Politics and Witchcraft, Practical Intersections: Protest

Magic has been variously described over the years. For our purposes, let’s say it is the raising of energy and directing it toward a goal, to create change in accordance with will. And if that’s not an accurate description of political demonstrations, I’m not sure what is.

Ritual-Political Theory, from Vera Northe

Image: May Day 2017, Paris (see original and many more at Taranis News.)

May 1st, 2017. A may-pole and drums and people from many different local groups dressed for the occasion. Under a hot sun, framed by trees with new leaves, we were reminded why we had gathered, although we all already knew. We raised power, and after a time (and, as will often happen with large groups, a little disorder), we released it. As happens with any such public gathering of people overtly proclaiming their beliefs, there had been a few people trying to start trouble with us, but they didn’t really succeed. Then there was food, and we came back into the everyday, but we remained talking together for several hours.

I’m not describing a Beltane ritual; the may-pole was hung with red and black streamers and the local groups all carried political signs. I’m describing a May Day rally and march in New York City. May 1st is a day doubly sacred to many leftist pagans, a day of political and religious significance. The meaning gets all intertwined like the ribbons around the may-pole: liberation, creativity, work, and magic, the energy of everything coming alive after a long dark winter.

The question of whether witchcraft should be political is a tired one. People frequently bring up the perhaps legendary account of New Forest covens repelling Hitler, or the works Starhawk has written on political organizing and magic, or the actions of the W.I.T.C.H. organization, or even the recent much-publicized Trump hex. But to me, one of the strongest arguments that witchcraft and politics go together is structural and practical. Because the very act of public political demonstration follows a form familiar to all of us.

With the growing visibility of large-scale movements thanks to social media, we’ve all heard someone say, “What good is protest?” This is said not in a good-faith disagreement about tactics, but by people who think, I’ve got mine so what’s everyone else whining about? “What good is protest?” said by a commuter whose route to work was blocked. “What good is protest?” followed by, “they already have their rights.” Or, as one man (an ivy league graduate) once growled to me, “They should all be shot.”

“What good is protest?” they ask, and if we are tired of explaining history, we might simply reply, “It’s magic.”

Lady Liberty/Lady Death (May Day NYC 2017)

Protest As Ritual

Magic has been variously described over the years. For our purposes, let’s say it is the raising of energy and directing it toward a goal, to create change in accordance with will. And if that’s not an accurate description of political demonstrations, I’m not sure what is.

Sometimes, the pieces of a political demonstration are discrete and orderly, a clearly planned ritual. Scheduled speakers from various organizations remind the crowd why they have gathered, sometimes bringing visibility to a little-known cause, sometimes reading demands, sometimes speaking generally but keeping the energy rising, leading chants, or singing songs. Then, there may be a march to another location (or in some cases, when the march itself is the main event, there may only be speeches at the destination). The march itself is usually peppered with chants, keeping the energy high. The destination is usually a point of significance, often a capitol building, a city hall, a bank, a police station, or similar seat of power. It is there that the energy usually is released, often with more chanting and drumming, and perhaps a reading of demands.

This was the sort of thing which I attended on May Day. Shortly after I arrived at Union Square, the official program began, with speakers from immigrant groups, unions, and Palestine solidarity groups. Most of the speeches were pro immigrant, pro worker, and against capitalism and US imperialism (and against Trump’s policies specifically).

As a side note on the flow of energy within a political context: Susan Sarandon made an appearance and I found her speech quite weird, along the lines of many liberal speakers I’ve seen at other rallies (most notably the Moral Monday demonstrations in North Carolina). Liberalism doesn’t work along the same magical lines as radicalism: Sarandon looked at the energy of the crowd and urged us to take that energy and…vote in the next local elections. To be clear, when I say “liberal,” I’m not commenting on her own personal politics, which I’m not acquainted with, but rather the category her call to action falls into. Radicals and magic-workers alike know that raised energy cannot be saved up for over a year and then released. It must be given somewhere to go right away.

While everyone was queuing up to leave Union Square for the larger rally occurring at Foley Square (which is located just a block from city hall), I asked my friends who had been participating in other marches and demonstration all day across the city how this May Day compared to others they had seen in New York. Their immediate response was, “the energy is definitely different.” They aren’t occultists, but people who are well experienced in radical political movements, labor strikes, and other actions on the left often talk of energy just as proficiently as occultists do. They went on to speculate that much of the difference in energy came from the fact that anti-Trump sentiment has drawn new people to what would usually have been a largely labor-focused rally. Additionally, they noted a much larger presence of the masked Black Bloc, probably partly in response to the threats which neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups had been posting on social media to disrupt May Day actions in New York.

