Vulnerability and the Protestor Desired

by | 17 Oct 2013

By Ricardo Alvaraz, from Global Voices (Creative Commons Licence)

By Ricardo Alvaraz, from Global Voices (Creative Commons Licence)


In September of last year, Charlene González, a University of Puerto Rico undergraduate student removed her top in the University plaza as part of a performance/protest against institutionalized gender discrimination in the university and in Puerto Rican society at large. In a matter of minutes, campus and state police were alerted and upon refusing to cover herself, Charlene was arrested on charges of offending public morality. In the days subsequent to her arrest, she appeared on a number of local television talk shows where she both detailed and expanded on the motivations of her protest. Her comments took the form of emotionally charged, tearful rants that somehow managed to intertwine gender discrimination with the treatment afforded to Puerto Rican students compared to exchange students in regards to housing facilities, to her past and present relationships with family members and romantic partners. A few days after she made the news again, on account of a similar performance staged in a neighbor’s property. Media outlets, political pundits and social media users called her everything from emotionally disturbed to a show-off to a drama queen to a second-rate political activist with no clear-cut idea as to what a serious protest entails. In the end, her claims were too broad and too tangled up in her own private affairs, they said; her actions not politically charged enough, they posited; and her public demeanor and behavior too erratic for her protest to be taken seriously. The consensus seemed to be that this was not a person made vulnerable by institutionalized patterns of gender discrimination, but more a confused “girl” desperately seeking her fifteen minutes of fame, and in a sense taking advantage of the viewing public by using a “political issue” as a subterfuge to advance her own personal agenda. She was a drama major, after all.

In light of the disparaging character of these reactions, philosopher and University of Puerto Rico professor Bernat Tort, wrote an insightful article in defense of Charlene as a protestor. To those who were so quick and eager to dismiss Charlene’s protest on account of her perceived inability to coherently explain her motivations and expected goals in clear-cut political terms, Tort replied:

Whoever follows that line of argumentation fails to grasp the fact that the political or the ethical   in art or in activism is not defined by the artist nor by the author of the acts, but rather by the public’s reactions, by the social context in which the performance or the gesture are immersed; it’s the spectators that make it meaningful.1(my translation)

According to Tort, insomuch as Charlene was successful by way of her performance in bringing to light the stark contrast in treatment afforded to men and women’s bodies as it regards the lack of liberty women in Puerto Rico have when it comes to displaying their breasts in public; insomuch as through her performance she interrupted the regular everyday relations between members of the university community in the plaza; insomuch as the occasion created by her gave us the opportunity to converse about the manners in which gender informs, influences and shapes our interactions and our sphere of action as political subjects, Charlene’s refusal to put on her top was eminently political. Therefore, in Tort’s reasoning, it was ultimately irrelevant whether she was successful in articulating the political reasons behind the act, what made it political was our reaction, her arrest, the debate it inspired. Tort writes:

We must distinguish between Charlene González the person and the immortal political subject that she incarnates… Our incapacity to make this distinction creates distractions that threaten to sink Charlene’s feminist gesture in a gossipy wave of trivialities. Before publicly criticizing what she says or what she writes, her academic preparation or her merits as an actress, performance artist or activist, remember that it’s not about Charlene, our commitment is not with Charlene, but with keeping that symbolic space that she pried open with her gesture, open at all times.

Now, in order to contextualize, Charlene’s performance in the University of Puerto Rico last year, occurred in the midst of what has been a very fertile epoch for political protests on the Island. Since 2009, citizens have staged sit-ins, walkouts, national work-stoppages, marches, acts of civil disobedience, occupy movements and student strikes. These in response to the diverse austerity measures implemented by both past and present governmental administration: layoffs, tuition hikes, increased taxes, increased privatization of governmental facilities and services, etc. Many of these protests garnered wide support across the Island population. And many, as well, were met by undue police force and violence as well as by amendments to the Island’s penal code in order to more effectively curtail people’s ability to make informal claims and demands on their elected representatives. An intriguing aspect of these protests and the support (or lack thereof) that protestors and political activists have received from the citizenry at large has centered on the perceived vulnerability of the political actor. You see, when it comes to the public’s reception, political protests in Puerto Rico must be perfect — they must arise out of a set of valid complaints, they must have clearly articulated and reasonable goals, they must be totally inclusive and tolerant of ideological difference both among those protesting and between protestors and society at large, and ultimately they must not be too much of a bother, should be extremely mindful of others’ rights and quite frankly, not offensive or vulgar or disrespectful to authority. Protestors, on their part, must be perfect too. In this regard, the perfect protestor is the one who has been made vulnerable to or actually suffered through some type of injustice that leads him/her to protest, but also who in the political act itself appears before the viewing public so willing to accept his/her fate at the hands of police, for example, and so polite and considerate with the very authorities that have harmed him/her that one cannot but be wooed by the actor, even as the actor’s political act fails to bring forth any actual socio-political change.

