philly die-in

Die-In 101: A brief history of the protest form, in Philly and beyond

Photo by Joshua Scott Albert

Philadelphia-based Rev. Mark Tyler felt something different when he visited Ferguson, Mo. in August after the shooting death of Michael Brown. This wasn’t like movements he’d experienced in the past. The response to the killing, he says, has resonated with the nation and “isn’t going anywhere soon.”

And the hallmark method of protest that’s associated with that movement: The “Die-In”, participation in which has gripped the nation over the last two weeks following two separate grand juries’ decisions to not indict Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson and of NYPD Officer Daniel Pataleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner. You’ve seen the photos of the uncomfortable depictions of death in which demonstrators lie in the middle of the street not only to disrupt, but also to symbolize.

That’s why Tyler and other laypeople with POWER, a coalition of congregations from across the city, planned a die-in to take place at the intersection of Broad and Pattison streets in South Philly on Sunday night, just after the Eagles’ game let out. Hundreds of protestors laid on the ground at the intersection for four and a half minutes to symbolize the four and a half hours that Brown’s body was left in the street in Ferguson.

“The power in these symbolic political actions is that they themselves may not necessarily do anything,” Tyler, a pastor at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Society Hill, said. “The hope is they will draw attention to the issues and make people dig deeper.”

Die-ins protesting Brown — and, later, Eric Garner — have popped up across the country on a daily basis over the last two weeks in the middle of the country’s biggest cities, on college campuses and at events as obscure as an Iggy Azalea concert. In Philly, they’ve been held at Temple, Penn, several high schools and in a number of other central locations.

But they’re not a new form of protest. In fact, die-in demonstrations can be traced to as early as 1970 when it was used by environmental activists in Milwaukee and on Harvard’s campus (hat tip to National Journal).

From the Milwaukee Journal archives:

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In Philly, Billy Penn found the earliest mention of a die-in demonstration was in April 1986 when The Philadelphia Inquirer covered an anti-Apartheid protest at Penn. From the Inky:

About 25 students from the Penn Anti-Apartheid Coalition, clad in blood- splattered T-shirts, staged what they called a “die-in” yesterday at a meeting of the University of Pennsylvania trustees’ executive board.

The students were protesting the trustees’ Jan. 17 vote to wait 18 months before deciding whether to divest Penn of its $92 million in holdings in companies that have operations in South Africa.

Shortly before 3 p.m., as the monthly meeting of the executive board was adjourned, the 25 students who attended the session stood and took off their sweaters and jackets to reveal blood-splattered T-shirts symbolizing the bloody deaths in racially segregated South Africa.

The students then lay on the floor in front of the 11 trustees, forcing them to step over the students’ bodies as they left the meeting room at the Penn Faculty Club on campus.

Three years after that, in 1989, AIDS activists staged a die-in near City Hall that was planned to take place in conjunction with the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting. (Apparently Christmas tree lighting disruption is a thing.)

In September 1991, police swung nightsticks at and arrested 10 AIDS activists after they staged a die-in near where President George H. W. Bush attended a dinner for then-Senate candidate Dick Thornburgh. Outside the Hotel Atop the Bellevue, according to Philadelphia Daily News archives, four police officers and two protestors suffered minor injuries after some of the hundreds of activists there laid in the middle of Broad Street.

AIDS awareness group ACT-UP and five other organizations sued the Philadelphia Police Department a month later after nine people claimed they were beaten without justification, the Daily News reported. The police ended up settling with the activists for $61,500 and admitted in a consent decree that its police broke the law.

In 2003, about 100 anti-war in Iraq activists in Philadelphia staged a die-in outside City Hall. From The Inquirer:

In Center City, a group of about 100 youthful protesters rallied at noon at City Hall before marching to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office at 16th and Callowhill Streets.

“We won’t be silenced. We won’t be tamed. This war in Iraq is not in our name,” protesters chanted.

Upon returning to Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall, protesters staged a “die-in,” collapsing to the ground “to represent what it looks like in Iraq right now,” said protester Ami Verrill, 19, a University of the Arts student.

Since the 70s and 80s, die-ins have been used across the country by human rights, anti-abortion and environmental activists. A massive die-in in Washington, D.C. in 2007 that protested the war in Iraq yielded 189 arrests, including 10 who were war veterans. Most recently, die-ins have become in many ways the symbolic political demonstration of the fight against police brutality as groups have organized and mobilized.

Group leaders say the point is to create an inconvenience, and to cause a disruption to divert people’s attention from the normal flow of activity. That disruption is why protestors in Philadelphia garnered national attention when they blocked traffic after the Eagles’ game Sunday — and they were met with animosity both at the event and online.

“You just sat outside in the cold for three hours and watched a team you like lose, but now sitting in your car for five minutes is suddenly the worst thing?” Tyler said. “A lot of that is misunderstanding. Our inconvenience cannot compare to someone who lost a family member to violence after an interaction with police that should have been routine.”

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