What Comes Before Woke? On the History of Sleep as a Form of Protest

From Vietnam Die-Ins to Occupied Parks, Stillness as Dissent

Long before “woke” came to signify a new generation of awareness and activism, the language of sleep, dreams, and awakening infused social movements, from the religious revivals of the 18th century to the “dream” of racial equality preached by Martin Luther King. In popular movements for peace and justice, sleep has signified both a death-dealing ignorance and the utopian promise of a regenerated society. To be asleep is to be apathetic—insensible to the cruelties we inflict or ignore—while in dreams we enjoy a faint awareness of new realities. The language of sleep, charged and motivating, draws its power from the fundamental truth that we need sleep in order not only to flourish but also to survive.

Popularized by Black Lives Matter, “woke” is now widely used to convey the importance of paying attention to matters of power and privilege; in a culture of rampant distraction and reactive speech, it offers a kind of mantra for reflection and vigilance. Such vigilance, however, is never far removed from the vulnerability of the sleeping body: search online for images of “sleep” and “protest” and you will discover countless examples of demonstrators fast asleep—side by side or in large groups—as well as the “die-ins” that weirdly resemble these sleeping congregations. Such images remind us that we cannot wake until we have slept.

For activists, who agitate for altered modes of thinking and living, sleep is a practical necessity. In order to congregate and resist, demonstrators must often sleep outside for days and sometimes weeks at a stretch, and high-profile demonstrations past and present have been shadowed by legal contest over public sleep. A case in point: in the spring of 1971, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) fought the courts for the right to sleep on the National Mall as part of their weeklong demonstration, Dewey Canyon III.

When the courts denied their petition, veterans decided to break the law by sleeping anyway. Turning good rest into a form of dissent, hundreds of veterans fell asleep, wondering whether or not they would be arrested by daybreak. Their case demonstrates the importance of public sleep to movement history: from the occupation of Alcatraz to Occupy Wall Street, protest camps have brought people together to resist oppression and reimagine communal life; as such, they are sites of disruption and struggle—targeted by state authorities and protected, in often ingenious ways, by activists who defend the right to sleep.

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The VVAW conceived Dewey Canyon III as a total demonstration that left no stone unturned in an effort to draw public attention to the war’s atrocities. Over the course of the week, veterans lobbied their senators and testified before committees; they held candlelight vigils and planted trees; they turned themselves in to the Pentagon as war criminals and discarded their medals on the steps of the Capitol. At the end of each day, they returned to their camp on the Mall, where they reviewed the day’s activities, watched films, sang, ate, and planned for the following day. It was this campsite that, somewhat surprisingly, became the source of a heated legal confrontation between veterans and the government.

When the courts denied their petition, veterans decided to break the law by sleeping. Turning good rest into a form of dissent, hundreds of veterans fell asleep, wondering whether or not they would be arrested by daybreak.

By the time the VVAW began negotiations for a permit to camp on the National Mall, the question of whether and where demonstrators would be allowed to sleep had already been politicized by other high-profile demonstrations. For example, the city of Chicago’s draconian approach to granting permits was one major source of the conflict between demonstrators and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. When city officials refused to allow demonstrators permission to stay overnight in eleven city parks, organizer Tom Hayden was not sure the planned protests could succeed. He wondered, “How many people were going to spend four or five days in Chicago with no assurance that they could participate in a rally, attend a concert, march to the convention, or unroll a sleeping bag in Lincoln Park?”

As it turned out, the nighttime struggle with Chicago police over the 11 p.m. curfew provided the spark for days of police rioting during which demonstrators and journalists were gassed and bloodied in the streets. If violence in Chicago changed the course of US political history, Mayor Daley’s decision not to grant demonstrators overnight access to Chicago parks played a significant part in provoking these confrontations.

We tend to recall the huge marches and street battles of the era, but not the tedious negotiations with state authorities; preparing for events that would last more than one day, protesters required permission to sleep in public. The VVAW valued their campsite for practical reasons and were also alert to its symbolic value, as it allowed them to reenact—or as they put it “simulate”—the daily routines of an invading army. Their approach was in step with other activist groups that by the late 1960s had begun to experiment with occupation as a form of political expression. At Resurrection City, in People’s Park, and on Alcatraz Island, demonstrators did not march, but rather stayed in place, inhabiting symbolically charged public spaces over a span of time.

When Native American activists seized Alcatraz Island in the fall of 1969, for example, they reclaimed one small, inhospitable piece of land, making themselves at home for 19 months in the empty cells and abandoned guards’ quarters of the island’s defunct penitentiary. In a similar spirit, Berkeley activists had a few months earlier claimed an abandoned lot that belonged to the University of California and turned it into a city park where people could gather and grow food. If militarism, racism, and colonialism infiltrated the most routine aspects of daily life—a perspective increasingly embraced by movement activists—it was these habits, they maintained, that must be liberated. Protest camps allowed demonstrators to practice such reinvention and put their efforts on public view.

