We all held our breath. We all let our common eagerness cloud the room. They were about to appear magically right before us. The superheroes of Pussy Riot were inches away and we yearned to mirror their reflections.
After waiting in lines outside and in chairs inside, two women of Pussy Riot, a Russian punk rock protest group, finally walked quickly across stage and sat down in the boxy leather chairs positioned on-stage. They stared into the audience as bright lights and cheers pounded upon them. We all focused on them and were met by what could only be described as poised nervousness. Our superheroes weren’t flexing or chanting or smiling with cockiness (no pun intended). They looked just like you and me.
As Pussy Riot sat gracefully on stage, they allowed us to get up close and personal. Not only were we able to lean in to their thoughts and statements, but we were also able to inhale their appearance. Their image and poise reflected back upon us, and we were able to learn valuable lessons about one’s strength and ability.
At first, it was odd to see such strong and rebellious individuals sitting so calmly and delicately. I had envisioned revolutionaries to be beyond human — something entirely different than myself. To my surprise, I found myself admiring Nadya Tolokonnikova’s nail polish and Masha Alyokhina’s shoes. I was quickly envisioning us connecting over the latest trends and exchanging makeup. Their presence humanized their movement. And most significantly, their down-to-earth presence signaled that potential revolutions are burning within each of us. It doesn’t take a superpower to spark the fire, but it does take courage to unleash it.
In addition, I came to see strength in their softness and uncomfortableness. They didn’t have to flex their muscles or raise their voices to exude strength. They didn’t have to use their exterior to prove that strength lay within their interior. Their presence also taught us that strength and courage are internal qualities that reside independently of appearance. You don’t have to look tough to be tough.
Beyond their appearance and poise, Pussy Riot’s words taught us the power of their reflections and resulting actions and called for us to do the same. They explained that every action starts with a reaction — a recognition of injustice. Within their own lives and during their imprisonment, they came to understand how unfairly the low-income and incarcerated populations are treated in Russia. Their reaction lead to their actions of protest and the formation of their latest organization, Zona Prava. Their new organization hopes to provide support and legal rights to incarcerated populations. Throughout the interview, their responses were often interjected with the encouragement for us to disrupt similar disorder. They repeatedly mentioned that we too have the ability to reclaim our power by unleashing our refusal to be silenced. But can Pussy Riot’s protests and tactics act as a guide for us to follow in Ann Arbor?
As with any situation, context is important. We may search for the same media and world recognition in our pursuits of justice, but the avenues to reach them will look different. Ann Arbor is often labeled as progressive and liberal. Though seemingly positive, these descriptors may in fact inhibit change. It may blind people into truly believing that we have reached equality and liberality. To create change, in an institution that believes change has already been reached, requires different tactics and a harder road to awakening. It’s easy to reflect upon Pussy Riot’s imprisonment and see how injustice is rampant in Russia. But to do the same amongst privileged folks in a place that deems itself as progressive is more difficult.
In order to create protests and change that resemble Pussy Riot’s efforts, the blind must first be awakened from their deep sleep. At this University, that task is not a small feat. If we truly wish to mirror Pussy Riot, we must first tackle the difficulty of justifying a protest. We must first unveil injustice within institutions that have become very good at hiding it. We must first learn that not only do powerful institutions take away our right to humanity, but they also silence us so that the echoes of our pain may never reach the surface. We must first listen to these commonly threaded echoes. Then we may protest.
Maja Tosic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.