Images from This is What Democracy Looks Like:

Construction workers show solidarity from their job post.

Labor leader expressing heartbreak at the breakdown in democracy.

Images of massive coalition building.

Intimate pictures of street battle, camera becomes part of the crowd.

Direct action depicted, as noisy, brutal and aggressive.

Police forcibly shove peaceful and nonviolent protesters.

Troopers charging marchers at the Pettus Bridge, Civil Rights Voting March in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. Photo by Martin Spider.

Images from This is What Democracy Looks Like:

Images are framed from the perspective of being attacked.

Police point guns down at protesters while standing on tank.

Police lined up and armed for battle with protesters.

Police hovers above protesters and blasts pepper spray directly in face at close range.

Tear gas obscures battle in the streets.

Police arrive on horseback.

Protesters holding hands up while being physically removed by armed police.

Police dominate over protesters.

Hero shot of protester.

Police physically intimidate protester.


Protest pornography

This is What Democracy Looks Like is a report film that primarily serves to inform people interested in the Seattle WTO protests and the events that occurred over five days. What is noticeably absent from this film is the usual collection of documentary authorities: politicians, professors, and media professionals. The various speakers interviewed in the film speak from a position of ordinary rank and file union people or respectable looking professionals, or regular folks who were eyewitnesses as well as participant-activists. The film represents activism as collaborative and diverse, bringing together different groups, strategies, and tactics including organized labor, environmentalists, students, workers, community activists, immigrants, representatives of the global South, and anti-imperialism activists. The most memorable, shocking and traumatic images of the documentary do not involve coalition building.

Some of the most affecting images in This is What Democracy Looks Like are shot in the midst of tear gas, placing the audience in harm’s way, as the camera records the violence at eye level. Protest porn is about how we order, use, reframe, deliver and curate those violent images from the margins. Whether these images of protest included historical context or explanations is significant because, if mobilization is a concern, the framing of activist practices matter. It is important to investigate how street tape images function to encourage us to engage in collective identification to better understand the restorative justice potential of the genre.

The framing of This What Democracy Looks Like that is central to this analysis depicts a citizenry at war with aggressive state oppression and violence, marking a stark departure from previous incarnations of street tape culture in which citizens “gave their raps on tape” with protest activities in the background. Seattle marked a distinct shift from largely nonviolent interactions with police shown in earlier moments in street tape culture.[5][open endotes in new window] The street tape culture depicted in This is What Democracy Looks Like (re)introduced a representation of combat between police and protesters not seen since the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. The difference, however, was that the earlier protesters were passive, using traditional civil disobedience and avoiding combat. The video sequences of confrontation where police are dominating protesters in This is What Democracy Looks Like are frequent, compulsive, and potentially shocking to mass U.S. public culture. In these videos, civic participation in the form of direct action is depicted as noisy, brutal, and aggressive. For audiences not familiar with the role of policing in social movements (Della Porta and Tarrow 2005; Tilly 2004), these images may reinforce the idea that protest is violent and irrational. The images of violent political struggle captured in IMC street tape culture are not isolated; rather, they are similar to other street tapes emerging from protests against globalization circulating at the turn of this century.[6] The timing and release of these street tape images served to inform and recruit people to new anti-globalization, anti-neoliberalism, and anti-imperialism projects. That is, the target audience was intentionally wide but in practice, largely addressing people already sympathetic and in opposition to globalization.

In his book Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism, Kevin DeLuca (1999) explores how new social movements use media in a world enveloped in image combat. He argues that image events are rhetorical tactics utilized by activists. They are recorded political actions that bring the combat of mediated agitation directed at a wider mass culture. The premise is that, through image events, political action goes through the camera and launches a “mind bomb” that explodes in the public’s consciousness, transforming the way people view their world. Image events are not a new phenomenon. For example, various groups have marched on Washington for decades, going all the way back to the WW1 Veterans Bonus March in the 1930s, the 1964 Civil Rights march, and the dozens of million people marches of today. All of the events were designed to present strong images through the media, showing strong popular sentiment in favor of some new course of action.

