The event started in a small parking lot away from the large crowds, but not away from curious eyes. As they prepared for the short march to Heritage Square, the lot was filled with laughter and excited discussion. They started their march up Birch Avenue, breasts free, except small black x’s to cover their nipples.
The Free the Nipple movement in Flagstaff was underway for the first time in years.
Flagstaff residents have seen increased participation in the discussion over major social issues. Involvement in rallies and protests have helped amplify the arguments of those who find current social norms outdated or see the need to change.
“The American political system is setup to protect the right to protest. It’s part of our political and ethical setup within the U.S. — there’s rights cemented to it,” said Luis Fernandez, criminal justice professor with an emphasis in political protest and rallies. “Fundamental rights in the Bill of Rights that protect the freedom of speech, assembly and to protest to the government about issues they feel need to change.”
Flagstaff is one of hundreds of cities across the U.S. where citizens have been taking an interest in major social issues. Records of 2013 show a rise in political activity that has not been seen since the ’70s and ’80s. Those records have indicated a continuous rise since, and have been reaching higher levels in 2016 because of many issues.
New wave feminism, which includes Free the Nipple, as well as anti-police brutality and environmental groups from all over the country have been some of the largest voices heard this year.
Flagstaff witnessed the Free the Nipple event, Sept. 2 at Heritage Square. Genders from across the spectrum showed up to provide support and to teach the area about how city policies could be considered outdated or sexist.
“We started this event for men and women — it will start with being able to be shirtless, but then we hope to move to the wage gap and end some social stigmas,” said NAU student and one of the event leaders, Caitlyn Baker. “I’m allowed to walk out wearing pants, but if a man walks out wearing a dress there’s a stigma and that’s not fair.”
This sort of mentality is prominent in much of the latest wave of feminism — arguments about protecting more than just women, the right for men to be feminine or for people to pick neither gender. Hopes to change laws regarding issues similar to this are what have brought a wide array of demographics to join in these protests.
Free the Nipple started the event with a march from the Arizona Central Bank and it went to Heritage Square where they held signs and talked with the public. Most people in the crowd were shirtless and braless with black tape or pasties across their nipples. They took pictures with the crowd and explained their hopes for changes in the future.
While in comparison to many of the protests that have been happening across the world, those which are happening in Flagstaff seem tame; however, the message is still reaching people and teaching about how things could change.
A group of visitors from Maine expressed their surprise.
“Whatever changes people’s minds, or gives them the chance to learn a different way of looking at new issues, is definitely worth speaking about. It was cool to see people gather to support a cause like this,” said Maria, a visitor from Maine.
While unwilling to make an official comment, local police explained how they hoped to keep everyone involved in the rally safe and to help keep the peace while letting the protesters say what they needed.
“I’m very fortunate with the city council — someone from the Flagstaff attorney’s office contacted me and said there would be police protection,” Baker said. “I haven’t had any issues with the law or with them trying to stop us.”
This has been a common way of dealing with the protests in Flagstaff on many issues. Rallies about environmental issues, against police brutality, for LGBT and for several feminist platforms have popped up in the last three years.
Upcoming Sept. 9 will be a protest from local residents against police brutality. This will be one of the several that have happened this year. These protests aim to argue against racial profiling and the violence that follows for people of color in the U.S.
“This is unpredictable,” Fernandez said. “These movements have gone way further than I ever imagined. That’s the way these things operate, there are certain claims at certain times that work to get people interested. The one that police have to stop killing people of color is the most important and it’s very unpredictable.”
While in Flagstaff the issue does not only affect African Americans, but also Native Americans. Statistics show how more Native Americans are arrested in the Coconino Area than Caucasian Americans and how the issues of racial profiling remain prevalent.
Rallies and protests have been in the U.S. since its inception, as Luis Fernandez explains, they are like the “American Apple Pie” — being able to stick up for basic rights or work to create new ones are almost an American tradition; they are a social phenomenon that has helped the growth of our nation and values.
These issues are never universally agreed upon, but they have helped to open discussion and create change when necessary. As of right now the right for a woman to expose her nipple is up to be changed in the Flagstaff city council and anti-police brutality protests have led to body cameras on Flagstaff police. More changes are looking to be made as more interest is given to them.