How Trash Affects the Optics of Protests–Then and Now

Trash being sorted and disposed of near the White House during BLM protests.

by Miro Korenha

On Saturday my husband and I attended protests in front of the White House against racial injustice and police brutality. What struck me about this gathering of people was the kindness and care shown among the attendees as well as to the surroundings. Trash and water bottles were being meticulously picked up and volunteers were even being diligent to separate recyclables.

You’re probably thinking “that’s nice, but why does this matter in the context of this protest?”

It got me thinking about how during the Summer of Love, police used piled up trash as an excuse to arrest Vietnam War protestors. As artist Victor Moscoso recalled, “the [San Francisco] police were cracking down in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. ‘Dirty garbage pails’ was the reason they gave for their strong arm and suppressing tactics. The neighborhood fought back with a ‘Clean In‘ and [posters promoting the event] hung in just about every window.

We also saw that during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations a decade ago, trash left behind by protestors was one of the key headlines used to de-legitimize the movement. We see similar coverage over and over of social and environmental demonstrations failing to adequately manage waste. Right-wing media groups and pundits even spread fake news of alleged trash at climate protests to perpetuate a narrative of “hypocrisy” by “liberal activists.”

It demonstrates that this current wave of racial justice protestors has a unique understanding of both politics and optics – not giving detractors even the slightest bit of ammunition to try and minimize their efforts. While heaping piles of trash get left behind by tourists at the National Mall each year with little media coverage, Black Lives Matter protestors are making a statement about our planet as they take a stand for justice and equality.

The Clean-Up: Peaceful and organized protests swelled across the nation this past weekend. This came after previous clashes with police as well as outrage over the killings of unarmed Black Americans led to unrest and property damage in multiple states. At the same time, we saw volunteers turn out across the country after the initial demonstrations to clean up trash, damage, and graffiti. In downtown DC this past weekend, streets were clean, people were taking a respite from demonstrations to enjoy local parks, and the emphasis on having protestors clean up after themselves was evident.

A Look Back: In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement also gained national media attention for its demands to reduce the power of corporations and money in politics. OWS erected camps and demonstrated in most major cities and in many ways was seen as the antithesis to the conservative Tea Party movement. However, if you look at reporting and commentary of the OWS demonstrations it’s clear that the Tea Party was seen as more “legitimate” in large part due to trash and damage left behind at protests.


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