Using the discourse of environmental activists, DeLuca draws from Greenpeace’s early whaling campaigns and Earth First!’s tree sitting events as examples of image events that didn’t necessarily change legislation, politics, or the need for resources, but effectively contested social norms and transformed key discourses (59). He argues a different terrain for social change is being negotiated—with new conditions—in an omnipresent environment of onscreen image combat on television, cinema, and online. The more dramatic and controversial the image event, the more likely it may disrupt mass consciousness. DeLuca proposes that the success of an image event is not measured by whether it changes the world. Instead, image events are politically effective in attempting to reconstitute the identity of the collective culture by creating discomfort in the minds of the audience, causing a shift in mass consciousness. In our current world, this is accomplished through images that disrupt and shock. DeLuca’s theorizing is compelling in its effort to understand the terrain of image politics, social movements, and information/image circulation, especially at this particular historical moment in which self-documentation, including street tapes, has become a more central element of our culture.

Image events as theorized may identify a tactic. However, the concept is narrow and problematic, primarily understanding images as polarizing, ignoring the potential for images to function in a variety of rhetorical capacities, produce solidarity, increase membership, or inspire new ways of thinking. Image events as theorized by DeLuca are at once limited in their function to create a challenge to structural or institutional injustice but fantastical in their ability to penetrate mass consciousness. Deluca easily concedes the idea that images can not function as more than disruption in this televisual context yet insists this disruption can alter mass consciousness. In the case of the WTO protests in Seattle, for example, the many image events reduce a complex set of issues around globalization to a rights-based visual discourse that functions to polarize viewer comfort and equilibrium—creating tension between images on the screen and belief in the government as a safe institution. But do these images enable political action or do they reinforce stereotypes of protesters as irrational agitators?

A conceptualization of image events may celebrate the image as disruption, but it should be open enough to explain a whole range of outcomes and possibilities. Without such rhetorical distinctions, image events may function as disruptive, but in whose interest? Deluca is analyzing the culture of images and the power of self-documenting political resistance but primarily in relation to mainstream culture. Street tape culture offers a unique set of circumstances and possibilities for mobilization that extend beyond the televisual screen. My concern is that understanding images and social movements as the celebration of disruption encourages a media culture untethered from meaningful social change.

“Protest pornography” marks a particular representation and reading formation for street tapes that encourages a distinct cinematic gaze. Sexual pornography and street tapes share certain cultural characteristics; they belong in the margins as a lowbrow genre that pushes the bounds of social acceptability. The term protest pornography refers to media that encourages meditation on the emotional arousal provoked by violent and spectacular images of political resistance. Such images are epitomized by metaphorical shots of citizens in violent struggle with an uncontrollable government apparatus as the climax of the narrative arc, a point for repetition and/or montage.The framing of protest pornography is seductive; the presentation of non-sexual violence in such up close detail the aesthetic resembles pornography. The representations of violence exceed what is necessary to convey meaning and creates a forced choice between identification with an out of control government apparatus or the principled but physically abused citizen.

When the term porn is used to describe the gaze on other objects such as food, representation of poverty, or the images of battle, it is less about the apparent content and more about the nature of representation itself (Jones 2013: 4). Those who use the word “protest porn” want to make a different kind of media. The hope is for images that penetrate the veil of consumer capitalist culture to insert a kind of urgency for the audience to invest in grassroots democratic practice in opposition to systematic injustice. They are often a reflection on the most intense political struggles of our time and that I will address these issues more in the rest of the essay. I will analyze This is what Democracy Looks Like as a key work from the recent past that sets up these issues and ways of thinking about street tape culture.

During the 1960s, the nightly news mostly reported images of nonviolent protests with occasional police violence. Therefore, it is especially dramatic when police violence does happen on the televisual screen, when we see citizens being attacked by police with fire hoses or dogs. At the time, these civil rights images were often taken from a safe distance, giving the audience an up-close but outside look at the brutality. In more recent times, during the WTO protest, activists recorded violent acts of physical oppression but from inside the protest and from the perspective of those being attacked. Recording equipment is now mobile and compact. In these tapes we also see protesters fighting back and the beginnings of a highly militarized police force culture. Based on such images, This is What Democracy Looks Like encourages understanding the Seattle protests as a David and Goliath street fight.

