At 1:45am on July 18th, an apparition emerges from clouds of tear gas and sparks: “Naked Athena” walks the streets of Portland alongside demonstrators. Completely nude––save for a face mask and a stocking cap––she approaches and faces off against a line of law enforcement officers for 10 minutes until they retreat. It was a chilling, surreal image, born out of the turbulent Portland protests against racial injustice nearly every night since the death of George Floyd. Dave Killen, a photographer for The Oregonian, was just ending his shift after covering a long night of protests when he took the now-viral photographs of the woman.
Image credit: Alex Wittwer. Source
Online and in the media, reactions to the symbolic act of protest are an incredibly mixed bag. The Los Angeles Times heralded the anonymous Naked Athena as “the hero our wounded country needs now.” Others have criticized her actions as a product of light-skinned privilege. Some praised her actions as a bold display of vulnerability against the heavily-armed federal officers, turning the cultural sacredness of a light-skinned woman’s body into a shield against rubber bullets, pepper balls and tear gas. Others wrote it off as obscene and inane. Misunderstandings and speculations swept the immediate mainstream press.
Journalist Donovan Farley whose posts on Naked Athena went viral.
Source: Farley’s Twitter profile @DonovanFarley
That is, until Naked Athena was contacted through the justice equity nonprofit Spirited Justice and granted her only interview to date to the Portland-based podcast Unrefined Sophisticates.
In a two-hour conversation released on July 25th, the protester divulges a few personal details and describes the motivations behind her buff act of protest. She refers to herself as Jen, a light-skinned, non-Black POC in her 30s. She originates from a small city in northern Washington, and has been living in Portland for 5-6 years as a sex worker. She states that after a long day of protesting, demonstrators were pushed back by Portland police and federal officers formed a line, establishing a perimeter and holding it. She describes a feeling of fury arising in her and, with no planning or thought, a drive to confront the line head-on:
“There was what felt like for me was a very deep feminine place in myself that felt provoked. The federal officers and cops… they stand there with this stance...and it's a warrior stance. It’s a co-opted stance and it’s not earned. They make themselves impenetrable, they have impunity, they are anonymous, they hide their identities, and they get to stand there and act like they’re warriors? Because they’re not! In a historical context, there have been warriors with almost no clothing, no shoes, loincloths, like the indigenous people where my mom grew up. They earn it through the respect of their families and their community. And it can be taken away, because you’re not impenetrable. You’re accountable for your actions.”
As to why she stripped down as part of her protest, she explained, “I am a sex worker, and my nakedness is political and it is my expression… These protesters, the only thing we have in common is we have masks on and we’re out here at night. None of these people have weapons. Empty their pockets, take off their clothes. Nobody has weapons here. I just wanted [the officers] to see what they’re shooting at.”
According to Jen, she approached the federal officers mimicking their stance, when they fired rounds halfway between them as warning shots. She lifts her arm to point directly at the officer who fired the shots, tracing accountability and stating, “You’re the one who’s the unstable element here.”
Image Credit: Nathan Howard
Just then, a young white protester swoops in with a homemade shield attempting to defend her. More warning shots are fired. While trying to sidestep the shielded protester, she comes a foot closer to the officers, who take aim and shoot her directly in the foot. She walks up and down the line with her arms extended toward them, to emphasize her lack of weapons or force. In what has been misidentified by the media as “yoga postures,” Naked Athena then lays in the street with her leg up in the air, revealing the blood dripping from her shot wound. She stands up, lifting her foot to face them, and raising her arms up in defiance.
Image Credit: Nathan Howard
“I’m a dancer, so I was expressing myself,” she adds in the podcast.
In a female warrior stance, she sits down on the pavement spreading her legs, elbows on knees and hands up, palms facing upwards. “Shoot this. Look at this. You really can’t say I have a weapon now,” Jen recalls of her intent. After a few minutes, the officers back down and Naked Athena disappears from the scene, triumphant but without fanfare.
The spontaneous act of resistance stands as a response to totalitarian-tinged federal displays of force, agents inciting violence and abducting protesters into unmarked cars, by command of a president who backs white supremacists and discriminatory policies. Jen cites “wanting to show them what my version of vulnerability or power looks like.”
The image of Naked Athena employs cultural and artistic tropes of force and vulnerability to communicate dissent. Athena is also the Olympian goddess of wisdom, practical reason, and military victory. Protectress of cities, she is the female counterpart of the Greek god Ares. The softness and harmlessness of the protester’s naked body juxtaposed with the aggression, violence, and testosterone of the federal police pushback calls to question its necessity.
A line of federal officers and Portland police at the intersection of SW 3rd and Taylor Streets in Portland, where Naked Athena approached. Image credit: Dave Killen/Staff
Photos of Naked Athena circulating on social media harkened back to iconic protest photos of a similar nature––Vietnam war protestors facing a line of troops and sticking carnations into their rifle barrels during a protest at the Pentagon in 1967, or the historic image of a lone man placing himself in front of massive military tanks leaving the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. A powerful photograph from a May 29th protest in San Jose, California, taken by Dai Sugano of a young Black woman taking a knee in front of heavily armed policemen similarly reflected the brutal American legacy of injustice.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began “taking a knee” as a form of protest, which has since been used in protests across the US. Source: Dai Sugano via Twitter /MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
And yet, though Naked Athena’s appearance can certainly be read as an act of protest art, to call it a “performance” severely misses the mark. Naked Athena, like all protesters, intends to protect and organize rather than perform. She sought to draw attention to the unlawful force being used against unarmed Portland civilians, rather than draw attention to herself. For those inspired by Naked Athena’s unflinching heroism, speaking to black leadership and organizing for legislative change is how the goddess herself exhorts Americans to battle their oppressors.