Remembering the shit-in

In researching my Wall Street Journal column on the history of the die-in, I turned up all sorts of related protest terms modeled on the sit-in. After the sit-in became a high-profile protest strategy in the civil rights movement in 1960, the X-in template proved to be an irresistible source of lexical productivity. Some X-ins of the ’60s counterculture were more serious than others: socially conscious types earnestly engaged in teach-ins, pray-ins, talk-ins, and think-ins, while the hippie spirit infused be-ins, love-ins, and bed-ins.

By the time Kelsie B. Harder looked into X-in formations for American Speech in 1968 (“Coinages of the Type of ‘Sit-In’”), the situation had gotten a little out of hand. Harder pointed to two examples from the pages of The Realist, that bastion of ultra-profane satire, to illustrate the extreme edges of X-in neologizing. The May 1967 issue is most notorious for a piece of fiction posing as unpublished excerpts from William Manchester’s The Death of a President, culminating in LBJ fucking the bullet wound in JFK’s corpse. But that same issue contained another beyond-the-pale provocation: “The Realist is organizing a rape-in. We plan to have volunteers sexually assault the wives of all those legislators who vote against the abortion reform bill. Our purpose: mass impregnation.”

Harder quoted the rape-in passage without comment, and then followed up that doozy with another Realist specimen from the September 1966 issue. A piece titled “The Scholarly and the Scatological” told of an anti-draft protest in Minnesota in which “Barry Bondhus dumped two buckets of human excrement into the files of his local draft board.” “A number of logical questions leap to mind,” The Realist wrote. They saved the best for last: “Was he charged with holding an illegal shit-in?”


Guy Tabachnik alerted me to a more consequential appearance of shit-in from earlier in the ’60s. Famed community organizer Saul Alinsky told the story in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals and then again the following year in an interview with Playboy. In 1964, Alinsky and Chicago’s The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) wanted to spur Mayor Daley into following through on some commitments for poor blacks on the city’s South Side. They decided to target O’Hare Airport, “Mayor Daley’s pride and joy.” From the Playboy interview:

Some of our people went out to the airport and made a comprehensive intelligence study of how many sit-down pay toilets and stand-up urinals there were in the whole O’Hare complex and how many men and women we’d need for the country’s first “shit-in.” It turned out we’d require about 2500 people, which was no problem for TWO. For the sit-down toilets, our people would just put in their dimes and prepare to wait it out; we arranged for them to bring box lunches and reading material along to help pass the time. What were desperate passengers going to do — knock the cubicle door down and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? This meant that the ladies’ lavatories could be completely occupied; in the men’s, we’d take care of the pay toilets and then have floating groups moving from one urinal to another, positioning themselves four or five deep and standing there for five minutes before being relieved by a co-conspirator, at which time they would pass on to another rest room. Once again, what’s some poor sap at the end of the line going to say: “Hey, pal, you’re taking too long to piss”?

Now, imagine for a second the catastrophic consequences of this tactic. Constipated and bladder-bloated passengers would mill about the corridors in anguish and desperation, longing for a place to relieve themselves. O’Hare would become a shambles! You can imagine the national and international ridicule and laughter the story would create. It would probably make the front page of the London Times. And who would be more mortified than Mayor Daley?

The shit-in never happened, because even the threat of one was enough to get the attention of City Hall. “There were warm handshakes all around, the city lived up to its word, and that was the end of our shit-in,” Alinsky said. “Most of Woodlawn’s members don’t know how close they came to making history.” (A proposed “fart-in,” targeting the Rochester Philharmonic as a protest against Eastman Kodak, also remained in the realm of Alinsky’s imagination.)

The O’Hare shit-in must have seemed like a quaint idea by 1968, when countercultural politics became more radicalized. In the “Paris Postscript” (dated May/June 1968) appended to his article “On the Necessity of Violation,” Jean-Jacques Lebel had a different idea of what a “shit-in” would entail, inspired by the excremental attacks of Japan’s radical student group Zengakuren:


But enough political shit. Back to the linguistic shit.

And instead of political liberation, consider linguistic liberation… in the form of “libfixes,” Arnold Zwicky’s term for “liberated” word parts that yield new word-forming elements. In the early blossoming of a libfix, we often see a kind of blending that involves a small phonological change to a single syllable. So, for instance, fantastic got reshaped into fun-tastic and spectacular into spook-tacular before -tastic and -tacular could stand on their own as libfixes.

It’s only fitting, then, that shit-in was an early spinoff of sit-in and may have helped pave the way for other X-ins. It’s understandable, though, if this bit of scatological morphology is left largely unmentioned in the annals of the ’60s protest movement.

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