An example of this is the public’s view of the two phases of the University of Puerto Rico student strike, which took place between April and June of 2010, and December 2010 and March 2011, respectively. The first phase of the student strike, which was made possible by students’ occupation of the University campus, found widespread approval among the Island population; whereas the second phase—marked indelibly by the state police’s occupation of the campus—was widely rejected among all sectors of the citizenry. The main difference between the two was the manner in which students confronted police violence: while the first phase is marked by lines of strikers holding up flowers to a platoon of operatives from the special tactics unit, the second phase is marked by crowds of strikers with garbage can lids and wooden shields, and smoke bombs ready to face up to police. Both phases were marked by police violence (the second more so than the first), and we are basically talking about the same students, but in the second phase of the strike they were much less willing to take the blow. Thus, they were seen not as serious political actors, but rather as throngs of rowdy kids looking to act out and disrupt university business, which, in a different but related context, is exactly what Charlene was thought to be doing: acting out, being disruptive. And those who are vulnerable to injustice do not act out, they do not disrupt. For the more violent their acts become or the more coarse their language turns, the less believable they look as political activists and the less serious the injustice that moves them to protest (imagine that). And so they make a clear-cut claim or demand. They are considerate of others, because they have suffered through others lack of consideration for them. And as such, they are willing to accept whatever response their protest produces, for that is the type of protestor one could really look up to; the one we wait for and desire.


On January 6th of this year, Puerto Ricans celebrated Three Kings Day. As is customary, the Island’s first couple held a free gift giveaway for children. Year after year, thousands of parents wait in line with their kids for them to receive dolls, board games, toy cars, etc. The idea is that where the parents cannot provide on such an important holiday, the state gallantly, triumphantly does. As could be expected, during past administrations the annual celebration has been used as a shameless ploy to garner voters’ favor by giving away computers and other high-tech devices. This year however, the newly elected governor had vowed that under his administration, children’s gifts would be educational and/or otherwise skill-building in nature.2 Also, in order to foster among young Islanders the value of earning whatever good you might receive in life, children would be required to paint a picture of the Three Kings to turn in, in exchange for their gifts. And thus, the Three Kings Day giveaway was turned into a gift exchange, and the governor and other high-ranking members of his cabinet did not waste an opportunity to express to the media how the gift that was ultimately being offered to the Puerto Rican population—particularly its poor—was a lesson in old-fashioned family values. Contrary to years past, parents were not waiting in line with their children to get a government handout. Parents were there to learn how to be better parents to their children. And to learn to love it—which was certainly a perverse ideological shift insomuch as now the “needy” families that would line up to receive their gift were no longer simply found to be lacking the financial resources to cover their gift giving obligations to their children, but they were now apparently in need of a moral compass that only the government could provide.

This notwithstanding, all reviews of the activity were positive. With the exception of one. A local television reporter interviewed an unidentified woman who had brought her sick daughter to get a gift and was noticeably upset and took advantage of the camera time being granted to her to complain because, after waiting in line all that time, all her daughter got was a “lousy ball.”3Translated from the Spanish: “Trapo de bola” The interview unleashed a torrent of comments on message boards, Facebook and other social media. Political pundits, local celebrities, government officials all weighed in on the matter. Her comments were considered to be “inhumane and undesirable.” She was initially deemed as an ingrate and a bad mother for exposing her supposedly sick child to the outdoors and also for failing to instill in the child the correct values of gratefulness.4 Quickly, however, as the backlash intensified she became the poster-woman of all that is wrong with Puerto Rican society.5 And some critics even characterized her actions as tantamount to moral treason, insomuch as her lack of regard for a basketball demonstrated her ignorance as to the manner in which so many of her compatriots made a career for themselves in sports and brought glory to the Island. The more progressive critics—mostly academics—viewed the woman’s comments as perhaps the most poignant example of the rampant consumerism that wreaks havoc among the Island population, particularly among the Island’s poor, so dependent on government handouts. In the end, the woman’s complaints proved the governor right. Islanders—particularly the poor—were in deep need of a lesson in morality.