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Two days before Dewey Canyon III was scheduled to begin, the government issued an injunction barring veterans from overnight camping on the Mall. The VVAW appealed, and their case traveled through the courts at a breakneck pace. The injunction was based on National Park Service (NPS) regulations that defined “overnight camping” as “sleeping activities, or making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedrolls or other bedding), or making any fire, erecting any shelter, tent, or other sleeping accommodation structure, or doing any digging or earth breaking, or carrying on any cooking activities.” The injunction would allow protesting veterans to engage in all of their planned protest activities from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day but would not allow them to cook or build shelters at any time and forbade “sleeping activities” at night.

The VVAW appealed the injunction and the case was heard by US District Judge George Hart. Lawyers and witnesses for the VVAW focused on two issues. First, they argued that public sleep was a material necessity, appealing to the government’s responsibility to take care of returning soldiers.  John Kerry, who testified as a witness for the VVAW, informed Judge Hart that many of the veterans, already on their way to the D.C. protest, had no place else to stay because they were without jobs and could not afford to book a motel room. He explained, “We are bringing with us people who by necessity for a five-day lobbying effort must find their abode outside.”

The need to sleep outside was proof of the difficult material circumstances that many veterans confronted on their return to the US and their very presence on the National Mall dramatized the inadequate services that they had come to Washington to protest. Veterans argued that the government should let them bed down on the Mall because they had no other place to go; Judge Hart feared that veterans, or some other group that followed their example, might make themselves at home there and never leave.

Putting poverty and unemployment on display, the VVAW’s court battle unfolded in the shadow of the occupation of the Mall three years earlier by Civil Rights activists: associating legal camping with permanent (or semi-permanent) residence, Hart had Resurrection City in mind. Resurrection City was part of the Poor People’s Campaign, conceived by Martin Luther King and others in response to the perceived exhaustion of Civil Rights movement tactics. King felt that the movement’s focus on legal (in)equality and constitutional protections had run its course and was, in any case, ill suited to the forms of discrimination taking place in northern cities. The Poor People’s Campaign hoped to build a multi-ethnic coalition around the issue of poverty and expand calls for justice to include the right to food and shelter.

The campaign requested permission to construct a functioning city on government land and was granted a generous permit that allowed up to 3,000 people to live for 37 days on 15 acres of West Potomac Park. Although camping was not ordinarily allowed in the park, an exception was made for Resurrection City. In West Potomac Park, demonstrators built homes made of plywood and plastic sheeting and equipped them with sanitation, electricity, and running water. The Department of the Interior, which had granted the permit, came to regret its decision. When the permit expired, police violently expelled protesters from the park, and one year later Congress voted overwhelmingly to ban “sit-ins, camp-ins, and sleep-ins in the capital.”

The second major argument presented by the VVAW to Judge Hart was that public sleep was a form of expression that fell under the protection of the First Amendment.

The second major argument presented by the VVAW to Judge Hart was that public sleep was a form of expression that fell under the protection of the First Amendment. The main question before the court, during this hearing and in the briefs and hearings that followed, was whether or not public sleep should be considered a form of free speech. As Kerry put it, “We feel the campsite is part of our freedom of speech. . . .This is the only way in which we feel we can adequately tell our story to the people in this country.”

It is worth recalling that the First Amendment protects not only freedom of speech but also “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The contested Washington campsite brought demonstrators together in the evening to play music and watch films, discuss the day’s activities, and plan for the following day. It gave them a chance to break bread together and to sleep side by side. In these ways, it was vital to the First Amendment promise of the right to assemble, which is allied in the Constitution and throughout the history of creative dissent with the practice of free speech. Petitioning to camp overnight, the VVAW asked the court to defend both their sleep and the late-night discussions that were integral to the work of organizing.

After listening to arguments from both sides, Judge Hart enjoined against the use of the Mall for “overnight camping,” and limited the VVAW to demonstrating from 9 am to 4:30 pm each day. At this point, the VVAW took their case to the Court of Appeals, which reversed Hart’s ruling. The government then applied to the Supreme Court to stay the decision taken by the Court of Appeals, arguing, “To say that the First Amendment provides a right to occupy park property for a substantial period of time, with all the resulting hazards, including health, sanitation, and litter. . .is to extend the First Amendment too far.”

On Tuesday, April 20, Chief Justice Warren Burger, in his role as Circuit Justice for the District of Columbia, agreed with the government’s position and reinstated the injunction. The VVAW then petitioned for emergency consideration of the case by the full Supreme Court. On Wednesday, after the protesters had already spent two nights on the Mall, the Supreme Court agreed to reinstate the original injunction “with full force and effect.” At this point, the case was decided.

As the Supreme Court deliberated behind closed doors, VVAW lawyer, Ramsay Clark, met with Justice Department lawyers in an effort to craft a compromise suitable to both the veterans and the Nixon administration. Clark returned to the Mall late Wednesday afternoon to deliver the Justice Department’s bizarre decision. Clark informed the crowd that they could remain on the Mall throughout the night. They could hold meetings, watch films, and play music. They could even sing and dance. But they would not be permitted to fall asleep. If they slept, they would be subject to arrest. Clark counseled veterans to obey the ruling and refrain from sleeping.

