Pompoms and striped tights may not be the usual gear a protester would want to pack before heading out to a protest these days, but many young, non-violent, direct-action activists are donning knee socks and short skirts to do some cheerleading, revolutionary style.
With kilts, pigtails, pompoms and combat boots, radical cheerleading squads have been entertaining demonstrators, the police and the public at protests since the late 1990s. This phenomenon, driven by the non-violent, direct-action spirit of Seattle, has revolutionized how the public — and fellow demonstrators — see protests.
Since then, squads have been popping up across North America and Europe, ready to bring the message of social justice to the masses in a whole new way.
Cheers are often created by groups or individuals who then swap favourites at protests or on the Internet. Often exploring the nature of specific events, lyrics can also be scribbled out on the bus going to a demonstration.
Word has it that two sisters from Florida created radical cheerleading. They thought traditional protesting tactics were boring. So, to spice things up, they sat down and re-worked the words of conventional sports cheers to integrate political themes, then added cool dance moves and clapping. Armed with funky outfits and homemade pompoms, they hit the streets.
Here’s a sample, which gives a sense of the spirit behind the radical cheerleaders:
Hell, no … we won’t
Hell, no … we won’t
Hell, no … we won’t
Go there with those tired old chants
My activism’s more like a rant;
A rant of rage and resistance
Why the hell are you
Looking at me,
Your freedom isn’t free,
What the fuck,
Get off YOUR butt,
YOU TOO could be a cheerleader
YOU TOO should be a cheerleader
Born to be a cheerleader,
Radical cheerleaders don’t want to get mixed up with any stereotypes of their craft. According to Lindsay Telfer, “I really do not like the comparison to traditional cheerleaders. I recognize that this may very well be a natural comparison, but I think that it needs to be understood that many squads are fighting really hard to say, Fuck the image of the sexy cheerleader — we are not happy-go-lucky, flaky women. We’re not even all women. We are angry, we are mad and we have a real message behind what we are doing. It’s not just ‘Go team,’ it’s, ‘Let’s win!’”
For the most part, squads are made up of women, men and transgendered activists who have anarchist tendencies and wish to use creativity to publicize their message. “Cheerleading allows us to introduce people to anarchism in a new way, where people are more receptive. Normal people walking by can understand it. We’re presenting it in a non-preachy, non-lecture way but the message still comes through,” says Kim Fry.
Cheerleaders typically attract quite a crowd of watchers and followers at demos. As Simone May says, “I love it when people come up to me and say ‘I want to be a radical cheerleader,’ because then I can respond, ‘Okay, then you are one.’ That’s why I like cheering so much, because you can do it anywhere. You can make it anything you want. Anybody can join.”
“When we first started going to demonstrations, we didn’t expect anything in particular. But now, the reaction we get is great. People love us, because we’re new and different; we’re saying ‘Smash the state’ with a smile,” says Fry.
The radical cheerleaders are challenging the conventional image of activists rioting in the streets and lobbing Molotov cocktails at the police. Even their visual presence — they like to wear bright red — stands in contrast to the dark, militaristic uniforms of the black bloc.
Derek Maisonville believes that the squads create a strong visual impact that counters many of the assumptions people have about protesters. “It goes right against what the public, the police and the media think about anarchism and direct action. It’s not just about throwing rocks at the cops — it’s creative and fun,” he says.
Squads often work together during a demonstration, sometimes spontaneously breaking out into a set of cheers at a moment’s notice. The large groups around them suddenly become an audience; the spot the squad is standing on, the stage. Even the police have been known to smile. “With a crowd, even a large crowd, the cheers can be interactive. All the cheers get people into a better mood. It raises people’s motivations, like what traditional cheerleaders do, but we’re not cheering about football, it’s motivation with a message,” May says.
Even more important to boosting people’s motivation is the cheerleaders’ presence when things get tense between demonstrators and police. Lindsay Telfer explains: “In Quebec City, for example, we used cheering as a tool to channel anger. When you are gassed consistently for four days, your tolerance levels definitely get tested. When we felt that energies were running high and people were upset and running in every direction, we would form a circle and do a cheer. In affect, this would bring us together again, channelling our anger in a creative way.”
But the radical cheerleaders consider the other impacts their presence might have as well. “Cheerleading is an amazing tool, but you have to be careful not to steal the spotlight. Sometimes, cheering is not appropriate at a demonstration. You have to be mindful of the mood, so it’s important to outreach and check with the organizers beforehand if you are unsure,” May says.
Still, many people think the benefits of cheerleading far outweigh any problems. Maisonville believes the presence of cheerleaders at a demonstration, especially when things are getting tense, is essential to keeping things cool. They “calm people down when things are tense, refocusing people’s energy toward the act of expression, not aggression.”
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