Following Tort, however, I wonder if it were possible to consider the woman’s comments not as simple complaints (products of her greed or selfishness), but rather as a political act; and the woman not as a bad mother or an ingrate or a traitor, but rather as an unwitting political protestor. If Tort is right, and the actor’s intentions are irrelevant, then we should consider the fact that her comments opened a symbolic space of opposition and the moment her complaints were repudiated by government representatives and private individuals, it became a political issue. As such, these, to use Zizek’s terms could have been taken in as the “metaphoric condensation of a demand”6Zizek, Slavoj (1998). “A Leftist Plea for Eurocentrism” in Critical Inquiry, 24, 4. p.990 whereby that “lousy ball” stands not for the speaker’s lack of manners or values, but rather as an indictment of the government’s condescending treatment of its citizenry by way of this thinly veiled attempt to establish a public discourse of shared responsibility for the ills of Puerto Rican society as a whole; of which the people who are willing to stand in line for a handout are the most responsible. Her comments in fact presented the opportunity to creatively challenge the discourse of merit, collective sacrifice and fiscal austerity that determined both the object and manner of the gift giveaway.

This, sadly, is not what happened. Instead, entire cross sections of the Island society turned the woman’s comments against her and the segment of the population she was taken to represent. And in essence aided the governor in establishing personal responsibility and values (or lack thereof) as the primary threats to Puerto Rican’s society’s success in the economy, security and communal living. As was the case with Charlene, she too was misrecognized as a political actor. Her level of “ungratefulness” denoted not a vulnerable subject that unable to provide gifts for her children on Christmas must turn to the this particular form of public assistance; but rather her comments proved her to be a manipulative subject who is taking advantage of the government and therefore of citizens’ hard earned tax dollars to get a freebie.

I look back at the incident and the reactions it generated and I cannot help but feel that a political moment was lost, simply because we were unable as a collectivity to identify with the sense of disenchantment and dissatisfaction of the speaker, solely because she was not the desired interlocutor of our collective angst. The truth is that the political moment cannot wait for either the perfect or even the conscientious objector. It must be generated from the events as they take place, by the individuals involved whoever they may be. Thus, it is her rejection of government policy that is significant, never mind her intentions. In that regard, it was incumbent upon Islanders, particularly those of the left, to be in solidarity with the dissatisfaction communicated by the woman at the Three Kings Day Celebration, where the ideologically heavy content of the activity was a great cause for concern; more so than anything she could have communicated about the content of her character. The political moment then, while not explicit nor necessarily ideal could have been exploited and used to articulate serious critiques against the state.

In fact, one could make the argument that the ideal political moment as it concerns protest and opposition is that which is crafted from difficult and/or unattractive and/or unwitting and/or purely personal manifestations of dissent—for totally the wrong reasons—insomuch as the ability to recognize and discursively turn those manifestations into opportunities to call out, protest against and/or resist state action is indicative of the collective will and desire for social and political change. And also, because they require the most out of us, as activists, in terms of artistry and creativity, to arrive at the precise metaphor through which to communicate our dissent.

Thus, in the spirit of solidarity, was it in fact a lousy ball? Well, it depends on the ball. And what you can play with it. And how many players you need to play. And if you need a glove or a racquet or a set of clubs. It depends on how you’re supposed to hold it and where you throw it to. Or if you have somewhere close where you can play and it’s more or less safe for you to play there. It depends on the ball. If it’s enough just to bounce it off a wall. If you can pass the time watching it bounce and roll. If you have somebody to look over you and practice with you, somebody to bounce it and roll it for you, faster, with more grace and style. It depends on whether you can hold it with one hand or two. If you need a country club membership to play or if the drug pushers moved in on the court and the baskets are closed indefinitely.

It depends on who throws it and what for. If that ball is supposed to be a hobby or your life’s work. It depends on the ball. And if that ball, when you look at it from a certain angle reminds you of world globe map and if you feel that when you hold it you’re holding the world with one hand or two. It depends on whether your classroom has enough world globe maps to spin and spin and if thinking and learning about the world is as accessible as stepping on the court and grabbing a ball. It depends on what hands. If you know about the hands of the greats that grabbed that same ball and threw it or dunked it or hit it over the fence. If you know about how they managed to go around the world with that ball under their arm. It depends on whether somebody had the time and the love and the knowledge to tell you the stories of greats and made you feel like you were the greatest thing in the world with that ball under your arm.

It depends on the ball and on the circumstances in which it falls in your hands. From whose hands, for example. In the occasion of what, for example. You being who exactly in the eyes of the world. And being the world exactly what in the eyes of whomever gives you the ball as a gift for a kid like you in the world. It depends on what that ball represents as a gift in your hands. On how much that ball is worth. On whether or not the ball is worth more than you.

Guillermo Rebollo-Gil (PhD, JD) is based at the Universidad Metropolitana de Puerto Rico.


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