Saturday, December 04, 2004

Activists in America, Part the First

Things have changed since the '60s.

I think we try to deny that a lot.

There was an interesting article in the Times today about how an important distinction between the Cold War and the war on terrorism, which Bush wishes was a cold war, is that the rest of the world doesn't see the war on terror as a global priority, not even our allies. I'm not sure how that connects to the rest of what I want to write about, but I think I'll get to it eventually, as I often do.

The summer after eleventh grade, when I had just been ditched by my clique of girls and was feeling tremendously low about a lot of things, I spent three weeks at Bread & Puppet Theater. I decided to go there because I was and am a puppeteer, but I knew next to nothing about their history and prominence as a political theater. I had a lot of contempt for the concept of political theater at the time, subscribed to the quote from I think George S. Kaufman, "Theater should entertain. You got a message, use Western Union." Which I think still has something to it, and goes back to the question/answer debate. But either way, Bread & Puppet, run by a man named Peter Schumann, radical left-winger and truly astounding puppetmaker, totally changed the way I thought about politics and art. Many of you have heard this story, and I actually wrote my personal statement for colleges about it, but I'm going to tell it in brief again. This was 1999, when the civil unions bill was first going before the Vermont legislature (B & P is in northern Vermont), and the Westboro Baptist Church ( think they require no further explanation, although they are featured in the Laramie Project) was coming to demonstrate against it. Bread & Puppet was asked to do a counterdemonstration; having been to that website before, I wanted to go along. When we arrived, the protest, as many protests, was simply a mass of screaming people; you could not discern who was for what except by attaching the occasional sign to the occasional individual. (To give you a couple of ideas, the signs included "Thank God for AIDS" and "AIDS Cures Fags," in addition the pro-gay-marriage repertoire with which I've always been more familiar.) Bread & Puppet set up about 50 feet from this madding crowd--we had one giant woman puppet, two giant white birds, one large sign that said "Please Take Your Hate Out of Our State," a small brass band and a lot of flags with beautiful prints on them--and began to sing. Our first song stopped the entire protest, everyone watching us, until a woman with a sign that read "Fucking Girls is Fun!" said, "Come on, guys, don't watch Bread & Puppet. We have work to do." They continued picketing violently, and we continued moving and singing, until somewhere around our third or fourth song, everyone on our side put down their signs and formed an enormous circle, with the Westboro Baptist Church group in the middle. It was clear, for the first time, that there were approximately 70 people there in favor of the civil unions bill, and approximately 13 from the Westboro Baptist Church. At which point, the latter group decided to leave, half an hour earlier than it had claimed it would, and we paraded out of town behind them to "Down by the Riverside."

According to one seasoned protestor there (this was my first protest, though not my last), "Wow. That's the first protest I've ever been to where we actually accomplished something." I remained deeply proud of that accomplishment for years--heck, it even makes me proud just writing about it now, six years later. But I'm aware of its being anomalous, and I find that activism in America suffers in this day and age by having become predominantly a lifestyle choice that in many ways can overshadow the actual political convictions.

To be continued. My posts are too damn long anyway. I'll do this in installments.


At 2:47 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

yeah, i should have commented on this way earlier, but i have this tendency to sort of eyeblink on certain things to do (and then wake up astonished that weeks have gone by).

so, i'm totally astounded by your protest story, which i think i've never actually heard from you before. as a matter of fact, i don't think i even knew that Bread & Puppet even got involved in actual protests. i've also, either, never heard of any protest story that was this close to being so effective.

on the other hand, you can turn it around and say that before your group came along to protest, the liberals were still in the majority by at least several-to-one and couldn't get really very much entrenched at all, to the point where a non-English-reader wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two sides at all. at which point i would say that it was a shockingly *ineffective* protest. so i guess the question i'm wondering about here is: what exactly was it that made the Bread & Puppet protest that much more effective?

and the idea that came to me at first was that it really brought the liberal movement back to its roots, which, after all, are obviously unity and tolerance. i mean, so there's sarcasm in that sentence. but maybe only on "obviously". could it have been that it was effective because it was "showing, not telling" exactly what your side had to offer? (and is there a lesson to be learned from this?)

also, it seems like you're talking here about an embodiment of the principle that all the liberal columnists Monday-morning-quarterbacked after the (latest, and certainly not greatest) presidential election: that the left needs to reclaim religious imagery. this principle makes me somewhat saddened, but then i remember that "Down By The Riverside" is, after all, a very Christian song.

sorry i don't have time to make any big points here, but, eh, maybe you can cook something out of this....

At 5:22 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Lorenzo (and anyone else who cares),

For me, I think it had a lot more to do with the fact that the most concretely *direct* action is often neither the most honest nor the most effective. This is a conflict I have regarding the Neo-Futurists, mentioned earlier, who only play themselves and who claim part of their theatrical mission is to express themselves "as directly and honestly as possible." And often they do amazing work, but I find their best work is often the least direct, because craft itself, how you form something and make the form effect the content, makes work stronger. With the protest . . . I mean, we were being more tolerant than the crowd with the signs, but we did make it explicit what our position was. It was simply that, once our position was out there, we didn't feel a need to push it at people. It was "This is what our positions and our emotions on this issue compel us to to do. Do with this what you will." And I think usually that works better.

Forgive the incoherence; I haven't slept in quite a while. But more soon.


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