Why protesting with a hologram is pathetic and dangerous

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In response to Spain's new draconian anti-protest laws, laughably named "citizen security" measures, the activist group We Are Not Crime (No Somos Delito) projected a parade of hologram protesters in front of a Spanish parliament building earlier this week. It was a stunt, an intentionally ironic spectacle, which made an uncomplicated and decent point. As a protest tactic, it's anaemic, if not pathetic.

The Spanish anti-protest bills passed last month are worth fighting. Measures including criminalizing any gatherings in front of parliament, enforcing fines of 30,000 Euros for filming and photographing cops and disseminating such media, merely insulting a cop can lead to a 600 Euro fine. Public dissent is being punished to the point of impossibility. The conservative government's crackdown follows raids on anarchist squats, which led to around a dozen arrests, based on such spurious grounds as the use of encrypted email services as proof of nefarious activity.

The hologram protest was not intended as a powerful circumvention of the crackdown laws, but a message to the public: Look at what the government has reduced us to, the protest subject can be no more than an ephemeral avatar. So physically insubstantial was the hologram march, the parliament building could be seen through the transparent digital projections. The tragedy of the disembodied dissenter was not lost on We Are Not Crime. A group spokesman said that the stunt was intended as "irony." He told Spanish newspaper El Mundo, "With the restrictions we’re suffering on our freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, the last option that will be left to us will be to protest through our holograms.”


I don't hate it because the sentiment is wrong, nor do I think it's spectacle without strong political content. I hate it because it is acquiescent, defanged, and defeatist. It is simply untrue that holographic protest is the last available option. To suggest this is an affront to resistance movements throughout history who have taken the idea of last resorts seriously—mortally seriously.

If the hologram-as-tactic spreads, dissent will be in a worse shape in Spain than even after the "security" measures passed. My hope is that the stunt triggers a visceral response that returns flesh and blood bodies to the streets. The hologram protest, at best, makes a point. It dangerously lacks any kernel of defiance.


The Spanish government, and indeed any state which uses harsh laws to quell dissent, aims to make dissent impossible by rendering the stakes of disobedience too high. Huge fines, jail time, and violence await those who dare stand up and fight.

It is exactly at these junctures, when these laws are enacted, that extreme defiance is required the most. Such as when the Quebec Parliament enacted Law 78 during the mass student strike in 2012. The law's measures criminalized protests not pre-permitted by the police; wearing masks became an arrestable defense. The night after the law was announced, 100,000 people flooded the streets of Montreal in unequivocal defiance.


Spain's draconian legislation was a direct response to mass protests earlier this year against the government's program of austerity. Tens of thousands of people gathered in central Madrid, largely in support of the increasingly popular Podemos party—a leftist party platforming against the current government's brutal austerity program, which has hacked away at the country's social safety nets and prompted sky high unemployment rates (around 23 percent). It's thus important to frame the government's increasing authoritarian position as coming from a place of embattlement and insecurity—a state which is secure in its strength doesn't need to use extreme violence to maintain control.

The government is asserting that protest is, or should be, impossible. In a purported democracy this is certainly absurd—but an authoritarian power will not cede authority and return to reasonableness because a protest group points out that the state is being unreasonable. I'm reminded of Noam Chomsky's famous take down of the slogan, "speak truth to power." He noted, "you don't have to speak truth to power, because they already know it."


If the hologram protest was an invocation to other Spaniards to recognize the gravity of their position, the intention is laudable, but the valence of the message is unhelpful. It is true, aggressive anti-protest measures are intended to make the protester an impossible subject position to occupy. To acquiesce to this and reduce oneself to a hologram, even ironically, thus allows the government not only control of the streets, but control of very terrain of who gets to exist.

This is state power at its most terrifying: an exertion of control of what kind of bodies and subjects get to exist. Like when the state has determined that gay people aren't allowed to exist, or queer subjects, or free black people. The state has a long history of determining certain subject positions, usually ones that challenge the status quo, to be impossible—this didn't begin with protesters. Let's not reiterate their point by becoming holograms.


Indeed, to name a group We Are Not a Crime is in itself, I think, a bad move. It forgets that crime—what gets to be a crime—is not in the people's hands, but the government's. So, yes, when the state calls dissent a crime, we dissenters are a crime. To ask the state to recognize you as otherwise misses the very reason a government would criminalize protest. Better then, or at least more powerful, to state that We Are a Crime. It is an inspiring thing indeed to live in a subject position unfairly determined impossible under law and to continue nonetheless. Lest, of course, we are comfortable allowing authoritarian states determine what is or is not permissible.

The fact that this entails risk and sacrifice makes defiance all the more necessary. The young black people of Ferguson understood this as they returned night after night to stand up to militarized police forces and walls of tear gas. Even John F. Kennedy recognized that "those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." JFK's comment was a call to enable peaceful revolution. But I don't think peaceful revolution exists. Assata Shakur was more correct in stating that "nobody in history has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”


If the hologram protesters mean what their spectacular action suggests, that peaceful protest has been rendered impossible, then the draconian Spanish government should not be treated to digital displays, but fiercely challenged. The worst thing that Spain's protest movement, indeed any resistance movement can do, is cede the streets and the ability to physically amass as a force in public. If state forces tell us that We Are Crime, and insist that we are impossible, then we have nothing to lose by taking them at their word: If we are truly crime, and truly impossible, we have nothing to lose. Out of the holograms, into the streets!