Disarm the police. Clowning around is serious politics
On Sunday 16 December , a man who calls himself Colonel H. Salavila, wearing a pink Afro wig and a rainbow bowtie, led a group of clowns in white face paint and big red noses into Schiphol airport. They held a subversive circus in the arrivals hall, whistling, whooping and mopping in tune to a gypsy samba band, while dusting everything in sight.
The event, oddly enough, was meant to support the airport's cleaning men and women, part of a group called Cleaners for a Better Future, who are demanding a minimum wage of € 10 an hour, stronger worker protections and the right to organise without fear of retribution.
Colonel H. Salavila, who, like all the clowns, wouldn't give his real name, is part of Rebelact, a political protest group made up of people who don't mind being called fools, rascals and mutineers. Its parent group, the UK-based Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, was founded to protest George W. Bush's visit to England in 2003. The clowns continued to attract members during the 2005 protests against the G-8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, and now it has active groups in Ireland, Belgium, France, Denmark, Germany, Israel and the Netherlands.
Amsterdam's chapter Rebelact, began in September 2007 and is an offshoot of CLoLoNeL, or Clownelijk Loslopend Nederlands Leger, a national clown group established in 2005. It held its first clown protest against the dutch Marine Corps during an arms trade fair in 2006.
Since Rebelact's entry onto the scene, the group has organised a number of playful, insurbordinate actions. One of the most recent took place on Buy Nothing Day, 24 november, when the group swarmed the commercial district of Nijmegen dressed as blood-covered zombies, taking shopkeepers and shoppers by surprise.
'Clowning relies on the logic of disruption,' said General Kaos, another member of the local Rebelact regiment, who wears a pink feather boa, an orange wig with a blue plastic bucket as a hat. 'It combines stupidity and laughter with direct action. It moves away from moralising — the kind of activism that happened in the 1970s.'
Rebelact's antics, rather, are reminiscent of the 1960's Provo movement, which used absurd street performances to challenge politics. One of the reasons 'clown-archy' works so well, said Salavila, is that clowns embody contradictions — wise and stupid, scapegoat and subversive. 'Old political action forms such as collecting signatures or organising demonstrations are predictable,' he said.
Another reason clowning seems to be effective, the organisers assume, is that the police have to respond to wigs and balloons. Captain Bep, a professional German clown, who flew into Amsterdam to train Rebelact's battailon, says he's been at demonstrations where the police were laughing so hard they could no longer hold up their shields. 'Normally police dictate the rules, but in this case clowns dictate the game,' said Bep. 'Clowning breaks up the power relationship.'
Rebelact is supporting Cleaners for a Better Future because they claim the workers have felt intimidated to join a union. When some of the workers attended union meetings, they were given the thoughest and dirtiest jobs as unofficial punishment. Rebelact's first action was to storm reception at ING and ABN-Amro Amsterdam headquarters on 6 December, dressed as clown cleaners. They asked to be exploited, while dusting and shouting, 'We're the cheapest cleaners in town!' ING and ANB are two of the many Dutch companies that hire some estimated 150.000 cleaning professionals in the Netherlands through cleaning companies that outsource the workers. According to the website for the activists, only seven percent are organised.
But watching them in action, most people are simply disarmed by their charm. At the event at Schiphol, one clown juggled oranges at the juice bar while another embraced several women, calling them, 'Mother! Mother!' For dozens of onlookers, especially children, the spontaneous eruption of noise, colour and enthusiasm altered the dull flow of airport traffic. As spectators gathered and happily gawked, the police, apparently caught off guard, stood their distance. Just as the organisers hoped.
Published in the Amsterdam Weekly, 3-9 January 2008. Copyright and written by Dara Colwell