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Scenes from an occupation

There were rumors all day in the usual places, on the search string: Philip Glass, Lincoln Center, OWS.  The opera, though hypnotic, passed quickly, and Glass took a curtain call, got a hero’s welcome. Well, we thought, he can’t be both places at once.

And besides, OWS is emphatically leaderless, non-vertical. It needs no celebrity endorsements. And yet, of course, visionaries have been welcome. Slavoj Zizek showed up at Zuccotti, and Cornell West, and even people who weren’t there to theorize the revolution, but seemed to share its spirit. Jeff Mangum played a set, urging everybody repeatedly to sing along with a vanity-free, egalitarian zeal. There’s no need for star-fucking, but on the other hand if I can’t hum along self-consciously, Ms. Goldman, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

We emerged, a little dazed from this glorious and soulful production. Three people in the plaza were holding up the propaganda that’s become familiar. “Not much of a showing,” we thought. And then, toward the street, the now familiar sound of the mic check.  The demonstration was sizeable—though, as usual, hemmed in by the NYPD* in a way that caused discomfort and confusion.

Opera patrons were corralled off the plaza as quickly as possible, through a bottleneck, past the edge of the protest where a black woman and a white woman with signs yelled warmly if a touch incoherently about Gandhi. Wary of an imagined us/them dynamic, I said to them “a lot of us are you, you know,” and started to go home. Now they were yelling “don’t listen to the police! They won’t arrest you!”

I crossed back over. How could I not? Lincoln Center feels like home so much that on opening nights when the n00bz show up, I feel like welcoming them, and OWS is the first political moment in years (since the progressive illusion that was Obama) that has not left me hopeless and disenfranchised. My convictions and my vice, hanging out at last!

Inside, we had seen messages of, alas, hope and change, alongside political imagery bearing little resemblance to anything in the last three decades. The mood at the end of the opera is one of nostalgia, of optimism beaten almost out of existence.

Glass had been on the plaza, we heard. One reads that he quoted the closing lines of the opera, most apposite. Someone got on the stack and announced that “Phil” was in a cab, but wanted us to know he was with us there in spirit. The speaker was Laurie Anderson.

People spoke briefly and were positive. They were clear: this was not some Khmer Rouge bullshit about the decadence of art, much as some of us had feared it earlier, reading announcements of demonstrations with phrases like “temples of elitism.” Many began by saying “we love opera!” and “opera is beautiful!”

Some mentioned ticket costs and the (yeah, overstated) impossibility of the 99% going to the opera.  It’s an interesting point and a complicated one, due to the Met’s cultural and institutional role, plus the fact that most people who work there are decidedly not the 1%.  Ticket prices are, of course, a symptom of the same things we were there yelling about but they’re not exactly the root of the problem, right?

According to Alex Ross, the protest “was directed not at the opera itself but at a certain disparity between its lofty moral message and the machinery of corporate arts funding.”  Ok, I’ll buy that.

A singer who identified himself only as Daniel said, if I’m remembering his words accurately: “I was fired by George Steel tonight. I am an opera singer, and I sang in that building for 25 years. I used to have a salary of $35,000 a year. He wanted me to take $3,200 a year. George Steel fired me because he is the 1%.”

People toed a careful line about the police, skeptical of their role without bringing in the Oedipal fury that attends these things at times. No “Fuck the Pigs”, which was a relief.  Mostly they resented being kept off the plaza itself, and hinted that there were enough of us… (“these barriers don’t look so big now.”)

Anderson, predictably eloquent, abandoned the dreamlike voice we know her by to speak with strength and solidarity. To hear Laurie Anderson on human megaphone is a rare moment in life.

And then it was suddenly far too late to be standing on Amsterdam coughing, and I took my leave.

*  Not the enemy, please remember. The NYPD, working overtime,  solidly 99%, following orders—not the enemy in any new sense at least, and an important bedfellow, if that can happen.

More thoughts from parterre pal Seth Colter Walls.