In her article “Pornographies of Violence? Internet Spectatorship on Body Horror,” Sue Tait suggests that watching suffering without mobilizing sentiment to eradicate such suffering trains us to imagine ourselves as victims of violence as opposed to actors with agency to resist such oppression (Tait 2008: 105). Tait is looking at the participatory cultures surrounding graphic, self-documented images during the Iraq war, specifically online forums that exchange this media. As soldiers have entered battle with mobile recording equipment and easy access to uploading media online, an underground tape culture has emerged. Tait argues that watching non-fictional body horror on the screen, people in pain, transforms the suffering subject in trauma into imagery that stimulates, fascinates and repulses the viewer. There is a point at which watching suffering produces immobilization as we become desensitized to the images.

Unveiling the contradictions of neoliberal democracy

For decades social movements have used some form of radical news reporting as a strategy of promulgation—communication designed to bring citizens to a movement (Bowers et al 1993). The street tapes produced by the IMC include stirring images of troubling political struggle; absent is dialogue across difference that is the iconic marker of democratic practice in the streets of an advanced industrial nation. This is What Democracy Looks Like supplements street tape footage with interviews that reflect on the protest events. For example, an interview with Yalonda Sinde, an activist with the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, is edited together with segments from the mainstream news media reporting on the WTO protesters, but in contrast to the news, she frames the police as violent and hostile. Sinde’s interview is also juxtaposed against footage recorded by activists, providing evidence that the violence and hostility was actually perpetuated by the police. Characterizing the mainstream news frames as problematic, Sinde remarks:

“Here is a perfect example as to why we need to fight. Because this city got up in arms about them breaking Starbucks windows, you know what I mean? They [protesters] didn’t go out and hurt somebody. Everyone, because the property, downtown Christmas shopping, was up in arms. To me that exemplifies we are fighting against Capitalism. And they [police] will go to any length to protect Capitalism.”

This segment poses a question about protest and violence to the audience, contributing to the rights-based visual discourse of the documentary. Armed with video cameras, many protesters congregated in the streets of Seattle, capturing images of peaceful protests, police brutality, reactions from bystanders in the streets, peaceful acts of civil disobedience, activist voices, and the evolution of events that resulted in repeated violent clashes between protesters and police. These scenes are powerfully edited together with street interviews.

The documentary primarily focuses on alarming images of what seems like a military operation in the streets of Seattle — protesters in the streets clashing with faceless police in full riot gear, who spray pepper spray, wield batons, and arrive on the scene in military tanks. Protesters in the streets range from kindergarten teachers to steel workers. As the four days pass in the documentary, the portrait of the average citizen in the streets becomes increasingly radicalized, having experienced solidarity with other protesters and violence by the police in the streets of Seattle.          

The images used in This is What Democracy Looks Like function as counter-arguments to the prevailing mainstream media stories, using sensational images of state-sanctioned violence to depict an out-of-control police force acting aggressively on peaceful protesters. Most of the visual images of protesters depict activists’ nonviolent, rational and cooperative actions. The street interviews reflect thoughtful citizens, earnest about fighting for a better future. In contrast, the police forces are dressed in full riot gear, the camera often panned upward so that the lunging line of faceless police are perched, ready for battle against unarmed citizens. This is experienced from the point of view of an activist on the ground, waiting for a physical altercation. Other images of violence perpetrated by police include attacking sitting protesters with nightsticks at the same time that tanks roll into the streets with police positioned on top, randomly shooting rubber bullets into the crowd.

Police ride into streets in military tanks, approaching sitting protesters . Older woman inquires with police about violent conduct of law enforcement.
Orderly and peaceful protesters hold signs to stop the meeting of the World Trade Organization. Protesters represented as thoughtful citizens, fighting for a better future.
Police loom over sitting protesters, ready to clear the streets. Protesters embracing before impending arrest.
Concussion grenades and tear gas canisters launched into the crowd at close range. Police search the crowd, through the tear gas with their guns mounted and ready.

The camera framing virtually places the audience in harm’s way, struggling to see through the tear gas. The chaos of billowing smoke fills the camera frame. The silhouette bodies emerging from the smoke step into frame, ominous music, disharmonious cords capture the space of the streets in Seattle as an unfamiliar place, another world away. When protesters are recovering from pepper spray on the ground, the camera records them at eye level. The street level camera framing encourages the audience to enter into the protesters’ space of disorientation, chaos, and confusion.

