News & Features Feedback
New This WeekAround TownMusicFilmArtTheaterNews & FeaturesFood & DrinkAstrology

The people’s party (continued)


To some extent, it all started in Seattle. Though the enduring images from the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests are those of mask-wearing anarchists smashing Starbucks windows against a backdrop of billowing tear gas, the truly revolutionary action that took place in Seattle was more vaudevillian than violent. The fact is, the majority of protesters shunned the brick and the bottle in favor of costumes and puppets, skits and singsongs — and, in doing so, they had a far more profound effect on the protest movement itself than on the way world trade is conducted.

The Seattle crowd didn’t exactly invent creative protest. Vermin Supreme, for one, has been performing his "rodeo clown" shtick for 25 years. In the ’70s and ’80s, gay-rights groups like the United Fruit Company and the Cockettes performed audacious, direct-action stunts they called Zaps. Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies used street theater to great effect in the ’60s. The Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater — progenitor of the political puppet show — is now entering its 40th year. And, as one local activist points out, "A whole bunch of people dressing up as Indians and dumping tea into the harbor is a well-known piece of street-theater protest."

For Ian McKinnon, co-founder of the locally based Art and Performance Party, the debate over where and when political theater originated is moot. According to McKinnon — who once ran for Cambridge City Council under the slogan "Elect Better Actors" — the cozy relationship between politics and theater dates back to the time when humans were still using rocks as toothpicks. In fact, he is writing a book on the subject, titled From Shaman to Reagan: The History of Theatocracy.

Even so, until Seattle, such politically motivated spectacles as ballet-dancing bicycles and prancing turtles were confined to the fringes of the protest movement. Even Hoffman (whom frequent Boston Phoenix contributor Michael Bronski describes as "the only person in history to yell ‘Theater!’ in a crowded fire") played second fiddle to the droves of ’60s radicals who saw straight-on civil disobedience as the most effective form of protest. With the WTO demonstrations, however, the improv impresarios, avant-garde artistes, progressive puppeteers, and radical rib-ticklers moved front and center.

"What was important about Seattle was that it made creativity, that anything-goes sensibility, a standard in the movement," says Andrew Boyd, an author and former member of the Boston-based group United for a Fair Economy. "It altered the style of this new generation. It transformed the culture." However, Boyd is quick to acknowledge the debt that the new generation of antic activists owes to Hoffman, the man he calls the original "sacred clown."

"Hoffman understood that the political prank has power," Boyd says. "That mass-participatory spectacle is a work in mythmaking." A case in point, he continues, is the rally Hoffman held outside the 1968 Republican Convention, in Miami, wherein he had a group of pregnant women hold placards bearing Richard Nixon’s campaign slogan, NIXON’S THE ONE. "That took all the power associated with [Nixon] and turned it against him," Boyd says. "It just satirized him into ridiculousness."

The slyness with which Hoffman subverted Nixon’s slogan — an early example of "Culture Jamming" — also fixed the rally in the national consciousness. Had those women trooped around carrying signs bearing messages like NIXON’S A CROOK, the demonstration would have long since slipped into the fog of history. Thirty-four years on, though, people still recall Hoffman’s pregnant protesters with a smile. And Boyd learned from this: Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), the wildly successful satirical campaign he launched in 2000, offers a similar exercise in mythmaking.

"It had everything that a normal campaign has: buttons, stickers, posters, radio ads," Boyd says. "It was relentlessly branded. We used Madison Avenue techniques. We had a logo, a typeface, and it was everywhere, everywhere, everywhere." Everywhere is right. Following the Million Billionaire March, which targeted the 2000 Democratic National Convention, in Los Angeles, Boyd’s obnoxious Billionaires (slogan: "Because Inequality Is Not Growing Fast Enough") have become a fixture at political rallies from DC to San Diego.

The Culture-Jamming tactics used so effectively by Boyd — appropriating the iconography of politics and commerce for satirical purposes — might date back to Hoffman, but the art has found fresh life lately. This is due, in some part, to the advent of the Internet, which not only allows for a wide audience, but facilitates the kind of image manipulation upon which Culture Jamming thrives (think Joe Camel laying in a hospital bed, dying of lung cancer). Indeed, online Jammers like Adbusters have enjoyed such success with their witty anti-corporate campaigns that the corporate world has started to engage in a spot of Culture Jamming — or Counterculture Jamming — of its own.

Last year, for instance, IBM turned the tables with a graffiti ad campaign for its operating system Linux, in which the computer giant stenciled a triad of symbols — a peace sign, a heart, and a penguin (the Linux logo) — on city sidewalks. By turning the modes of political protest to commercial ends, IBM pissed off a lot of lefties, but its "Peace, Love, and Linux" slogan got exactly the coverage the company wanted.

Less triumphant was the Republican Party’s 1998 attempt at political street theater.

