Activists participate in a "die-in" outside the Justice Department during a rally on Dec. 1 in Washington, D.C., in response to a grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The somber form of civil disobedience has distinctly American roots.

It's happening in train stations in New York and Philadelphia. It's happening on the sidewalks in San Francisco, and it's happening on college campuses across the country.

Hundreds of people are laying motionless on the ground, pretending to be dead. They are staging die-ins, a form of protests during which participants simulate death in areas with high foot traffic, to grab the attention of passersby.

This week, die-in participants are protesting a grand jury's decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white Staten Island police officer who placed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in a choke hold that killed him, all on camera. Last week, they were protesting a similar decision in the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

It's not surprising that photos of these die-ins have been shared widely across social media. The images of the unmoving bodies strewn on the floor are haunting. It's difficult to look away. Die-ins are meant to elicit feelings of grief and shock, emotions that people tend to want to experience alongside others when it comes to disturbing national news.

Die-ins have been used to protest American-fought wars and foreign conflicts like those in Gaza, and by anti-abortion and gun-control activists. On Sept. 15, 2007, hundreds of people sprawled out on a walkway in front of the Capitol to protest the Iraq War, 189 of whom were arrested by police.

The exact origins of the die-in in the United States are tough to pin down. Its close relative, the sit-in, is much more common, and became a staple of the civil-rights movement, most notably in Greensboro, N.C., and Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960.

A few users on H-Net, an online forum for researchers and teachers to discuss the arts, humanities, and social sciences, tried to answer the question in 2012. User Jon Pennington pointed out that the Oxford English Dictionary dates the earliest appearance of the word "die-in" to 1970. His research suggested that the first die-ins were organized by environmental activists. From a March 6, 1970 article in The Harvard Crimson:

Harvard Ecology Action (HEA) will sponsor a "die-in" at Logan International Airport to protest environmental pollution on April 22 as part of "Earth Day"—a national teach-in to increase ecological awareness.

And from a United Press International article in The Milwaukee Journal on April 21, 1960, about a environmental protest in Boston:

Thousands were expected to join a "survival march" and "festival of death" in Boston, wearing green armbands bearing the Greek letter theta—astrological symbol for death. The "festival of death" plans to include a creeping motorcade to Logan International Airport during the rush hour, a mock funeral and a "die-in" protesting airport noise and pollution.

On May 25, 1970, the term "die-in" jumped to the West Coast, and to another cause. From an AP article in The Milwaukee Journal about a protest against a proposed nerve gas repository in Seattle:

Formation of an Anchorage chapter of People Against Nerve Gas (PANG) was announced Sunday. A Seattle chapter of the same group which filed a court suit opposing shipment of the gas through the Northwest last week staged a "die-in" in downtown Seattle to symbolize what could happen if the gas escaped during shipment.

Pennington says that placement of the word "die-in" in quotes in these stories suggests that the word was new in 1970.

Some publications have put the word in quotes in recent weeks, but this form of protest can't be considered new anymore. Nor has the country seen the last of them. Here are a few photos of what this year's die-ins have looked like:

A pair of demonstrators lay on the ground in a mock death protest of the shooting death of Michael Brown on Nov. 16 in St. Louis. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Demonstrators lay on the ground in a mock death protest of the shooting death of Michael Brown on Nov. 16 in St. Louis. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Students at Washington University in St. Louis participated in die-ins to protest grand jury decisions in the Garner and Brown cases this week. (Brian Benton/
A die-in outside the Office of Police Complaints on Nov. 25 in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them Howard University students, lay on the ground in protest outside the White House after the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced in Missouri on Nov. 24. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Activists participate in a die-in outside the Justice Department during a rally Dec. 1 in Washington, D.C. in response to a grand jury's decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This piece originally appeared in National Journal, an Atlantic partner site.

More from National Journal:

This State is "Ground Zero" for 2016

Meet the First Undocumented Med-School Student at UC San Francisco

The Annotated Lyrics of That Incredible Hillary 2016 Song

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: San Diego's Trolley

    Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

    In an era of austere federal funding for urban public transportation, light rail seemed to make sense. Did the little trains of the 1980s pull their own weight?

  2. Equity

    What ‘Livability’ Looks Like for Black Women

    Livability indexes can obscure the experiences of non-white people. CityLab analyzed the outcomes just for black women, for a different kind of ranking.

  3. photo: Developer James Rouse visiting Harborplace in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

    What Happened to Baltimore’s Harborplace?

    The pioneering festival marketplace was among the most trendsetting urban attractions of the last 40 years. Now it’s looking for a new place in a changed city.

  4. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  5. Design

    Why Amsterdam’s Canal Houses Have Endured for 300 Years

    A different kind of wealth distribution in 17th-century Amsterdam paved the way for its quintessential home design.