The street tape footage in This is What Democracy Looks Like produces a distinct vernacular visual discourse. It is unlike other moments in earlier street tape culture that foregrounded activist voices against the backdrop of protest such as Skip Bloomberg’s Nuclear Disarmament: A Video Survey (1982) or Judy Hoffman’s What’s Happening at Local 70 (1975). These moments exist in This is What Democracy Looks Like coupled with images that place the viewer in the street, dodging rubber bullets, adjusting to the surrounding chaos, and visually bound by the police-enforced barricades. This particular packaging of activist video frames radical ideas within the confines a rights-based visual discourse. The images may distill and transform the radical systematic critique of globalization into a visual discourse about the protest; and the recorded media becomes evidence of the state violating the free speech and assembly rights of its citizens. Although the meaning of this framing might speak to a broader political body, the violent visual images collide with normative ideological beliefs about sacred U.S. institutions such as the government, democracy, free speech, the civic function of the press, and the free market.

Police officer moves alone through the tear-gassed streets. Protesters experience confusion after tear gas launched at police.
The audience experiences the police enforced barricades. Protestoes expresses his only means of free speech while being arrested.
Police in full protective gear dragging off protesters for arrrest. Image of protester and layered with U.S. flag, design used for production title cards for This is What Democracy Looks Like.

Without a thorough understanding of these institutions as troubled, bankrupt, and potentially harmful to citizens at a structural level, the images may make it difficult for viewers to assimilate that disruption. Visual communication scholar Cara Finnegan argues that images function as enthymemes. That is, core persuasive elements of an image are found in the missing premise the audience fills in, often requiring reasoning in favor of the proposition offered by the image. In this case, the information necessary for the violent protest sequences to function as fuel for engagement is unclear. Efforts are made in the documentary to explain the negative impact of globalization, but little contextual history of the negotiation of free speech and assembly—that produced such visually arresting recordings of political resistance—is provided. The images assume the audience is well grounded in the legal and historical context of public protest and the struggle for public space. In fact, the most striking images of the documentary rely on that premise. This kind of cinematic construction of the protest documentary again reminds us that the targeted audience of address for these street tapes consists of those already sympathetic to the cause or networked within the activist communities circulating this discourse. The choice of focusing on violence as the climax and narrative arc of This is What Democracy Looks Like has consequence. The complexities of globalization and the global justice movement are distilled into polarizing images of a spectacular street brawl, an image event.

Celebration of image as disruption

Deluca proposes that we live in new world in which images are the weapons of political struggle and the media are the space where power is negotiated. This contemporary media environment is characterized by

“1) private ownership/monopoly of the public screen, 2) infotainment conventions that filter what counts as news, and 3) the need to communicate in the discourse of images” (DeLuca and Peeples 2002: 136).

His version of the televisual public sphere attempts to rehabilitate much of the rich and turbulent sense-making process ignored by the normative ideal of procedural rationality central to the Habermasian concept of the public sphere. He finds value in celebrating the moment of image combat and disruption as an accomplishment. In this vein, DeLuca and Peeples consider the images deployed in mainstream media about the events around the Seattle WTO protests successful. They write,

“the symbolic violence and the uncivil disobedience fulfilled the function of gaining the attention of the distracted [mainstream] media” (DeLuca and Peeples 2002: 144).

There is a kind of parallel logic between the concepts of image events and protest porn.

Protest porn happens when street fighting becomes the dominant premise. It sets up a reading pattern of moving images from protests, with focus on the violent bits, the money shots, and other forms of aggressive visual stimulus. Pepper spray in the face, rubber bullets at close range, protesters tightly bound and dragged off to arrest, baton wielding police are the kinds of images that function as the climax of battle. The pornographic framing emerges in the intense close-up images of battle, represented in repetition or edited together in montage with dramatic music where the violence becomes the tension and climax of the narrative arc. Protest porn is about how we order, use, reframe, deliver, and curate the violent images from the margins. In radical media, the framing of protest pornography is a matter of degree. The context provided for these images has bearing on how we understand them, but it still remains unclear if the polarizing effects of protest porn are productive. The complexities and ambiguities of larger political struggles at hand—globalization, racism, and capitalism—are backgrounded in film as a consequence of protest porn. The dull days of organizing in between direct actions that often includes many more hours of labor, deliberation and calm presence are also ignored.

