Actions, Lights, Camera

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Jeff Goodwin is a professor of sociology at New York University, and for the last few years he and graduate student Susan Rakosi Rosenbloom have been building a video library of dozens of political protests. It’s an ongoing project that he discussed at a sociology conference in San Francisco last year under the title “The Presentation of Selves in Everyday Protest: Exploring the Dramaturgy of Dissent Through Video.”

“It’s a fun project,” says Goodwin, who teaches classes in revolutions and social movements, a subject he began studying as an undergraduate in the late 1970s at Harvard College. “One frustration I have with academic literature on movements is that they’re kind of secondhand and dry and a little removed. They fail to capture the excitement of protests.”

Goodwin’s tapes include footage of New York City events ranging from a march against the death penalty to gay and lesbian activists at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, from a rally supporting immigrants’ rights to that collector’s must-have, the Brooklyn Bridge Louima March. As the title of his presentation suggests, he doesn’t judge if an action was politically effective. Rather, he’s looking to see how the event got the audience and actors involved–to see how good of a show it was.

Having watched so many protests, does he have any tips for event organizers? “I’m not sure size is as important as you might think–a small group that’s fired up and vocal can make quite an impression,” he says. “Organization is big. And if people know each other, if they’re more tight knit, then they’re more energized.”

The bad news for New York’s activist community is that they don’t get a very good grade from their unofficial drama coach. “I’m surprised I have to say that activists aren’t being creative. There’s a set number of protests,” Goodwin says, rattling off the most popular types: Gathering with Chanting and Singing, Candlelight Vigil, March with Chanting, Entertainment with Speaker and Signs.

“Looking back at this, I guess I am a little surprised that more thought isn’t put into these events,” Goodwin says. “Some are dreadful performances.”