Union Square emptied very slowly, each group of people with their cluster of banners and signs filing out toward 14th street. We’d barely gone a block before everyone stopped and the police began broadcasting their sterile declaration that walking in the street and blocking the sidewalk is illegal. The energy of the march was fractured; we had no voice telling us what to do, only the police blocking us. We turned around and made our way back to the square, and after regrouping, started off down the sidewalk on Broadway which is where we were initially supposed to go anyway. While everyone was regrouping, my friends checked twitter and realized Mayor deBlasio was set to speak at Foley Square. They began to discuss how the tactics of policing had changed around protest for a few months after deBlasio entered office, taking a hands-off approach, only to crack down again once deBlasio walked back his rhetoric around policing.

This is another point to remember when discussing the magic of political demonstration. The power difference between institutions (such as the police) and the people in the streets is astronomical. A show of disapproval from the NYPD had more weight with the mayor than years of demonstrations by the residents of the city. The energy of having police present at every protest is something that must be taken into consideration as well. It’s as if inquisitors were required to be present at and control the flow of every witches’ sabbat. If you’ve experienced brutality even once when demonstrating (and many of my friends went through a lot of police harassment during Occupy Wall Street), you know that even if the police aren’t messing with you this time, they could do so with impunity if they decided to. And the audio disruption they frequently employ in the form of giving directions over the PA has an instant dampening effect on the general energy of any demonstration.

After the false start, the march marshals worked hard to get everyone going in the right direction, hanging together so we wouldn’t be separated and stopped by the cops, trying to restart chants which had died down. The march continued to Foley Square, where the news reported about 5,000 people total gathered. The Mayor and other elected officials addressed the crowd, but the crowd also addressed them by being there, directing the raised energy toward them and toward city hall. And my friends and I went for food and drinks, following through with the entire form of ritual although we didn’t mean to, we simply felt a need for food, water, and conversation.

Protest As Magic

Anyone who is practiced in demonstration or in magic knows that you don’t always have to do the full ritual. Sometimes it’s best to arrive directly at the heart of the matter. One cold January Saturday on break at work, I checked Twitter and saw that Trump had signed a Muslim travel ban, and that several refugees were being detained at JFK airport. I checked my phone again after my shift to find a text from my partner: “Do you want to go down to JFK?” I hadn’t seen yet the extent of what was going on but I immediately said yes. When we arrived, we followed the sound of drumming to an enormous mass of people, shouting and chanting and drumming non-stop. Although this action had been planned, a “pull in case of emergency” demonstration organized by immigrant and refugee activists, it was no orderly ritual. The demonstrators released the energy as they raised it, in desperation and yet in confidence that by sheer force of will, we would win. The volume of energy by the demonstrators was met by a stiff show of force from the police. An hour or so after I arrived, the entrance to the terminal was surrounded by cops in riot gear, and they had been announcing nearly the entire time that we were all subject to arrest if we stayed. But the mass of energy-raising people remained undeterred, meeting the threat of physical violence with drumming and chanting, and by the time my friends and I left, we heard that the first detainee had been released.

That wasn’t the only magical act that night. Word got back to the main protest that other protestors were attempting to join us, only to be barred by police from entering the train to the airport. My friends and I left while this was still going on, and arrived at the train terminal to find it packed with people being blocked from accessing the turnstiles by NYPD officers. So we stayed put and began demanding that they be let through. The governor had already ordered that protestors should be allowed to access the train to the airport, but the cops on the ground didn’t know that until we’d been sitting in for some time. We found out on twitter and made it known to the entire crowd, forcing the police officers to call their superiors for orders, and, once they did, they had to let everyone through (as we left we passed a cop pacing through the now-empty lobby yelling into his phone, “All of them?? You mean to tell me we’re just letting all of them through??”).

Demonstrations, like magic, rarely work that quickly, and, like magic, require mundane action. While the protestors outside the airport made known their will for change, putting their collective thumbs on the scales of probability (to borrow another explanation of how magic works), lawyers inside worked on behalf of the refugees while television cameras broadcast the events of that evening nationwide. While we sat in at the train station, we showed the police officers the reports on twitter that the governor had ordered them to stand down, and then told them over and over that they were disobeying orders, a combination of mundane action (giving support for our demand) and magical action (speaking into existence what we wanted to happen).

Protests, rallies, and marches raise power which releases to upset business as usual among politicians and the media. But its greatest effect may be on the practitioners, the demonstrators themselves. It spurs the participants into further action, the kind of sustained action in the mundane world which will create lasting change. It may inspire people already involved in organizations; mass show of support for a cause revitalizes weary activists. People often join movements and organizations because of awareness brought by a mass demonstration. And, like the inception of Occupy Wall Street, what was meant to be just a demonstration may turn into more; people may be inspired to simply not leave.

Like flashy public rituals, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into large political demonstrations. And that work, too, is work which witches and pagans are well prepared to enter into. This is where demonstrations come from, and this is where much of the energy raised goes. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Until then, see you in the streets!

Vera Northe

Vera Northe was raised as a Puritan and grew up to be a witch. She currently lives in New York.