Sarah Duran

“Love is a Bulletproof Vest”: Protest as an Exploration of Women’s Right to the City

April 6, 2021   /  

Student Name: Sarah Duran
Major: Sociology
Advisor: Heather Fitz Gibbon

Utilizing interviews, participant observation, and documentary photography, this study investigates how women claim their right to the city through engaging in protest, focusing on women’s participation in the Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump protests in Portland, Oregon, during summer 2020. This included attending protests and visiting protest sites to document events and locations with digital photography and facilitating conversations with protest participants. The analysis of this visual and on-the-ground research is given a theoretical framework with Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, Jane Jacobs’ important notion of “eyes on the street,” and Judith Butler’s theories of gender as performance. How women participate in public protest is an act that gives new meaning to and changes urban spaces. The interviews conducted with nine women and one person who identifies as non-binary provide important, original qualitative data on women’s experiences in urban space.

I was excited to take on this project because I am from Portland. This research not only brought together several of my academic interests, it also gave me a new way to reflect on my own experiences of the city, to see streets I have walked in a different way. My data reveals new ways to look at urban spaces and the right to be in them through analysis of topics such as the creation of community, bodily autonomy, and women’s safety in cities to show new directions for studying women’s participation in urban space, social justice movements, and how we develop policies around public safety.

love is a bulletproof vest
*please click on photo and look at presentation online before watching video presentation

Sarah will be online to field comments on April 16: Noon-2 pm EDT (PST 9am-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening).

46 thoughts on ““Love is a Bulletproof Vest”: Protest as an Exploration of Women’s Right to the City”

    1. Thanks Professor Fitz Gibbon! Your Intro to Sociology class first introduced me to Sociology as a discipline and taking classes from you have really allowed me to see what my interests are. Thank you so much for all of your help and support with my I.S.!

  1. What a fascinating and timely topic! How did you get the idea to connect protest with urban design?

    1. Hi Suzanna! There were a lot of different factors that made me want to connect protest with urban design. Initially just having grown up in Portland, Oregon, I felt a strong connection to the city as well as the urban spaces of downtown having interacted with them basically every day growing up. But, I really wanted to highlight how protest is this act of rewriting urban space and how specifically women are able to do that through participation in protest. I talk a lot about the idea of the right to the city and how a “sidewalk is never just a sidewalk” as well as “eyes on the street” by Jane Jacobs. When we are in a city we are constantly changing the meaning of an urban space just by occupying it. But, there is still not a lot of research done on women in protest and how their experiences within protest can provide insight into factors of urban design and also showcase how women can interact with a space while simultaneously changing the narrative of eyes on the street by providing a counternarrative to patriarchal structure.

  2. Sarah, this is such a powerful and engaging study. I love that you push the idea that narrative strategies must become a critical part of creating urban spaces, rather than the theorized imaginings that we currently have. Are you looking to continue work in urban planning and looking at the intersections of women and protesting?

    1. Hey, Saeed! Yes, ideally, I would love to do something involving urban planning and women’s experiences in cities. I think that women’s perspective in how cities are built is often an afterthought, and it is only after an incident occurs that people really start to think about women’s perspectives. As you said, that narrative piece is so important, and I want to look more at how women’s narratives can change that process.

  3. I particularly like the participant-observer element of this. That’s not something you see a lot. Could you say a little bit more about why you took that approach?

    1. Hi, Ellen! Yes, so for me it was important to really engage with the urban space I was studying. It allowed me to have a better connection with my participants, and through my photography and participation, it gave me a better idea of how urban space was changing. But, it was also important to be there to see how women were acting in this protest space. They were occupying downtown Portland, going into the streets, and actively going against the kind of fearful women, chivalrous man stereotype we have, and I think being able to actually go allowed me to really see that play out. I wanted to be there to listen to what people were saying and to engage with what local Black Lives Matter leaders in Portland were discussing and what changes they wanted to see happen within the city. A big part of my research was the idea of examining whose eyes were on the street, and it was also important to understand how that process worked.

  4. I found this project really compelling, especially its use of intersectionality and gender performativity. Congratulations on an excellent job.

    1. Thanks so much Professor Nurse! Your FYS is what really started my interest in looking at gender issues and social justice!

  5. This is a really compelling project. I appreciate your approach and the photography puts us all in the places of protest.

