If there’s a scheduled protest on the horizon, there’s a good chance you’ll engage in the following routine: someone will send over a Facebook invite to register your attendance, you’ll accept, and make plans with friends or colleagues to make signs the night before (often over a bottle of wine). On the day of protest, you’ll arrive to a mass of people assembled with their signs and phones out (50/50 chance the camera is in selfie mode), and the air will be laced with an electric energy as you feel a collective swell to make your stance heard.
As you make your way through the pockets of fellow protesters, you’ll likely come across a vendor selling a variety of pins and hats with the slogan of the moment. You may pause, and consider how a moment meant to agitate change has been co-opted by a floating business model looking to turn a profit, and wonder where the money made is actually going.
Welcome to protesting in 2018, when even our most disruptive methods of communication have taken on the form of a cash-generating machine.
Protests have gotten more transactional over the years, so much so that it can feel like déjà vu seeing vendors sell merchandise with March For Our Lives in bold print amidst the throng of march attendees — the situation not unlike those selling Warrior shirts in the parade that followed the Golden State team sweeping the NBA finals. The key difference, of course, is that one gathering is to celebrate a sports victory, while the other is meant to draw attention to the violence that lax gun laws inflict on youth simply wishing to attend class safely. Yet, in both cases, profits are being made.
There have been several articles written on the negative impact of marching and other forms of protest on local business, such as damages and loss in revenue. What there hasn’t been is much, if any, attention on the micro businesses that have found their way into the fold.
I spoke about this sort of micro-economy that has flourished in resistance movements with a good friend and fellow Bay Area native, and she shared her skepticism regarding the intent of vendors in these spaces. Looking back to her experience of the March For Our Lives protest that took place in San Francisco, she expressed that while vendors were possibly showing support by providing merch, they were ultimately capitalizing off a moment meant to express our frustration with the school shootings taking place in America. “This person is just walking away with this money that they have made off of this tragedy…I highly doubt these local street vendors donated a certain profit.”
This led me to question whether local business participation in protest, be that in the form of a vendor or a café down the street, could detract from it. She responded that if a local business was willing to donate or give a percentage of their profit towards the resistance, than no. It becomes a problem when, “you’re a local business…specifically local vendors who are just here making enamel pins and making shirts and bags of the protest without dedicating some of that money” to the movement.
Today, we live in an age where people not only want to support causes dear to them, they want you to know that they support these causes. And often, they’ll show you where their values lie by purchasing a t-shirt or mug. Our notion of resistance has become conflated with the desire to increase capital, be it social or monetary.
We can attribute the rise of capitalism in resistance movements to the branding of protest over the years. In a recent article published by the NYTimes, Sarah Schulman looks at the steady rise of this phenomenon, which saw a surge in the 1980s and 90s. It is during these years, that the discussion of AIDS, and the lack of sufficient treatment and concern due to the stigmatisation of those infected, is brought to the public forefront thanks to artists like Keith Haring and Barbara Kruger. Schulman writes that their work made the sense of loss highly visible, “inserting AIDS into public spaces, advertisements and even mass-produced apparel.” Past notions of resistance, where there was ‘nothing to buy, and nothing to sell,’ are replaced with a heavily art-directed aesthetic.
This aesthetics of the AIDS rebellion, as she calls it, took inspiration from political movements of previous decades, notably the Black Panther Party (BPP). Visibly distinct with black berets, afros, and raised fists, political alignment could likely be deduced when these attributes were encountered. The AIDS rebellion developed a more grungy uniform — slogan t-shirts, combat boots, and the red ribbon. It’s the latter that goes on to become one of the better known symbols of the AIDS movement, after several celebrities and notable figures are seen wearing the ribbon to showcase their solidarity. As Shulman points out, the rise of protest aesthetics being adopted by those in position of power ultimately lays the foundation of a modern social capital in which advocacy, wealth and status are fused to create the notion of being socially aware.
Our notion of resistance has become conflated with the desire to increase capital, be it social or monetary.
As this is the state of modern-day protest, it’s not absurd that vendors looking to quickly rake in some cash would go to events in which they are surrounded by a consumer base that is very willing to participate, as it fits into their personal agenda. And they aren’t alone — big brands have been doing this on a much larger scale, becoming increasingly partisan to both appeal to — and retain — their customers.
Companies, like the 100+ tech companies that signed the petition opposing Donald Trump’s immigration ban in 2017, know that people are putting their money where their values lie, and if one brand doesn’t demonstrate it’s alignment, they’ll simply find another. Because brands and the companies behind them fear being ostracised by society, they’ve become more vocal regarding their social-political values.
Many big brands have published a statement communicating their ally-ship. Some have even established initiatives in which a percentage of profits gained are set up to be donated to a like-minded charity. All of these actions assure their consumers they’ve made a morally-sound choice to stay loyal to them.
However, the key difference between a big brand and the vendors that settle into the hearts of massive protests, is that the latter are not being held accountable. Sure they may have permits to set up in the space but who can be assured that the money they’re making through sales is actually going to a charity or organization that works towards advancing the cause? Do we really care as long as we get to post a pic of us wearing the enamel pin later that evening?
I’d like to think we do, we just need to be equipped with knowledge of the situation before we can decide on the best course of action to take. So here is what I recommend: the next time you attend an organized protest and find yourself tempted to purchase a token of the event, take the time to inform yourself about the vendor. See what their thoughts are regarding the movement and how the money they make through sales will be distributed. If there doesn’t appear to be much thought on either, consider donating the money you could have spent on a snazzy shirt to a charity or organization you can be sure will put your contribution towards sustaining the movement.
It may not be as visible an act; but the causes we care about thriving and continuing to facilitate the change we desperately need, are worth more than the simple lip service merchandise affords us when showing what we care about.