In America: A Lexicon of Irony

The 2021 Met Gala attendees wore designs meant to celebrate America. The protest outside painted a starkly different image.

Protestors gather outside the Met Gala. While many of the biggest names in pop culture gathered inside the gallery, police and protestors clashed outside the event. (Photo by Sarah Gil)

Sarah Gil

Protestors gather outside the Met Gala. While many of the biggest names in pop culture gathered inside the gallery, police and protestors clashed outside the event. (Photo by Sarah Gil)

By Sarah Gil, Contributing Writer

The theme for this year’s Met Gala was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” for which attendees were encouraged to channel American culture and history into their exorbitant looks. Just outside the event, another facet of American culture was on display — a Black Lives Matter protest that ended in the arrests of nine protesters.

As Gala attendees arrived, protesters marched toward the Met chanting phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “silence is violence,” as well as the names of Black Americans killed by police. The New York City Police Department responded by moving the barricades, holding back the crowd of Met Gala fans and blocking the protesters from advancing down Fifth Avenue. 

This response only further invigorated the protesters, who turned to convince the crowd of bystanders to join the protest. But crowd members were mainly concerned with catching a glimpse of their favorite celebrities.

“Did you post the black square on Instagram?” One protester yelled at the crowd. “Then you should be out here with us! Join us! People are dying!”

One person in the crowd responded by shaking her head, briefly explaining that she didn’t post the square and would not be joining them.

“Is this why we can’t see Timmy anymore?” another crowd member yelled, annoyed that Timothée Chalamet — one of the co-chairs of the 2021 Gala — was no longer visible as he passed by in his black Escalade.  

More and more NYPD officers arrived on the scene with riot gear on. The protesters tried to continue marching, but nine were brutally arrested. Their screams and chants mixed with the cheers of those watching celebrities walk the red carpet not even a block away. 

Strutting up the cream-colored staircase, into the museum, big names in the fashion industry turned a blind eye to the civil rights struggle happening right behind them. That choice represented a much uglier aspect of American culture than anything their couture could express.

Some attendees made intentionally political statements, like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who wore a dress stitched with the words “Tax the Rich.” Ocasio-Cortez borrowed the dress from designer Aurora James, a Black female entrepreneur and activist who advocates for economic justice. Still, while Ocasio-Cortez did not pay for the dress or her Met Gala ticket, her message was directed towards people who coughed up between $30,000-$35,000 to attend. She paraded into one of the most exclusive events of the year to rub elbows with the very people she claims to struggle against. 

Class differences were conspicuous at the event. All attendees were fully vaccinated; most made their initial appearances on the red carpet without masks. Meanwhile, press photos show that all of the people working the event were masked. What differentiates them from the Gala’s guests besides the $35,000 price of admission?

Karla Billatoro, a 22-year old Arizona State University student living and working in New York City, witnessed the aftermath of the arrests.

“I was walking to dinner and I saw a whole bunch of people, so I decided to be a little curious and see what was going on,” Billatoro said. “Closer to where the Met Gala was were all these police officers with riot gear on, pretty much ready to come at anyone who misstepped.” 

Protesters endured excessive force even after being arrested and detained with zip ties, as if to ensure they could no longer disturb the big night.

“They had a girl on the ground,” Billatoro said. “I didn’t see why they arrested her, but I heard the people saying she was a minor … They had her on the ground with probably four police officers trying to put her down. She was a small girl — she didn’t need four police officers holding her.” 

The NYPD swept through the streets threatening anyone obstructing traffic with charges. Eventually the protesters dispersed.

“The Met Gala overshadowed it,” Billatoro said. “Way more people were trying to see their favorite celebrity.” 

The entire night was the peak of irony. The world’s elite ate fancy meals surrounded by priceless artwork, while everyday people were being shoved into the pavement for exercising their First Amendment rights — all amid a pandemic. The juxtaposition of the events on Fifth Avenue truly should’ve won best dressed of the night; after all, it was the perfect emulation of the “In America” theme. 

For the protesters, the night concluded with the NYPD loading them into a police shuttle and booking them into jail. For the attendants of the Met Gala, it ended with a surprise performance by Justin Bieber. 

Contact Sarah Gil at [email protected]