Acts of Resistance against Hegemony: Student Activism in Professor Hanan Toukan’s PS186 Class

TW: Transphobia, Racism, Sexism, Sexual Harassment and Assault, Violence, Murder

BCB Politics Professor Hanan Toukan, was recently interviewed by the college’s Civic Engagement Office and shared insights on the topic of civic engagement and activism. Before coming to BCB, Hanan was a Visiting Assistant Professor in Middle Eastern Studies at Brown University (2016-2018) and Visiting Professor of the Cultural Studies of the Middle East at the University of Bamberg. Her first book, The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan was just published by Stanford University Press. Her background of cultural studies and dissent makes her uniquely qualified to share insights about how to resist political oppression. Specifically, she was asked by the civic engagement team how students can get involved in activism, create socio-political change, and resist oppression. This Spring 2021 semester she is teaching a course entitled “Solidarity, Culture, and Resistance”, where she guides students in exploring these questions, and carrying out their own “acts of resistance.” In her class, students were divided into groups, each group designing a project that would in some way embody resistance against oppression. These student-led acts of resistance also drew from cultural studies and intersectional theory, the two other main focuses of the class. 

One of the central themes explored in Hanan’s course is the concept of resisting hegemony. Hegemony is a word popularized by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist philosopher, journalist, writer, and politician, who was imprisoned by the Mussolini regime for his revolutionary ideas. Hegemony is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the social, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group.” These student projects attempt to push back against cultural hegemony and encompass themes ranging from transgender solidarity to the migrant crisis in Greece, but a common thread of resistance weaves them together. Each group of students was challenged to carry out a real-life political dissent project and in this piece, we will look at two of these “acts of resistance” projects. 

In my (HAST 2022) and Skye Eytina’s (EPST 2022) project, the goal was to express solidarity with transgender people, specifically transgender women of color, in Berlin and both of our hometowns in the US: Boise, Idaho and Harlem, New York. We chose to focus on the issue of  eviction of the Rummelsburger Bucht Camp for unhoused residents in Berlin. 

On Friday, February 5, 2021, the city of Berlin and the Berlin Police Department evicted over 100 residents of this camp, where many unhoused Berliners live. They did this in the middle of the night, with no warning, when it was below freezing. The residents were offered housing in a building that was not COVID-safe, allowed no pets, and had restrictions on alcohol and drug use. The city claims that they did this for the residents’ safety. However, there is going to be an aquarium (Coral World) built on the land, that will bring in tourist money. Many transgender people lived and felt safe there, especially trans women and trans sex workers, and now can’t go back. We created posters protesting and raising awareness about this forced eviction. 

We also each chose to address trans solidarity in Boise and NYC. In Boise, we created a poster that also centered around evictions of unhoused people, which affects trans people as well. In my hometown of Boise, Idaho, I was involved with a Mutual Aid organization that distributed supplies to unhoused residents. While I was working with this collective, I saw the Boise Police Department many times evict residents from the area they lived in. Many people told me personally that force was used against them. One person reported seeing the police kick someone in the stomach who was sleeping in the street. The poster expresses solidarity with the unhoused residents of Boise and challenges the City of Boise/BPD.

Berlin Poster
Boise Poster

Skye painted the portraits of Islan Nettles and Layleen Polanco, two trans women of color, to be put up in the city. Both women were murdered as a result of transphobic violence. Inspiration for the paintings was taken from the red, black, and green colors in the Pan-African and African-American flags. Skye hoped to create works of art that memorialized these women without further contributing to images of violence against People of Color and Transgender people.

Portrait 1
Portrait 2

We put up the German and English posters about the eviction around Alexanderplatz, although we had originally hoped to put them up at the Rotes Rathaus (Berlin City Hall), but the Rathaus was saturated with police. 

Arlie (1st image) and Skye (2nd image) put up posters at Alexanderplatz protesting the police eviction of the Rummelsburger Bucht Camp.

Click here to see my and Skye’s full project presentation. 

Audrey Bergalossi and Salomé Cassarino, who are both Erasmus exchange students from France, focused their project on feminism and urban art. “When we had to choose a topic for our act of resistance assignment, we decided to start from what we knew and experienced. As we are young women, we wanted to work on feminism and how patriarchy expresses itself in big cities like Paris and Berlin. We focused on machismo and gender intimidation in the streets through the lens of feminist creative production: collages, graffiti, posters and wall painting. These visual productions in the public space are a way for women to reclaim the urban space from which they have been expelled.” Audrey and Salomé explored the ways in which cultural projects such as murals and street art can be used to intimidate or conversely, empower women. Their project entailed examining examples of empowering street art, which were shown while an interview with several women highlighting their experiences with harassment in public spaces, played simultaneously. 

Audrey and Salomé’s Project

“There is violence in the street, during the day but also at night of course, at all levels of severity. Women have to be careful in the street, not to go back home alone, to be careful with what clothes they wear. But this caution is cultural, it is neither normal nor based on tangible natural laws. Women have the right to be safe and free in the street, even alone and at night,” Audrey and Salomé explain.

Audrey and Salomé’s Project

“The only visual traces of women in the street are the advertisements and it cannot be said that this is a space for the expression of discrimination against them.” Their work invokes the transnational solidarity that women feel as a result of their shared oppression by the patriarchy. All around the world, women and femme people face discrimination. Despite the differences that emerge based on varying cultural contexts, socio-economic climates, and racial oppression, those who present their gender in a femme way can bond in solidarity over this common experience. 

Audrey and Salomé holding posters for their project

Click here to see Audrey and Salomé’s full project presentation.

The accompanying audio including an interview with women about their personal experiences with gendered harassment is linked here.

These two projects highlight solidarity between oppressed groups. They emphasize solidarity across borders and a unified resistance against systemic violence. And finally, as is the focus of Hanan’s class, they fight against hegemony. The projects’ range of topics all center around resisting injustice, whether it’s police violence, gender-based harassment, or mistreatment of unhoused people. True freedom from the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”—to use a term coined by the author, professor, and social activist bell hooks—can only be achieved through cooperation. But this does not give privileged people license to take over these fights in the name of “solidarity.” Instead, those who are more privileged should listen to leaders from marginalized communities, amplifying these leaders’ voices without making the fight about themselves. Solidarity is not charity, but a desire to better society’s mutual wellbeing. These projects are just an example of how students can further this cause, resist hegemony and make the world safer for everyone.

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