In response, veterans caucused by state to discuss their plans. Debate raged over whether to obey the court order and stay awake, or defy it by falling asleep. As VVAW founding member Jan Barry recalled, “It was real democracy in action. It was astounding.” After various speakers had voiced their opinions, VVAW chapters caucused to vote, and veterans decided, by a small margin, to sleep. In this context, sleeping became an act of civil disobedience. In the words of one Washington Post reporter, “Several hundred protesting Vietnam Veterans Against the War defied the full U.S. Supreme Court last night and bedded down on the Mall.”

In the end, the Nixon administration’s Justice Department, which had pushed hard to obtain and defend the original injunction, declined to arrest sleeping veterans. The Washington police did not want to arrest men who had fought in the war, and the Nixon White House did not relish media coverage of sleeping veterans being cuffed and carted off to prison. Late Wednesday night, the cast of Hair arrived at their encampment for a spontaneous performance. Together veterans and Broadway performers sang “Give Peace a Chance,” the song recorded two years earlier by John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their Montreal bed-in. Instead of going to jail, as they had anticipated, demonstrators had a chance to sing and dance and then to fall asleep on the National Mall.

In the decades to follow, the VVAW’s legal arguments over the right of veterans to sleep on the National Mall continued to reverberate. In 1982, the NPS granted a permit to the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) allowing for the erection of two tent cities as part of a protest on the Mall that would “demonstrate the plight of the homeless.” They refused, however, to grant protesters permission to sleep in these “symbolic tents.” The CCNV fought the courts over the right to sleep, and eventually the Supreme Court ruled, once again, in favor of NPS regulations, finding that camping regulations did not violate the First Amendment.

In his dissent, however, Justice Thurgood Marshall defended the expressive power of sleep—which he referred to as “sleep-speech.” Comparing the public sleep of anti-homelessness demonstrators to the sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement, he argued that in both cases a physical routine that is typically “devoid of expressive purpose” is effectively transformed by protesters into a “novel mode of communication” that merits legal protection.

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During the late 1960s and early 70s, activists explored the roots of injustice in the routines of daily life and attempted to reform their society by remaking such routines. From King’s “I have a dream speech,” to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in, to the VVAW sleep-in on the National Mall, the effort to politicize sleep—a daily practice, necessary to survival—was one expression of a far broader effort to resist violence and oppression.

Today, the radical reinvention of daily life is a condition of our survival, and sleep is vital to the struggle for a habitable planet. As we are constantly reminded, we sleep too little.

Today, the radical reinvention of daily life is a condition of our survival, and sleep is vital to the struggle for a habitable planet. As we are constantly reminded, we sleep too little. Distracted by devices, run ragged by the demands of our work lives, we sleep less and consume more. Our common future requires the opposite. The booming market for sleep products, medications, and self-help programs, which promise us that elusive good night’s sleep, obscures a deeper truth: the same rampant extraction and governance-for-profit that endanger our drinking water and our food supply also endanger our sleep. When we sleep, we pause the round-the-clock cycle of work and consumption, slowing the destruction of our planet, and collect the strength and presence of mind that we need to grapple with the prospect of extinction.

For activists, sleep remains indispensable. When New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, cleared occupiers from Zuccotti Park he explained, “The First Amendment protects speech. It does not protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over public space.” In the context of political protest, sleeping in common, out of doors continues to pose a threat to social order not only in Zuccotti Park but also in countless cities where in recent years demonstrators have clashed with the law over the right to public sleep.

After they were forced to leave Zuccotti Park, occupiers tried to find a new home for their encampment but were vexed at every turn by laws and regulations governing public sleep. At one point they settled on the steps of the Federal Building, which fell under the jurisdiction of the NPS. As David Graeber recalls, the NPS agreed to let them occupy the steps “as long as no one actually slept there.” On October 14, 2019, in an effort to ban Extinction Rebellion’s Autumn Uprising, London’s Metropolitan police raided their camp in Trafalgar Square at night, gathering up the tents, backpacks, and sleeping bags of protesters who had settled there. Demonstrators began to look for other places to sleep. With their legal case against the ban pending, XR’s website reported, “At the end of Day 8, rebels sleep peacefully in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, as they wait to see what tomorrow brings.”

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Fighting Sleep by Franny Nudelman

Franny Nudelman’s Fighting Sleep: the War for the Mind and the U. S. Military is out now from Verso Books.

Franny Nudelman
Franny Nudelman
Franny Nudelman is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Carleton University in Ottawa, where she teaches US culture and history. She is the author of Fighting Sleep and John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War, and coeditor, with Sara Blair and Joseph Entin, of Remaking Reality: U.S. Documentary Culture after 1945.





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