Social movement images—circulated in service of social change—should not be celebrated for their ability to simply polarize as hailed by Delcua and Peeples. Careful consideration should be taken so as to account for images, their intended audience and the real function of their circulation, even if they are intended to disrupt the social order. Image events are dense surfaces meant to provoke but the filmmaker must judge whether or not the provocation inherent to the image might contribute to social change.

Protest porn is a tendency in street tape culture, not the rule. Filmmakers use these strategies in varying degrees, intentionally or by impulse. The question is less about whether something is or is not protest porn. Rather, we must ask, what does framing of violent protest do in the context in which it exists? Additionally, how does framing of protest porn function to serve the larger interests of the struggle at hand?

To take a recent example, perhaps the street tapes of clashes between police and the citizens of Ferguson, MO, after the shooting of an unarmed teenager Michael Brown helped spark a national dialogue about the militarization of the police. The street tape culture emerging out of Ferguson is incredibly complex, including the work of hacktivist group Anonymous, who threatened action against Ferguson police if protesters experienced violence. The image of Ferguson protesters clashing with police, captured on cell phones and circulated immediately through social media was accompanied by a real threat by this hacktivist group; to release police records and personal information and embarrass authorities. Protestors are speaking to each other across global context in the matter of seconds through social networks already in place.

In contrast, This is What Democracy Looks Like did not exist in a world where street tapes were networked in a complex system picked up by major news networks and easily archived and circulated to global activists, where images of protest function to broadly disseminate information as events unfold. While the images of protest in This is What Democracy Looks Like deal in diversity by representing people from all walks of life, the street tape culture at the time was rather insular. Historically, the WTO images of protest in This is What Democracy Looks Like significantly influenced a generation of self-documented protest images, setting a kind of iconic tone for what will soon become two decades of increasingly militarized police force and the corresponding clashes with citizens in the streets.

It is important to note that creative control over these representations of protest happen on two levels; the initial recording of the event and the editing of such material. In our digital world these two creative tasks of interpretation and representation are not necessarily performed by the same person or created with the same intention. In TWDLL, the representations of protest are carried out collectively, as the documentary content was comprised of video recorded by over 100 activist and assembled by two directors putting images into context with extensive community feedback during the completion of the film.

Fetishizing state violence

Documentary texts in particular have been characterized in the media by activists and bloggers as sometimes encouraging a troubling visual meditation. Wildlife porn,[7] nuclear-test porn,[8] and war porn[9] are examples of the kinds of documentary framing that facilitate the arousal of the moving image. Tait argues that genres of pornographic framing and fetishizing violence share a commonality in acting upon the viewer’s body:

“As distinct from the pleasure of pornographic spectatorship, the horror viewers’ pleasure is of a different order to sexual arousal. Arousal derives from fear, terror, shock, and repulsion; it is experienced as both pleasure and displeasure” (Tait, 2008: 102).

It is not uncommon for the metaphor of pornography to be associated with media texts that encourage the audience to have an erotic relationship with the image.

In her book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Linda Williams, 1999), Williams argues that pornographic images of sex rhetorically function in a particular manner, producing technological and social ways of seeing. These technological ways of seeing are similar to the practices of looking encouraged by protest porn. The co-director of This is What Democracy Looks Like, Jill Friedberg explains,

“I definitely think protest porn is a real phenomenon…what turns porn into erotica or storytelling is context. Protest footage with no context, that is smack down for the sake of smack down, is potentially detrimental because it lacks context and easily miss interpreted and the potential to desensitize which is what I think has happened anyway…One of the experiences we were all having in 1999 is we, the people, were really shocked to see Robo cops, to see storm troopers in the streets. These big friggen guns for launching tear gas canisters and concussions grenades. And now, people expect to see that at a little protest.”

