Antiauthoritarian Clowning

A Tactical Review

“The Clown Army is the only army in the world in which General Strike outranks Private Property.” — Colonel Oftruth

It’s October 2003. I’m a lecturer in political theatre and performance with social movements at the University of Birmingham; an economic exile from the United States.

I go to London to join the first meeting of something that will be called the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA). We don’t know what it is yet, other than that it will be an army of antiauthoritarian clowns. At this meeting, we will get to know each other and decide/discover more together.

I’m looking for the London Action Resource Center (LARC) in Whitechapel… It’s a venerable old activist-owned and -operated social center, and it’s where we are all to meet.

And I’m not sure if I’m lost.

Is this little old building covered in scaffolding the right one?

There’s a van full of police parked just outside. Just sitting there. So, yeah, this must be the place.

a flyer

A CIRCA recruiting flyer from the author’s personal archive.

John Jordan, Jennifer Verson, Zoe Young, Matthew Trevelyan, Hilary Ramsden, and several others are here—we are all looking for a way to forge our eclectic skills and varied radical politics into a farcical phalanx of red-nosed resistance to corporate globalization, to deploy disruptively at corporate, state, and other political events. Our first deployment will be during the upcoming state visit of George “Dubya” Bush to the British Queen, against which there will be massive protests in London. We want to bring an army of clowns to the protest to add a flavor of “serious play” to the action.

We are a motley combination of leftist performance artists, professional clowns seeking radicalization, progressive military veterans who know drill maneuvers, and non-theatrical comrades hoping to find some joyful action to heal the burnout that hardcore activists always face. This first gathering is playful and messy as we experiment and share skills and make mock-military banners…

We are cohering as a group. In the next series of meetings, in parks, in backyards, wherever we can: We train. We riff. We skill-share. We improvise. We develop our clown personae, with bouffon-style deformities. We make banners and costumes in conversational sewing circles that, we later reflect, are a vital part of our group cohesion-formation.

In a series of actions over the next two years, we develop our schtick.

In our first action, we march all over London in the protests against Dubya’s visit to the Queen, pulling a cannon and caisson carrying pink pretzels, a perhaps tasteless allusion to Bush having recently choked on a pretzel. The media is attracted to us. National Public Radio asks me/my clown, Colonel Oftruth, why we are there. “He’s the wrong kind of clown!” I heartily exclaim. We fire our pink pretzels with great aplomb, and very little range or velocity, at corporate buildings.

We protest at some events to call attention to the unknown, like a corporate-state meeting in London to divide up the resources and markets of occupied Iraq. In Leeds, we swarm a military recruitment center, eager to enlist, or rather to get the recruiters to enlist in our army. The recruitment center, in response to the ridiculous disruption, shuts down for the day. This clown-enlistment tactic is repeated later in Oakland, California, and the recruitment center there shuts down in response as well.

When one of us is arrested, we decorate the front of the police station festively and celebrate, refusing intimidation, until they are released. Due to structural and state racism, this only works in the UK, not the US, and only if almost all of the clowns are white-presenting.

The clown says “yipee!” We train and warm up so that our bodies and hearts and minds are dilated and delighted—even in the face of armored riot police or corporate security.

A Few Discoveries in the Praxis of Clownfrontational Tactics

The clown says “yipee!” We train and warm up so that our bodies and hearts and minds are dilated and delighted—even in the face of armored riot police or corporate security. This is exhausting after a few hours.

The clown is loving. We do not disrupt the actions of others with a different aesthetic. When we come upon a candlelight vigil or a die-in, we slowly and silently back away and go play with others.

The clown is open, spontaneous. The clown agrees: “Yes, and!” One makes a suggestion—“Let’s all find the hypotenuse! Let’s all find the weapons of mass destruction! Let’s all find our cousin Ronald!”—and the others follow.

The clown is wonderfully over-obedient! “You’re right, officer, it is outrageous that my pants are down,” the clown says, holding their arms straight out and doggedly attempting the impossible: trying to jump into their own pants held out at chest level. “This is an outrage! My pants are IN THE WRONG PLACE!” The clown jumps again, fails again. (This lazzo, or routine, was improvised in front of the police by Matt Trevelyan.)

The clown uses the terrain. A speed bump becomes an insurmountable obstacle that requires the help of passersby to overcome; the tolling of a city’s main clock tower, or the firing of its cannons, is our signal that the Queen supports us. We arrive at the copse of trees approaching the palace. We begin to use the forest as cover, which only calls more attention to us, crawling in technicolor fluffy uniforms through the fallen leaves to sneak up on the palace. As if we were camouflaged. Hiding behind very small objects! A leaf! A pen! An idea!

a group of clowns crossing a street

CIRCA/NYC marches across the street while protesting the Republican National Convention in 2004. Photo by Fred Askew.

The clown uses clown logic to plan their actions. The clown assumes all mean well, even the authorities. The satire comes from the ironies that are endlessly mined from that tragicomic misunderstanding.

