“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
In the post-Cold War era, in lapsed conflict zones from Cambodia to Mozambique, antipersonnel landmines were maiming and killing ordinary people every day. They blew off their victims’ legs, feet, toes and hands. They drove shrapnel into their faces and bodies. Because antipersonnel mines are indiscriminate and stay in or on the ground long after wars end, the vast majority (70 to 85 percent) of victims were civilians, not soldiers — and all too often they were children simply playing in the fields near their village.
In 1992, the International Committee to Ban Landmines was formed to address this global problem. Their goal: a world free of anti-personnel mines. Linking together groups concerned with children, women, veterans, the environment, human rights and arms control, and picking up marquee supporters like Princess Diana, the campaign spread across the world, growing into a powerful network spanning more than 100 countries.
Because landmine violence was scattered around the world, in remote lapsed warzones no longer in the headlines, it was critical to find a way to visualize the issue to the public in Western capitals where rising public sentiment could pressure key governments. One tactic, half-way between an artistic vigil (see TACTIC: Artistic vigil) and a media stunt, and used most notably at mass rallies in Paris throughout the 90s, was to build huge, symbolically powerful pyramids of shoes. In at least one case, the pyramid contained 18,000 shoes, representing the more than 18,000 people who were being killed or injured by landmines every year.
With an understanding that the feet and legs of innocent civilians were being blown apart by landmines the world over, every attendee to the march was asked to bring an old pair of sneakers (see PRINCIPLE: Simple rules can have grand results). As each marcher passed a central location, they paused for a solemn moment, and added their shoes to the pile. Over the course of the march, the pile grew, eventually becoming a mini-monument to the horrors of landmines, symbolically capturing the scale of the suffering and the human cost of not banning this evil weapon. More than any speech or protest sign could, the sculpture and the ritual moments around it brought the issue home, adding not just gravitas, but also a powerful photo op that made it onto front pages across the world (see PRINCIPLE: Do the media’s work for them).
Eventually, the Mine Ban Treaty (banning the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of anti-personnel mines) was adopted in Oslo, Norway, in September 1997 and signed by 122 States in Ottawa, Canada, on December 3, 1997. As of January 2013, there were 161 States Parties to the Ottawa Treaty. Since 1997, the number of people killed or wounded by landmines has dropped precipitously. In 1997, the organization and its founding coordinator, Jody Williams, jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The pyramid of shoes worked because it was visually arresting, emotionally powerful, and easy both to participate in and to understand. It was an unusual fusing of ritual and image: a repeated gesture — adding one more pair of shoes to a growing pile — that was not only moving for those participating, but, repeated thousands of times, led to a massive sculpture that told the core story. Everyone at the march could easily participate just by bringing a pair of shoes and adding it to the pile, yet what got built in the process was a powerful visual statement that summed up the problem in a single photo-op. In one move, the action both deepened the commitment of supporters and communicated to casual observers what was at stake and why they should care.
Because landmine violence was happening in remote corners of the world, many of which had long ago passed from the headlines, it was largely hidden to Western media and the public. It was crucial, therefore, to “make the invisible visible.” The pyramid of shoes was a clear, concrete and human-scale visualization of the need for action. And, crucially, given the way modern media works, it could be conveyed with a single, powerful photo-op.
Though there was little pomp or ceremony, the simple act of adding a shoe to the pile was suffused in the power of ritual — offering participants and observers alike an emotional container to reckon with the tragedy at hand. For some, it evoked the tradition of Jewish mourners placing a small stone on their loved ones gravestone; for all, it provided a moment of reflection, gravitas, solemnity — well matched in tone to the tragedy being highlighted — in what might otherwise have been a boisterous and ephemeral march.
Everyone has a crappy pair of old shoes or sneakers lying around the house. Bringing them to the march was an easy ask. Adding them to the pile was a simple enough instruction that everyone could follow. And yet for many, that moment was profound, and the sculpture that arose from the accumulation of each of these simple acts told a big, complex story that captured the scale of the problem.
In the end, the final pile of shoes called to mind the sorted piles of clothes, shoes and other personal effects of those killed in Nazi concentration camps, still on display at Auschwitz. Though many observers likely didn’t register it consciously, and the organizers didn’t draw attention to it explicitly, knowing that one holocaust would unconsciously evoke another was part of the wisdom and power of this action.
The best creative actions — whether a direct challenge to power or a more symbolic expression — tend to have a simple, organic logic that more or less explains itself. The pyramid of shoes certainly had that quality. With a simple caption — ”These shoes represent all the feet and legs and lives taken by landmines around the world” — its symbolism struck home immediately and dramatically, for participant and observer alike.