by Samara Hayley Steele
After seeing several friends subpoenaed for being photographed during a protest, I became too frightened to go to protests. For over a year, starting in 2013, my anxiety over getting photographed and ending up in court was just too high to consider joining in.
Additionally, the standard protest anonymity tactics of hiding one’s face behind a black ski mask or a Guy Fawkes mask did not appeal to me. I just don’t want to be running around in a charged situation wearing a scary mask. For example, during J28 (the police siege of Oakland that occurred on January 28th, 2012), I was wearing a gas mask to protect my lungs, and I recall people backing away from me in fear, even friends, until I took the scary mask off.
Last October, I found a different strategy: the Cat Bloc strategy. It’s about being cute and unrecognizable at the same time. The trick is to cover your whole face, and to obscure major lines of your nose, cheekbones, and forehead. Additionally, you’ll want to hide your ears and the shape of your head with a cat-ear wig. Since then, I’ve attended over a dozen marches and demos—on topics ranging from climate change to tuition hikes to racism and police violence—dressed as a cat.
My experience has been largely positive. The thing about being dressed as a cat is people generally are excited to see cats. I get lots of hugs and high-fives. At worst, teenagers might back away due to the uncoolness factor. But I wasn’t scaring anyone, at least. And even close friends didn’t recognize me until they heard my voice! It was a great way to stay anonymous without being scary.
While dressed as a cat, I found that my behavior changed over the course of each event. At the beginning of a protest, I’d show up, not knowing what to do, but I found that as the event went on and people kept giving me smiles and positive feedback, I found myself wanting to be more helpful. That’s how I found myself doing things like directing traffic, standing over potholes to warn people not to trip, and other activities intended to keep people’s bodies safe.
Cats are our natural allies, and protected humans’ supply of grain in ancient civilizations. As I played with what it mean to do Cat Bloc, it became more and more about protecting people’s bodies, no matter who they were or which side they were on. My goal was to stop physical harm from happening to human bodies, and to also help people in emotional distress.
Ultimately, Cat Bloc became a type of emotional harm reduction, as I strove to check in with people who seemed to be experiencing emotional crisis in the midst of some pretty intense moments in which windows were being smashed and fires being started. Sometimes, when chaos like that it happening, it’s good to just have someone dressed in a cute costumes around to say, “Howdy! How you freeing right now? I’m hear if you want to talk.”
After walking out of jail following a Black Lives Matter protest last November, I had a conversation with some priests who were arrested with me. One of them agreed that being at a protest in “Priest Drag” (as the venerable father called it) changed the way people treated him, which in turn changed the way he treated others. Another priest agreed, and explained that wearing her priestly collar at public gathers helped people identify her as someone ready to provide emotional help. Cat Bloc is very much like that, only it’s a little more open to folks who aren’t ready to engage with someone evoking a religious background.
I think it’s good to have both cats and priests, and also maybe some people dressed as fairies, at protests to provide emotional support work. I think having easy-to-find emotional support workers on the ground helps prevent trauma and harm. It reminds people to lighten up. “Look, there’s someone dressed as a cat.” And things get lighter.
While carpooling home from jail in 2014, I spoke with a young white man who had been frequently attending #BlackLivesMatter protests using the Black Bloc tactic of hiding his identity with a ski mask. “The mask definitely changed the way I’d act,” he explained, and said that as the protest wore on, he found himself acting more and more pushy. He even started using a cartoonishly aggro “pro-wrestler voice,” and at one point, he actually pulled a megaphone out of a black man’s hand and took over directing the march. “I wish I hadn’t done that,” he said. “It was like the mask, and the fear it created in people, just started taking over.” The combination of a hidden identity and a scary mask had led this man to commit a macroaggression towards the very people whose rights he was marching for.
I remember the way people cowered away from me while I wore the gas mask on J28. Seeing others physically cower away from you feels weird. Try it with a friend some time. Try having a conversation while wearing gas mask or scary mask. Isn’t that weird? I don’t recommend ever wearing a black ski mask or Guy Fawkes mask to a party: people will likely get triggered and have to leave. And if you wouldn’t wear it to a party, should you really be wearing it to a protest?
For some people, seeing others cower brings out their inner bully. This might explain some of the odd behavior I’ve seen from police officers, whose uniforms are a type of scary mask. I’ve seen uniformed riot cops commit spontaneous crimes such as pinning people down and beating them them without restraint or reason. Doing this is actually a crime called “extrajudicial punishment,” because only a judge is allowed to determine what punishment a person gets.
But perhaps the fear-cycle created by police uniforms contributes to the bullying behavior that emerges from some officers. What would happen if police had to wear bunny ears? Or dorky sweaters? Perhaps if their clothing made people smile, it would help the officers remember their own humanness.
I hope we will soon live in a world without police. Or perhaps a world in which the institution of the police is so radically changed, we barely recognize it.
Meanwhile, if, like me, you are anxious about being photographed at a protest, and want to do some emotional care support work, consider the joining Cat Bloc!
You have to be prepared though, if you try this yourself, for some intense interactions. For example, at one point, I felt compelled to protect the windows of a small latino-owned local business during a protest with a lot of window smashing happening. For the most part, everyone kindly passed that spot when I held my arms out and said, “Please protect this local latino-owned business.” But there was one guy who really wanted to take out those windows… It was a very intense interaction in which, of all things, he threatened to pee on me (!) before finally he left, leaving the windows in tact. Yowza! But that is the sort of thing you must be ready for.
Dressing as a cat, for me, brings out a certain type of power and bravery that I have a harder time accessing in my normal garb. More than once while dressed as a cat, I was able to peacefully walk between two people who were starting to fist fight, and helped them talk it out. But maybe Cat Bloc is just my jam. Perhaps there’s a different animal or cute figure for you. Cats aren’t the only way, for sure!