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The peopleís party (continued)


In many ways, Mackin exemplifies the new breed of protester. Part Jerry Rubin and part Jerry Seinfeld, Mackin once organized a rally to protest a lack of serious news coverage in the media. "If you read the papers at the time, there was obviously nothing going on," he says, "so we had a Protest of Nothing. It went very well." Another time Mackin held a "Lame-in" outside a Starbucks. He has been known to counter anti-choice protesters by holding up signs of í70s TV-show characters. And he is firmly committed to the idea of the festive protest.

"What would you rather have," he says, "someone yell at you or sing you a song?"

Recently, Mackin was involved in a "Death and Taxes" rally north of Boston. "In Andover, the IRS headquarters is three blocks away from the Raytheon plant," he explains. "So you have this thing where here we pay taxes, and there they make missiles. The rally had a lot of street theater, a lot of crazy costumes. We had a whole Jedi Knight contingent. I went dressed as a pirate. We had a jolly old time." At one point, demonstrators mobilized what Mackin calls the "Quack-Quack Block" to obstruct Raytheonís driveway. "Of course, rubber duckies can do very little to stop a truck," he says. "A lot of ducks gave their lives for the cause."

Members of the local political-theater troupe Class Acts, meanwhile, are not generally inclined to use rubber ducks in their routines. "Our pieces tend to be a bit dialogue heavy," says member Matt Borus. "The last demonstration we did in Boston, we performed an interactive piece about housing. As a scene played out, people would come from the audience [to] see if they [could] solve the problem ..." He pauses. "All the different issues that are out there ..." He pauses again. "That was one of our heavier pieces, but at the same time there was a good deal of laughter. Something too depressing might be a turnoff."

Yes, well, many of the issues raised during these protests are depressing, arenít they? The fact is, there is a very real risk that warbling about war or staging mock game shows about world hunger might suggest a certain level of detachment. "Itís not my revolution if I canít dance to it," said one of the Tiger Tassel Boom-Boom kids on May Day. Yet this little Boom-Boomer seemed far more interested in dance than revolution. "Pranks are the deadly enemy of reality," wrote one observer of the street-theater phenomenon. And you have to wonder how much of a grip on reality some of these pranksters really have.

"Political theater appeals to a certain crowd, and itís an important constituency, but I think itís largely middle-class, privileged people," says Mark Laskey, a local anarchist activist. "Itís very rare that you see someone whoís actually involved in a life-and-death struggle with a puppet. Thereís a time and a place for theater, but the people doing the theater ó I donít think theyíre really involved in many struggles themselves."

One online commentator puts it more bluntly, accusing the drums-and-puppets crowd of undermining "serious protest with pointless hedonism."

"Iíve heard people say this sort of thing, that itís a distraction, that this is frivolous and whatnot," says Borus. "And if we were just getting up there and telling jokes, then Iíd agree. But we have a real political message. The idea that politics has to be dour and businesslike is a strange one to me."

Boyd is also sensitive to this sort of criticism ó so much so, in fact, that he runs a workshop to help people get around it. "I always try to make a distinction between stuff that may seem radical but is just fucking around," he says. "I call my workshop ĎPranks with a Purpose,í and I do it for a reason. Itís important to link to a straight and serious campaign. If you do the art well, the seriousness comes across."

Boyd insists, for example, that the "crafted shtick" of the Billionaires campaign had aims that were far more political and far-reaching than mere mockery. "Its goal was to be a broad public-education campaign about how big money has corrupted democracy, how both parties are basically pushing agendas that are friendly to corporations," he says. "We worked the humor, but we did our homework. That campaign was grounded in fact."

He goes on to add that on the day of the merciless ambush of Dick Armey and Billy Tauzin, the networks invited activists to come on the air and explain what, exactly, their beef with the Republican tax-reform plan was. "If youíre going to change public opinion," Boyd says, "you canít just target the person on the street. You have to use the media."

Even Vermin Supreme, with his toothbrush and his fake ass, insists he has a serious message. "I bill myself as a friendly fascist, the kind you can trust," he says. "I use my neo-Viking street-lunatic look to push my agenda, which is mandatory tooth-brushing. By dressing silly, I get a lot of attention. Simply by wearing a rubber boot on my head, I manage to garner vast amounts of media coverage. And people get it. They are amused. You could rant and rail all day about the government being intrusive, but I get my ass out there and make people smile and hopefully make them think."

McKinnon, for his part, says that you donít need to wear a boot on your head, sing WTO ditties, or mobilize a unit of radical rubber ducks to engage in political theater. "The guy whoís standing on a platform wearing a suit," he says, "thatís theater. Heís on a stage. Heís an actor. Itís all theater." In fact, McKinnon speaking about protest-as-theater is a kind of theater in itself. "Itís a primal scene," he says. "Itís dangerous, and it should be dangerous. When you go to a rally wearing a funny costume, you will have Dobermans lunging at you, people throwing lit matchbooks at you, all kinds of creative things. But if you have the guts for it, itís the greatest show on earth."

Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]

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Issue Date: May 30 - June 6, 2002
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