It must have seemed a devilishly clever ploy at the time. Congressmen Dick Armey and Billy Tauzin had come to Boston to promote the GOP version of tax reform. Their plan was to stage a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party, only this time Armey and Tauzin would throw a crate of IRS tax codes into the harbor instead of tea. The only problem was, local activists caught wind of the plan, and prepared what Boyd calls "a stealth response."

"They’re standing there, and they’re going to throw this crate into the harbor," Boyd recalls. "There’s a ton of media lined up on the bridge. They heave this crate onto the edge of a railing, and just as they’re about to throw it, I blow a whistle. Upon this signal, a small dinghy with a man, a woman, and a plastic baby paddles furiously into the area: ‘Don’t sink us with your sales tax! Don’t flatten us with your flat tax!’"

At first, the congressmen seemed paralyzed. The PR guys shuffled their feet and turned various shades of purple. And then things got worse. "Just as they’re about to figure out what to do," Boyd says, "we had the Corporate Team, wearing power suits and ties, shouting, ‘Sink them with the sales tax! Flatten them with the flat tax! We’re the Rich People’s Liberation Front!’ So there they were, caught in this ideological crossfire, and the media were eating it up. They ended up throwing the crate into the harbor, the boat capsized, and the little doll floated away. CNN showed the sequence over and over again."

Not all political parody goes off so smoothly. Carlos Selinas, a vocalist with the punk band Blowback, recalls attending a Klan rally dressed as a Ku Klux Klown. "We had those cones on our heads," Selinas says, "but with DUNCE written on them. We carried these signs: SEND THEM BACK TO AFRICA and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Lo and behold, the next thing we know, all these Klan people are coming up to us saying, ‘Yeah! Send them back to Africa!’ I had one old woman come over and say, ‘That’s right, sonny boy, ignorance is strength.’

"It makes for a good story now," Selinas adds, "but I’m not sure what the Klan [understood] of it."

Indeed, the incident points to a serious potential drawback of political street theater: people might not get it. Worse still, people might be turned off by it. "There’s a lot of discussion about what are the most appropriate tactics," says one progressive who asks that his name not be used. "The question is, how effective is all this in getting people to change their minds? A lot of people who might otherwise be well disposed to an argument might see the protesters out there who look really freaky and think, ‘These are people from Mars.’"

Proponents of Creative Action, meanwhile, insist even the silliest protest offers serious benefits. For starters, in an entertainment-saturated age, the fun and games associated with Creative Action help draw potential protesters away from their television sets, baseball games, and Nintendo Cubes and onto the street. Creative Action builds a sense of camaraderie among protesters, they say. Furthermore, the sheer absurdity of much of what they do can help defuse dangerous tensions between protesters and the police.

"I do a lot of megaphone work," says Vermin Supreme, "begging the police not to come at us with their sticks. And while I’m doing this, I’m wearing a clown nose. I’ll say things like, ‘Come out with your hands up and your pants down! You’re surrounded by love!’ The police can be extremely intimidating. I’ll tell them, ‘You’re making me nervous, so I’m imagining you all naked.’ A little levity — I think it takes an edge off things."

A little levity can also allow protesters to take a few more liberties than they might otherwise get away with. The Raging Grannies’ Joan Ecklein, for instance, fondly remembers the time a group of "angry old ladies" knitted a woolly web around an Army tank — a breach of security (or at least protocol) that might, under normal circumstances, have provoked a ferocious response. "I don’t think the police would come after us in a violent way," says Ecklein. "Imagine the news photos of police beating up an old lady in a funny hat."

Most important, perhaps, the playfulness of Creative Action provides sugar coating for otherwise hard-to-swallow facts. "The Raging Grannies have a sense of humor," says Ecklein, "but we’re very serious about our politics. We’re not unsophisticated old ladies. If we just stood up there and said, ‘Those damn multinationals,’ people would say, ‘So what else is new?’ We want to be funny, fun, and still make our point."

This is a familiar refrain among street-theater types. "People are more willing to look at a message if it’s presented in a fun way," says Autumn Leonard, of United for a Fair Economy. "Creative Action sparks people’s imaginations, it sparks interest." Leonard recalls, for example, a campaign she took part in a while back to promote fair trade. "I dressed up as a fair-trade superhero for a week," she says. "I was wearing this tiny little silvery skirt, and I handed out more flyers that week than I have in my life. Construction workers would come up and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re handing out, but I need one.’"

And then there are those, like Allston activist Rich Mackin, for whom laughter can be an end in itself. "Sometimes, even if we’re not protesting anything," he says, "my friend Rosie and I will dress up as pirates and put pirate flags on our bikes. Maybe a guy driving home after a hard day at work sees two pirates riding by, and this makes him laugh. You’re not changing the world, but through a minimal effort you’ve made someone’s life a little better. You’ve made someone happy for 30 seconds. It’s not much, but it’s something."

page 1  page 2  page 3 

Issue Date: May 30 - June 6, 2002
Back to the News & Features table of contents.