The clown talks through the media, not to the media. We know they will cover us in a dismissive way, but we want to insert a kernel of truth into the middle of the absurd behavior that has earned their attention in the first place. In the UK, as Colonel Oftruth, this is my prime responsibility: writing press releases/manifestos, talking in character to the media. One must rehearse these encounters with friends to sharpen up. There is a great satisfaction in reading in the paper, after a particularly absurd action, “The clown claimed…” followed by a radical critique of international debt policy.

The clown is not above some pre-arranged schtick based on the predictable response of the powerful. The police and the authoritarians always want to speak to our leader. Leaders speak to leaders, then one leader wins, and then both leaders give orders. We support this, and we are very helpful! We will point you to our leader! Our leader is that dog! Our leader is the fire hydrant! Our leader is the sun! When we march, in surprisingly good order thanks to our veteran friends, we have unique moves besides the usual “Left Face!” “Present Arms!” Instead, “Right Sneer!” and “Left Spit!” give some well-coordinated slapstick to our phalanx as it maneuvers through public squares and train stations.

The clown puts their absurd body in the way of the harm of others. It is politically more expensive to club a clown! In New York and San Francisco, we find this to be true: creating a whimsical line of clowns between the police and the protesters, a clownish membrane that can be swept away like gossamer, but with a sociocultural price of mediated, disseminated, spectacularly absurd brutality.

The white clown often deploys white privilege! This privilege is a tool that can be useful in the hands of a movement that is flipping it around for leverage, but can also be problematic if it takes away attention from the work of people of color. Weaponizing privilege can be effective when following the leadership and direction of people of color. Non-clown whites used it in downtown Oakland during a defy-the-curfew protest in early June 2020: If the police are coming, white folks move to the front to form an obstacle of white privilege. If the media are coming, white folks step back and direct them to organizers of color.

The police shoved us, chased us, and searched us, finding our preset standard-issue CIRCA police-search items: sex toys, flower petals, bouncy balls.

Scotland G8: The Peak of CIRCA

In 2005, leading up to the protest of the G8 in Scotland, CIRCA did a tour around the UK in a biodiesel caravan with solar panels. We performed for free in a different town each night and then offered a free two-day training workshop to locals so that they could start their own clown squad. We acted as a seeder group, essentially. We asked them to train, build their own local idiom, and meet us at a certain street corner in Edinburgh on a certain day before the G8 started.

To our surprise, 150 rebel clowns, in squads of 5 to 15, showed up from all over. The glorious mess of our spokescouncil meetings began. The BBC had embedded a group within our army, as they did with the army occupying Iraq—fair play. There was an ineffable “WTF” factor—to others and to ourselves—of a phalanx of 150 rebel clowns marching with banners in formation, then breaking out at the blow of a whistle into total clownarchy, humping mailboxes, searching for weapons of mass destruction between blades of grass, and then, with a whistle, reforming and marching on.

The police shoved us, chased us, and searched us, finding our preset standard-issue CIRCA police-search items: sex toys, flower petals, bouncy balls. We carry these things so it will look absurd when we are inevitably surrounded and searched. The media covers these searches to comic effect, which calls attention to the over-policing of free assembly. I have been chased by police in London and in Edinburgh, and I am grateful that I have never committed to wearing the big clown shoes. Speed is more important than fashion sometimes.

We create what I have theorized elsewhere as “irresistible images”—images that are so compelling that our ideological opponents cannot help but reproduce them even though they undermine their worldview and support ours. The most virulent protester-criminalizing tabloids cannot help but print the famous image of Trixie the clown kissing a riot policeman’s shield while he gazes on contemplatively. At the G8 and elsewhere, we raise the cost of repression from the state, create mediagenic spectacles that disseminate our political points, and heal some of the burnout of our activist comrades.

a clown kissing a clear riot shield

CIRCA clown Trixie kisses the riot shield of the police in Edinburgh, 2005. Photo by Matthew Dutton.

Rebel Clowning in Other Contexts

In 2004, I brought the CIRCA model back to New York City when I got a job in the States. Of course, the New York clowns immediately realized we had to adjust all tactics to the local/legal terrain. The police are more violent and paramilitary in the United States, and private property is even more sacrosanct. Our schtick changed: more political street theatre, less full-body Dadaism. It works.

Clown army actions spring up elsewhere. The Boredom Patrol, aping the Border Patrol, confuses and ridicules the xenophobic anti-immigrant paramilitaries, the Minutemen, on the border. Amassed clowns deflate neo-Nazis and Klansmen in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, bursting their emotional bubble of terror and intimidation with mockery and fearless laughter. I trained a crew in Finland once, and several years later they confounded and disoriented the fascist Soldiers of Odin. During one of the Soldiers’ anti-immigrant “patrols,” the “LOLdiers of Odin” showed up and started dancing around them. One burly clown in a horned helmet said: “Hi guys! I’m Odin! High five!”

