Transnational civil society and punk rock: The case of Pussy Riot

While many issues get attention and support, only certain issues get empathy Western individuals. I argue that this empathy is important for issues to receive meaningful support. That may be because while some issues are indeed tragic and terrible, there is a disconnect, when issues are too complex, such as hunger and poverty, we tend to find it hard to put ourselves in their shoes and to understand what it is like, how the issue arises, and more so, what we can do to solve it.

This may be why the Russian punk band Pussy Riot is getting so much attention, and a lot of vocal support. Obscure until a few months ago, they have grabbed the attention of not just President Vladimir Putin, but the rest of the world. Pussy Riot is an all-girl punk band who wear colourful balaclavas and tights and jump around singing and screaming about the injustices of living in Putin’s Russia. They are getting our attention and support because we can perhaps see ourselves in their position, and the unjustness of it (they have been sentenced to two years in a prison colony for protesting against their political leader, or, in the courts words; guilty of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’). That is because we feel that what has been done is a violation of certain norms we have taken for granted, the norms of freedom of speech, the right to protest, the right to a fair trial, and more generally where issues of justice becomes involved. The idea that we, living in a liberal democracy, can voice our concerns in forms of taking to the streets, or making music, makes it more ridiculous and unfair in our eyes in regards to what Putin is doing to the members of this band.

Punk bands have always been around, and they are not going away. Punk rock has always been more than just a musical movement, but is essentially a political one. While some bands focus their attentions on local issues – Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen,’ immediately comes to mind equating the Queen with a “fascist regime,” – some bands have also dealt with global issues, such as The Clash’s ‘Washington Bullets.’

What Pussy Riot has done, is protest against a local issue, but has appealed to a global audience willing to advocate on their behalf. Amnesty International, for example, has categorized them as ‘prisoners of conscience.’ There have always been criticism of the Russian regime, but not all have caught on to get as much attention as this case. But the real success in what Pussy Riot has done and their potential is that their method of protest relies on anonymity, the wearing of statement colourful balaclavas, whereby it allows for the possibility of their protest and message to carry across globally and across international borders, how anyone can be a member of Pussy Riot. And even if Putin can arrest and jail individual members of the band, there is no way he can stop the potential for new members to don the balaclava and continue to spread their message while rocking out, and to stop that from spreading beyond Russia. (After having written this piece, I have found the same thought echoed here). Importantly, this practice is a further extension of an age old practice of anonymity in political subversion. However, this practice could well be emerging as a new norm in global political protest – think of the ‘Anonymous’ hacker group – reflecting the increased capacities of states at surveillance and detention (which, as an aside, is another argument against the diminishing of state capacity). Two reasons for the importance of this potential new norm is, on the one hand, its utilisation by groups against both democratic and non-democratic regimes, as well as corporations and powerful groups more generally, and, on the other, the increasing asymmetries emerging between groups in contemporary politics, which increasingly necessitates the practice.

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