clown shoes

How Clowns, Police, and Abraham Lincoln Intersect Social Reform

By Guest Blogger Nadiya Atkinson


The conventional image of clowns is in the Big Top circus, wearing bright clothing and entertaining the crowd. Across the history of circus, clowns have had the central role in bringing fun and humor into the dangerous stunt shows. However, clowns have not only impacted the evolution of circus into the beloved art that it is today. Some have influenced society as well, from politics to social reform.

Antanas Mockus
Antanas Mockus

Antanas Mockus was the mayor of the Bogotá, Colombia, for two terms. He is highly educated with a focus in mathematics and philosophy. During his two, two-year terms, he introduced innovative policy measures in Bogota, from voluntary taxes to cutting water usage by 40 percent solely through public education. However, he is most known for his popular initiative of replacing part of the police force with 420 mimes. Patrolling intersections, the mimes would embarrass pedestrians and drivers who broke the law, imitating their movements or loudly denouncing them with flamboyant hand gestures. Within the first month, drivers began to respect crosswalks, with pedestrians adhering to laws as well. Clowning does not only inspire laughter–it can inspire social change as well.

Clown in Bogota teaches drivers and pedestrians the safety laws of the streets.
Clown in Bogota teaches drivers and pedestrians the safety laws of the streets.

Abraham Lincoln is well known across the world, inspiring books and movies, and is considered one of the greatest U.S Presidents in history. However, not many (except for circus nerds) know of Dan Rice, one of the household names during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Rice combined circus and humor with political commentary, and was incredibly popular, coining the sayings, “one horse show” and “greatest show,” and inspired the phrase “to jump on the bandwagon,” after asking Zachary Taylor to campaign from the top of the circus bandwagon.

Dan Rice
Dan Rice

Living during the Civil War, Rice spoke to his audience, at first reprimanding Lincoln for engaging in the war, but eventually agreeing with the president, stating in a speech to his audience that African Americans “are God’s creatures, and shouldn’t belong to Jeff Davis, or any other man.” Rice ran for Senate, Congress, and President of the United States, albeit dropping out of the races. Mark Twain paid homage to him in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in the description of a circus scene, and Walt Whitman praised him in the local newspapers. He was one of the models for the beloved Uncle Sam, with his well-known goatee. By utilizing circus as a stage, Rice was able to reach a broad audience, creating a new form of theater and circus with anecdotes, witticisms, the circus arts, and political commentary.

Clowns Without Borders USA recognizes the powerful influence that clowning can have on improving the world. Although clowns are performers, through performance, the arts can create positive change in society. CWB-USA realizes the importance of theatrics and the business of play, embarking on a mission to spread laughter in areas that need it most, bettering the lives of kids and communities. And we could not make our trips without support from the community. Please consider donating to continue our goal of creating resilience in laughter.

Lesvos; children in camp

Clowns, Standing Rock, and Tribal Connections

Demonstrators at Standing Rock have been protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota since early April of this year. The numbers of protesters and police at Standing Rock have grown substantially, as have tensions and arrests. Frigid temperatures and snow have also arrived in full, adding a new level of complexity to the intense situation.

In September, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe held a rally of 500+ people to get the attention of the White House, which, combined with the well-organized protest and media coverage, may have helped. On Sunday, Federal officials announced they would not approve permits for construction of the pipeline in an area near scared burial rights and which would go underneath a dammed portion of the Missouri River. Furthermore, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would explore alternative routes for the pipeline by use of an Environmental Impact Statement. The following day, they denied a permit for construction of a critical section of the pipeline. Protesters, or “protectors” as some call themselves, had been ordered to leave their camp as of December 5. With the Army Corps of Engineer’s decision to deny the final easement to drill under the river, and DAPLs statement of intent to continue forward undeterred, and it will be interesting to see how this story unfolds.

Several professional performers who also volunteer with Clowns Without Borders trekked out to Standing Rock and joined other demonstrators in solidarity. All went for various personal reasons, but their reports back to us indicate that the atmosphere of the protesters is one of fellowship and unity. One clown has this to say about the experience in North Dakota:

Joining the water protectors at Standing Rock was a powerful, informative, and inspiring experience. The indigenous protectors accept others lovingly to come, pray, share, and be present. It is not a ‘protest’ but a mass protection of the water source and a mass prayer ceremony. I was put to use; chopping wood for the sacred fire, and was happy to put my heart and body into helping in such a practice. The courage and spirit of the protectors are exemplified in everything happening around the camp.

Historically, clowns have been a traditional part of indigenous peoples lives and held important roles within tribes. Clowns and their performances during ceremonies and religious events were officially sanctioned by the culture. The humor used was often therapeutic in that they helped people make light of taboo and sensitive subjects. In some cases, the clown helped “discipline” societal rule-breakers by publically embarrassing them and shame their wrong-doings. They were “delight makers” and entertaining, a trait that is common in all tribes or clown societies. Given the shared history of clowns and indigenous people, we are proud of the volunteers who joined at Standing Rock and reprised this role, albeit in a modern form, to alleviate for a short time, the discomforts felt by the people who stayed to protest the Dakota Pipeline.


Towsen, J. (1976). Clowns. Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York.