On 17th July, a woman sat naked on a concrete road in the city of Portland with her legs open, completely exposing her genitals as a strange act of courage. She was only wearing a beanie and mask to protect herself from the bitter cold and in front of her, were armed police officers, holding guns and shields while shining their bright torchlight on her face. This wasn’t a case of indecent exposure in a public place, it was an act of protest against police brutality by a woman who was dubbed as ‘Naked Athena’ since no one was aware of her identity at the time. According to Snopes, a fact-checking website, the name was coined by a writer, Donovan Farley; he chose the name Athena because Athena in Greek mythology is “the patron goddess of heroic endeavour” and he felt the phrase appropriate for the circumstance.
The video of her posing naked on Taylor street, Portland went viral on the internet and left people stunned by her mysterious protest and puzzled about her intentions. A few days later, ‘Naked Athena’ or Jen (her name), finally spoke about her intentions and reasoning behind the highly unconventional method of protest on a podcast. She reveals that being naked wasn’t the hardest part for her, as she is very comfortable being unclothed but standing in front of armed police officers definitely felt like, ‘being in the eye of the storm.’
This protest was completely unplanned, it happened in the spur of the moment. She says that she felt, “provoked and fired up” when she saw the police officers standing “like they’re warriors, and they’re not.” She felt intense anger running through her, “This fury arose in me and I said I want to be naked, I want to confront them.” she says in the podcast.
The rationale behind Jen using her nakedness as a symbol of protest emerged out of her identity as a sex worker. “I’m a sex worker. My nakedness is political and it is my expression.” So, she went through a doorway to undress, handed her clothes to her partner, and walked towards the middle of the road. In the video, she appeared to be kicking her feet up and then breaking into a series of seemingly yoga and ballet poses. Throughout the 10 minute demonstration, she didn’t utter a word, merely posed at the intersection. You may or may not interpret this as a win but after watching her, the officers left; a naked lady confidently striking poses made them want to retreat.
Naked Athena’s protest was a part of the Black Lives Matter movement
In the podcast, she further explained the reasons for completely undressing as a display of vulnerability to the armed police officers. “None of these people have weapons. Empty their pockets, take off their clothes—nobody has weapons here. I just wanted them to see what they're shooting at.” By people, she meant the Black Lives Matter protestors in Portland that have been subject to violent measures by armed police forces in order to disperse the protests.
The protests in Portland had started 4 days after George Floyd’s death, Floyd was accused of using a counterfeit bill and he died as a police officer, Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck while he was pinned to the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The city has since witnessed 60 consecutive days of protests, with hundreds of people gathering to demand justice for Floyd and other African-Americans that were killed by the police.
The standoff between ‘Naked Athena’ and the police occurred after Portland marked its 50th consecutive night of protests against police brutality and racial injustices. Some officers had fired pepper balls at the woman’s feet while she was striking yoga-like poses but she preserved and continued doing the poses.
Was Naked Athena an inspiration or a distraction to the movement?
Shamontiel L. Vaughn writes for the Medium and contemplates on the possibility that if ‘Naked Athena’ hadn’t been a light-skinned woman (her race is unknown), she would not have been treated so mild-mannerly by the police. Naked Athena’s power as a woman and her vulnerability succeeded to make the police retreat but it is questionable if the outcome would have been the same if a black man or woman was in her position. The sad truth is - probably not.
She backs up her prediction with past observations of black women protesting for the Black Lives Matter movement. She takes three different cases - a woman with a Black Lives Matter shirt, Ieshia Evans and Naked Athena and compares the police’s reaction to the women’s expression of protest. All three of them protested in different ways, the woman with the BLM shirt was twerking at the officers as another unconventional method of protest, Evans was standing in one spot and waiting to be arrested and Naked Athena, well, used her nakedness as a protest.
They were all advocating for the exact same cause but the police only stepped away from Naked Athena, a light-skinned woman. In her article, she concludes by saying, “She is a direct example of why people are protesting the murder of George Floyd and millions of other black men and women, and other people of colour.” The fact that she felt safe enough to expose herself in front of armed officers shows that there is a privilege disparity between African-Americans and white-skinned people.
While she appreciates Naked Athena’s boldness and passion for the movement, she fears that it might drown out the real purpose of the movement. Athena’s protest was short without any words exchanged and wasn’t as outcome-oriented as Bree Newsome taking down South Carolina’s Confederate flag or Evans heroically walking towards riot police and getting arrested, but she still does deserve her moment of appreciation.