Some of these highly militarized images were coupled with riot gear clad police on horseback, looming over the crowd. The collective imaginary provided by the images in This is What Democracy Looks Like is framed from the street activist perspective, looking up to the world in hope, only to be met with a smack down. After all, moving image pornography is grounded in the quest for uncovering unseeable truths of bodily motion. As Laura Mulvey pointed out, there are circumstances where looking itself is a source of pleasure. It is the pleasure of the look that gets transferred to other things by analogy, especially with the media screen (1975: 835). This practice of looking facilitated by protest porn is a meditation on the arousal, focused on the stimulating moments of resistance and, of course, iconic images of violent bodily struggle with an uncontrollable government apparatus.

In his work on horror porn, Steve Jones addresses the somewhat problematic but pervasive use of porn as a metaphor for understanding visual representations outside the sexual context. He argues that the use of porn as a metaphor is shorthand for offensive and distasteful, dismissing the value of what porn illuminates in this metaphorical connection. I would argue instead that pornography as a reading formation opens up a framework for understanding the arousal of the image. The images on the on the screen, the

“body-horror taps into the worst of our cultural fears” (189).

In the case of protest pornography, the illusions of bodily security and the dire threat to democratic process are exposed. It may be that protest porn is a way of working through the trauma of bodily violence in the streets through surviving the horror of battle.

Sadomasochistic (BDSM) pornography in particular uses narratives of power and arousal; an existing cultural framing that portrays domination and submission. These narrative tropes include prolonged scenes of bondage and discipline, dramatized suffering, a focus on binding and torture, the introduction of weapons, and ritualized forms of violence and domination. The properties of representing power in BDSM pornography parallel the iconic images of street tapes emerging in Seattle, producing a similar cinematic language domination and submission. What is essential here is this a similar desire to inflict and receive domination but unlike in sadomasochistic pornography, in conflict zones there is little value in consent.

The form of oppression crafted in the street tapes follows a basic dominant vs. submissive framework; that framework presumably helps distill a sense of a complicated and complex political struggle about globalization. The predominant framing projects citizens as victims being dominated by the state. These moments are punctuated with non-diegetic sound editing that employs stirring music to signal an important narrative arc in the story. The audience is encouraged to experience this characterization, invited to take the subject position of being physically dominated while having speech and assembly rights violated. The protesters have a kind of limited agency in this framework, principled but beaten.

Documentary texts that encourage a pornographic metaphorical reading pattern are nevertheless editing the sensory material into a film in different ways. This pattern may emerge differently depending on the topic and context. For example, many critics call documentary works that focus on the daily life patterns of animals at the cost of ignoring the human impact on the environment, a form of wildlife porn. In this context, the good bits could be the routine battle scenes between animals or feeding patterns, represented in successive repetition or edited together in montage with dramatic music. With protest pornography, the complexities and ambiguities of life, the dull stuff in between the protest action; organizing, planning, and waiting are ignored and backgrounded. The metaphorical reading pattern of pornography deals in an illusion; it offers escape from the totality of reality by substituting the pleasure of repetitive consumption of stimulating visual elements as stand-ins for a complex world. The repetitive consumption exceeds what is necessary to convey meaning. As a consequence, this framing supplants the issues that are of most concern to those engaging in the streets.

In activist street tape culture, and protest pornography specifically, video cameras are used as instruments of political struggle to reconfigure relations between the state and its citizens. The participatory media culture surrounding contemporary street tapes serves an important protective function for activists who experience violent police action for exercising their democratic rights in mass demonstrations.[10] In fact, the presence of cameras in these instances may serve an important security function for unarmed activists in the streets. From Rodney King to the present, allegations of police brutality have circulated with much more rhetorical force with the help of video evidence. The use of cameras as instruments of political struggle partly means allowing activists and the public to monitor abuses by police and other regulatory forces.

However, the security function of activist video recordings are tenuous. Cases like the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island who was chocked to death by police on tape, challenge street tape evidence, especially when a grand jury later decides not to indict the offending officer. Despite the lack of any legal justice prompted by the recording of Mr. Garner’s death, there is an undeniable impact to this documentation in public culture. The video provides the evidence for a counter-narrative to challenge police authority and gain presumption. Capturing the last moments of his life at the hands of police, the video records the faint pleas of Mr. Garner’s final sentence; I can’t breath, repeated 11 times. In the days that followed, protesters around the world marched in the streets carrying signs, wearing shirts, and projecting chats that immortalized Mr. Garner’s last words.   

Go to page 3

To topPrint versionJC 56 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.