    1. Hi, Jenni! Thanks so much! For me, I wanted to show the importance of graffiti and art and blur the line between those two to understand the power behind graffiti, particularly within the context of protesting. Looking at the artwork from protest signs, remaking landmarks in Portland, such as the Elk statue, and the graffiti on buildings was a way for people to express their opinions on what was happening within Portland as well as the broader important messages of the Black Lives Matter movement. Using photography allowed me to really engage with the artwork that all of the protestors had engaged in.

  6. Sarah, this project is amazing! There are a lot of perspectives and information in here that I just had no idea about, so thank you for this wonderful work! While reading/watching your presentation, I was struck by some similarities in your work to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, especially regarding the Wall of Moms. Did any of the work surrounding that influence your study?

    1. Becky! Yes, I am so glad you brought up the work of the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo. When I first started doing research for this project, I spent a lot of time looking at women’s involvement in social justice movements outside the U.S. I think that like the Wall of Moms group in Portland, Mother of the Plaza de Mayo highlights the power of the motherhood role and how through protest women are able to redefine it and use it for social change. We often think of mothers as very caring and nurturing, but due to the fact that much of the labor they do is inside the home, we do not often get to see it. Protests allow for a space where that is rebranded. It was very important to me to make that work visible.

  7. I really appreciated the way you discussed your positionality in this. I think that’s so important for researchers to do.

    1. Hi, Tara! Thank you. I think for almost any social science project is important to discuss your own positionality. My experience at these protests was different than others, and a key part of feminist urban theory is to have that intersectional perspective and to understand that your narrative is not going to be shared with everyone. That is why, when going to these protests, my goal was to do my own research combined with listening to others as well as really giving each person I interviewed their own space in my thesis to highlight their unique experiences.

  8. Sarah,

    This is incredibly fascinating and incredibly important work. I can’t get over how interesting it is. I’m so proud of you! I’ve learned about performance as identity from a comm perspective so it was very cool to see your soc take! You’re doing great things!

  9. Could you say a little more about the community that sprang up around the protests?

    1. Hi Holly! Yes, this ended up being one of the most interesting findings for me that came out of my research. Many of the women talked about how there was this community created amongst strangers through these protests. It made me think back to the idea of eyes on the street and how this community created itself because of people showing up and being together to fight for social change. There were eyes on the street that saw the need to create community among protestors. There was community aid in terms of different resources that people would bring to help others, and the women I interviewed talked about how they often brought extras of items, such as food, water, protective gear, masks, pads or tampons, etc. My participants described how they felt the kindness of strangers at these protests and how when thinking about safety they felt as if they could rely on a lot of the other women who were there. This mutual aid community developed out of the protests, and that mutual aid ethos is still operating in Portland.

      1. I really like your point about the mutual aid still existing. You have the protest, which eventually ends, but parts of it structure continue on.

  10. Congratulations, Sarah! Such an interesting and timely topic. I love how you used Butler in your analysis.

  11. Congratulations on a great project! I particularly liked how you used so many different techniques–observing, interviews, photography–to do your research.

  12. As someone who participated in these protests, you did a great job of showing what it was like and gave me some new ways to think about my experience!!

    1. Thanks Lacy! One of my goals was to try to give people a sense of what it was like to be there. I am glad you enjoyed it!

  13. Hey Sarah! This is so so amazing. I really learned a lot from your presentation and I found it so interesting how you conducted your study. Physically being there as part of the protests and conducting 10 interviews must have provided so many different perspectives. What was your favorite aspect of interacting with the other protesters and your interviewees?

    1. Thanks Kendra! I think my faovrite part was just being able to listen to all of the experiences of the ten people I interviewed. It was unique for me because I only knew 2 of them before starting this research, so I was engaging with so many people who were strangers to me previously. So it was really cool to see how I was able to form a community as well from hearing about all the work that these women have done in Portland.

  14. Congrats, Sarah!! I loved hearing about your research and getting to play around with all of the interactive components. Proud of you! Roommates who brush their teeth together, stay together, after all <3

  15. Hi Sarah from Portland! Nice project. Well done. I especially like the photos. What effect did the Covid-19 pandemic have on your research and conclusions? For example, did the pandemic affect the sense of personal safety or limit creating community?

