By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff, 3/22/2003
It was a chilly Wednesday in December, and Anand was splayed on the concrete steps of Boston University's main classroom building, along with 20 other student antiwar protesters. They lay motionless and silent -- to represent, they said, the truly-dead people in Iraq. They gained attention; students had to step over the activists to get to class.
Some passersby voiced support that day, said Anand, 19. The campus papers buzzed afterward with debate about the war, but not everyone appreciated the vivid demonstration. Some, aware that the fake-dead still have perfectly good hearing, let the protesters know exactly what they thought.
"In terms of profanity, you get everything," Anand said. "I knew it was going to happen, so I let it happen. I just wanted to go to sleep."
Such are the risks and rewards of the die-in, an eye-catching mix of protest and performance art that has been increasingly visible. In the middle of Thursday's sprawling peace rally at City Hall Plaza, several dozen college students dropped onto the muddy pavement and lay mostly still for a few minutes.
Local organizers say they plan a much larger die-in during a march to Boston Common on March 29: At some appointed moment, they say, they want every person in the street to drop to the ground and play dead.
It's a sign both of the protesters' eagerness to throw themselves into the cause, and their appetite for something more powerful than bullhorns and chants. In recent months the search for eye-catching tactics has increased. In Washington, D.C., last week, protesters waved elaborate puppet effigies. In Providence this week, some activists talked about lying down in the shape of a peace sign on the State House lawn.
In the quest for drama, activists say, the die-in can serve an especially pointed purpose, drawing attention to war's somber realities.
It's "a very powerful image," said Daniel O'Neil-Ortiz, a BU senior who helped organize December's die-in. "That's something that will be with you for the rest of your days, perhaps more so than if you saw someone shouting through a bullhorn about the war in Iraq."
Thursday's die-in didn't make quite the statement some activists had hoped for. Many protesters, listening to speeches or dancing to drumbeats in different corners of Government Center, didn't know the die-in was happening at all. Some participants looked confused; a few Brandeis University students laid down but stayed demonstrably alive, chatting cheerfully.
"They told us to die, I think, but we really didn't understand what the purpose of it was," said Kranthi Palreddy, 20. "But we thought we should join."
Still, Palreddy and some of her classmates said they were game for a few minutes on cold concrete, if it would draw more attention to the rally.
And while John Avault, a City Hall economist, initially didn't understand what he was looking at, he said he appreciated the symbolism.
"It's good to litter some dead bodies around," he said, "and let people who don't understand know what's happening."
The die-in isn't new; it has been used in recent years to protest a range of causes, from nuclear power to globalization. But as the current antiwar movement has grown, die-ins have become more visible, prominent, and elaborate. At Tulane University in October, students painted their faces like skeletons before they collapsed on a campus sidewalk. At a Pennsylvania State University student center last month, some die-in participants climbed into body bags.
Suffolk University student activist Rob Laurent, 20, has concluded that small die-ins don't work. Last year, during the height of the Afghanistan conflict, he took part in a protest in his hometown of Keene, N.H., handing out information as a cluster of people lay dead on the pavement. The media ignored the scene. Many passersby paid no heed.
But Laurent had higher hopes for upcoming demonstrations, which were expected to draw activists from around the area. When it comes to protests, he said, the more fake-dead, the better.
"If you have 50 people lying down, it's like, `Oh, people are lying down,' " Laurent said. "If you have 500 people, everyone can see it's bodies."