The struggle against authoritarianism and xenophobia continues, and we must adapt and innovate new tactics, riffing on our old licks and learning from our opponents as well. We can’t just run the ball up the middle every time, we can’t be predictable. Our advantage as social movements is that, by exercising our playfulness and our creativity, we become more lithe, nimble, and unpredictable across the board in everything we do—fast enough to outmaneuver our ponderous, but more powerful, dance partners/foes.

Our advantage as social movements is that, by exercising our playfulness and our creativity, we become more lithe, nimble, and unpredictable across the board in everything we do.

Reducing the Harm Caused by the Trumpist Far Right

This past May, I was able to advise some friends in my affinity group in Northern California— activists who had previously attended some of my workshops. They live in Chico and had been asked for help by a group providing permitted harm reduction services—needle exchange—to people in need every Sunday. They were being harassed, verbally abused, and, at times, physically assaulted by right-wing bigots who did not want this activity in their town. This is the kind of aggression at the local level that the Trump regime has encouraged at the federal level. These wonderful activists and I had a fruitful discussion about the possibilities and tactics of bringing a clown approach to the defense of the harm reduction staff and their clients.

A brave squad of clowns manifested at the needle exchange site the next Sunday, interposing themselves between the hateful bigots and their chosen prey. The clowns played hopscotch while blocking the assailants from harassing the staff and clients, confusing them by only saying “yes, no, please, thank you” with a cheerful smile no matter what the hatemongers said, absorbing the vitriol and insults so that the service providers and their clients would not have to. The clowns were triumphant—the conservatives later complained online about the “weird” people “throwing a party” and confusing their whole game.

In our debrief, two of the brave clowns, Julia Rauter and Joey (last name withheld) noted: “The clown costumes were a great set of emotional armor for us. It would be hard to put ourselves in the way of that kind of emotional abuse normally. Being clowns made the awful things our opponents said far less impactful.”

Alyssa Larson, another of the brave clowns, texted to me: “It was scary at first but we were so confusing and disarming for them, they really didn’t know how to threaten or handle us.” Larson held off one man, who was over six feet tall and very broad-shouldered, and was menacing her physically and verbally threatening to kill her, by singing happy birthday to him, over and over, nose to nose. “Other men with (poorly) concealed guns and dogs couldn’t move in to threaten the [staff and clients] because we were playing hopscotch in their way…. In the end, most of the angry ones dispersed,” she said. “The women who are really dedicated to the cause, but not violent, stuck around with their signs and banners. But their voices were tired from yelling at us. It was a huge success.”

The clowns decided they’d be back the following week with new antics and strategies to avoid burnout and exhaustion, and they set up a meeting with the harm reduction team to analyze and improve tactics.

a group dressed as blue US mailboxes posing for a photo

Bogad (Creator/Artistic Director), Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, and Farm Arts Collective performing #DeliveringDemocracy in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Photo by Tannis Kowalchuk.

Moving Forward

To see the rebel clown repertoire improvised upon, bravely adapted, and improved in this world of racism, xenophobia, pseudo-populist Know-Nothingism, authoritarian disinformation, and pandemic and climate disaster, to see the red nose of resistance flagrantly flare its nostrils and honk in the face of the violent victimizers of the world… This encourages.

Just now, I created #DeliveringDemocracy, working with Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble and Farm Arts Collective to form a troupe of dancing mailboxes and ballot boxes that performed all around the election-battleground state of Pennsylvania, culminating in the epic count-every-vote nail-biting days in Philadelphia last week. Our goal was to entertain and uplift, disseminate useful voter information in a nonpartisan way, defuse tension in confrontations, be mediagenic to introduce a cheerfully pro-democratic meme into the culture, and be disarmingly charming in the face of aggressive authoritarians. We've struck a chord—on late-night comedy shows, in the New York Times and other newspapers, and on television from New York to Chile to Australia to France. More importantly, in the streets, at rallies and demonstrations, we embodied what I like to think of as weaponized surrealism or mobilized Dada, becoming cheerful mascots of the resistance and of the very concept that every vote, and every voter, counts.

We are the squawk in the aria. We eschew the old Shakespearean cliché of the “jester who tells the king the truth”—the king is a sociopath! The kingdom is burning! We are rather a creative disruption, a voice amplifier, a cultural force multiplier, and a specialized tool to only be used occasionally, and with the consent of all comrades.

Forward!

(Honk honk.)

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Thoughts from the curators

Clown and activism may seem like an odd couple, but embedded in the nature of clown is the spirit of joy and resistance to oppressive forces. This series features a selection of folx from around the world who are all part of a long and diverse heritage of clown activists. From rural villages to urban centers, from popular protests to refugee camps, each of our contributors use grit and humor to activate their communities toward equity and justice. This series shows how effective clown-based activism can be at subverting bigots and in cultivating hope in hard-hit communities. We also see how the laughter they provoke has a disarming effect on spectators, creating an opening for vital messages to be heard. So when clowns are invited to help, they have the makings to be a powerful gift to social justice movements. And as we here in the United States have just undergone a presidential election, feeling the deep exhaustion of this time, we heed the call to send in the clowns, with their relentless, life-giving hope.

When Clowns Fight The Power

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