    1. Hi Grandpa from Hood River! I think that the COVID 19 pandemic played a big part in how my research turned out. It definitely had an influence on how I interviewed my participants with all of my interviews happening over Zoom. But, I think it did reflect how powerful the sense of community was considering how the protests never became a center for a major Covid outbreak. People had things such as extra masks to hand out, hand sanitizer—there was a very big sense of not just being there at these protests as individual but also a consideration of how they were impacting the space and wanting to help others within it.

  16. Fantastic presentation, Sarah. I enjoyed reading your I.S. very much and being the second reader. The findings were interesting and your analysis was insightful. Congratulations on getting the project done. Please enjoy the moment.

    1. Thanks Professor Miyawaki! I appreciate you taking the time to read my senior thesis and I thought it very cool to hear about your perspective on Japan as well the importance of urban design and safety in cities.

  17. Your discussion of bodily autonomy and tear gas was really interesting. It seems like these riot control agents really need to be studied more for the effects they have on women’s bodies.

    1. Hi Sally! Yes, one of the themes that came up a lot in my research was the concept of bodily autonomy, and how for women at these protests, the effects of riot control agents such as tear gas affected their reproductive systems, causing them to not longer have the same control over their body as they had previously. When I was trying to do background research on this, I could only find one study that really went in depth on the affects of riot control agents on women specifically, so I agree there definitely needs to be more research done in the future.

  18. Congratulations Sarah! Your I.S. is amazing, and I’m so proud of you! It’s so cool how personally involved you were with your research!

    1. Thanks Abby! I am so glad you came to Wooster and I was able to get to know you over this past year 😊

  19. Sarah, congratulations on your important achievement, and thank you for sharing this project with us in such an engaging way! Have you observed any generational differences among your interviewees in terms of the ways they participated in public protests and used urban spaces?

    Wishing you the best in your future endeavors!

    1. Thank you Professor Park for this question! Your Religion in Pop Culture class ended up being one of my favorite classes I have taken at Wooster. To address your question, yes, generational differences ended up being really interesting in my research. I think that generational difference is important to discuss because we do not often look at older women’s participation in protest, and so their perspective can get lost. In my actual paper, I talk a lot about how the Portland Raging Grannies were perceived at the protests vs. some of my younger participants as well as their different safety plans when being there. Members of the Portland Raging Grannies talked about how in certain moments they felt as if they weren’t being taken as seriously because people just saw them as “cute” or “frail,” which brought up other issues of the weakness that is associated with femininity. Younger participants, such as those in their 20’s, described more instances of being closer to the front lines of the protests, and participants who were mothers also had different experiences.

  20. What a remarkable lens to use to interpret the multi-faceted events that unfolded last year in Portland & around the world. You drill down on the intersectionality & bring to the surface many actions that were otherwise lost in the incredibly complex jumble of acts, reactions and media coverage.

    Your voice is one I hope to hear more from.

  21. Hi Ariel,

    Thank you so much! I am so glad you enjoyed my presentation, and as I have said, my goal was really to employ an intersectional perspective to acknowledge my own experiences but also to learn from others to make it clear that in urban planning there is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that it is important that the narrative of women in the city includes diverse representation. Women play such a central role in protests and in social justice movements, but their stories are not often reported on as well, and we do not often directly get to hear from women on their opinions or experiences.

  22. It was so wonderful to get to learn about your I.S. and see all of the hard work you put into it! I really enjoyed the subject matter you explored through your research. It was so interesting to learn more about, hopefully more research will be done in the near future to add to your findings.

    With your hands on research, I was wondering if you also personally encountered tear gas as well or if you witnessed people being tear gassed in-person? If not, was there a finding that you found particularly surprising while doing your research?

    1. Hi Abby!

      As a participant observer, yes, there were moments where I was exposed, or I saw other people being exposed to tear gas. A big problem with riot control agents is that one, they should not in my opinion every be used and when they are used, they end up just targeting everyone at once and hurting innocent people at a protest. The degree of violence that the federal or police officer inflicted on the protestors in response to protestors throwing things or doing graffiti was extremely unbalanced and unjust.

      This idea of community that I found in my research was something I found surprising. I think in protests there is sometimes the mentality of safety for the individual when in reality that is not really the case, the protests really highlighted how community can be created in an urban space and how it can reflect the social change that people want to see in a city.

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