The People as Spectacle

June 4th came and went this year. It was a Saturday and I had forgotten about that date in 1989 when the Chinese Communist government ordered a violent crackdown on protesters demanding political reform in Tiananmen Square. My parents took me and my sister to the Chinese embassy on Geary Street in San Francisco to protest. We had spent days riveted by TV coverage in giddy disbelief that these people could be so enboldened, and now it was time to get out on the streets in solidarity.

I felt like doing the same this year when the Arab Spring in North Africa was jumping off, when Tunisians shocked the world by streaming onto the streets to demand their country back from dictatorship, and when Egyptians surged into Tahrir Square overturning the will of the army and eventually burying the Mabarak regime. Revolutionary actions then spread to Lybia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman.

In 1977, cultural theorist Paul Virilio wrote that “The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street…” Literally The People become a mass and this moving mass, now in public can be seen and documented. The People become one image. And this is when The People go from being words on the page of a constitution to a political body that has spectacle on its side.

Thinking back to the 6-4 Incident, as the Tiananmen Square protests are alternately referred to, my clearest memory was watching on TV the zoomed in overhead image of a lone young man, The People within him, in a white dress shirt, his sleeves rolled up, holding a plastic bag, standing in front of a column of tanks trying to gain entrance into the square. The tank leading the column tries to go around him but he gets in front of it again. The tank stops, hesitates (will it simply run him over?), then turns the other way, where it’s thwarted again. It was a riveting spectacle that in the movie version of events would have turned the tide and brought the weight of humanity on those that ordered the crackdown.
Instead, thousands were likely killed (the numbers are still inconclusive) in the unmerciful crackdown, and the blood mopped clean from the ground of the gate of heavenly peace, as Tiananmen is translated. And now the Communist leadership nervously watches the news coming out of countries where revolutions are still brewing, afraid that it’s next, afraid that The People will assert its image again like they did 22 years ago. Paranoia as politics when you think history’s the enemy.

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2 Comments on “The People as Spectacle”

  1. Krista says:

    Well said! Powerful piece. Reminds me of the spectacle I came across the first time I turned on the tube during Katrina. I was awed/disgusted/perplexed by the scores of disadvantaged black people literally floating before my eyes. How was this allowed to happen? How had they been rendered so helpless? So many questions. It was such an arresting visual statement. Arab Spring definitely summoned similar feelings of awe and the desire to empower.

    • Herb Tam says:

      Thanks Krista..yes, these are bonding moments for a society..too bad it takes severe tragedies for it to happen. Speaking of which, saw your student’s show at NurtureArt this weekend: they did such a great job on it! Very powerful show! Congrats to you and them..


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