assemblies in solidarity across every continent on the planet celebrating and reaffirming a fundamental truth: that though we may be alienated from each other by notions of race, class, nationality and gender, there are some things we all have in common - like that we all come into this world naked.
"Are those Stars of David you're wearing in your beard?
I thought that it was such a profound statement that an Orthodox Jew would be taking part in this protest."
"No no, on closer examination you'll find that these are regular 5-pointed ones."
"So you're not Jewish, then?"
"No sir... I'm just a big-nosed man with long hair and a beard."
"But you really do look Jewish."
"I thought the fact that I'm uncircumcised would have given it away!"
shyHyena says This is horribly disturbing to me as an American. How ever can your country tolerate nudity but ban large-magazined semiautomatic rifles?
Please do keep in mind that the latest outbreak of these sorts of protests both started and have been most widely practiced in the United States, notably California.
A book of accounts (and, brace yourselves, photos) -- including this one -- of these protests is in the works. Will keep you posted.