(Photo: Sadie Salome)

18 comments

  • Camille says:

    Can’t think of anyone better than Maury D’ to report this event and hope he will be back on the beat, at least in a guest-starring role.

    Did it all end with a whimper or a bang--what say the witness bearers?

    • Chanterelle says:

      Coming out of the performance I felt a bit like one of the tiara-toting matrons in the famous Weegee photo (with fewer wrinkles and no diamonds, thank you very much). Never mind that in my younger days I marched on Washington, etc.

      http://museum.icp.org/museum/collections/special/weegee/weegee09.html

      I hung around for a bit but didn’t manage to hear Glass or Anderson

      I felt that the protest, if indeed against the operagoers, was at least somewhat misdirected, especially considering the atypical Satyagraha audience. But the opera reminded me of the necessity of persistence over the long haul when seeking social change, and I’d rather slightly misguided protest than no protest.

      The plaza, BTW, is NOT public property — at least that’s what they used to tell standees arriving in the middle of the night to queue for hot tickets. Before 6 am we used to have to line up on the sidewalk in front of the Empire Hotel. So there is precedent for barring protesters from the plaza. Pretty silly for the police to try to herd departing patrons, who paid to enter the premises, away from the action.

      I was in Frankfurt over the weekend, where Occupy Frankfurt remains ensconced in the shadow of ECB, tents pitched around the giant Euro sign, across from the opera house. Haven’t read any coverage but things seemed calm, with a few police visible but no harrassment that I could see.

  • OpinionatedNeophyte says:

    Thanks Maury, for this wonderfully ethnographic report (and for thinking through your own relationship to OWS as a regular opera goer). I have to say that OWS’ claim that opera patrons are not the “target” is disingenuous at best, downright dishonest at worst. Of course casual opera patrons are the target audience for this moment of performance protest. There seems to be an odd contradiction in the willingness to disrupt people’s departure from Lincoln center, but an unwillingness to admit that the goal is for that disruption to alter how they view the world. Indeed, Gandhi’s protest strategies were all about disrupting the ease with which the British framed themselves as hallmarks of liberty and freedom by making a spectacle of colonial violence against Indian people. Organizers in Birmingham had the same idea and Bull Connor and his police forces were potent foils for those goals. So yes “a scene,” a “targeting” an “attack” on the sensibilities of the audience was the goal, I think.

    • OpinionatedNeophyte says:

      Hmmm, I misread Ross’ characterization of the protests goal, it seems it was about the operagoers. My mistake.

  • brooklynpunk says:

    “* Not the enemy, please remember”

    --perhaps, not…

    I know, to a large degree the police generally are “just following orders”; and that the rank-and-file-beat cop has no control over the out of whack ( to the situation) amount of forces that were called in to “quell” any ” trouble”

    BUT-

    As I was mingling among “New York’s Finest” last night, on the periphery of the Occupy gathering, the attitudes/comments/orders/general demenor / of the Cops was NOT FRIENDLY- to put it mildly--( and- even if we try to convince ourselves that they are not our enemies-- “they” don’t seem to feel the same way about “us”)

    It seems as if it will take quite a bit of dialogue--if that’s possible-- to convince them that we are all on the same side-no??

    The event , however, WAS A MASTER-STROKE of political-action street theater, the likes of which I haven’t seen in way too long..!

    • Maury D says:

      BP it’s just, all else aside, there are some serious class issues in drawing battle lines that way. I have a lot of contact with the corrections system in my very glamorous day job, and I’d say people do not become corrections officers because they’ve had lots of wonderful opportunities. Economically, they’re natural allies of the 99% because they are so obviously not the 1%…though as you point out, it’s a long road from here to there.

      In any case, it’s just an unsuccessful strategy unless violent conflict is an immediate goal.

      • brooklynpunk says:

        MauryD:

        I totally agree with all you’ve said-( and.. my “day-job” also, puts me in constant contact with NYC law enforcement -- so I DO understand -- or if not really understanding- at least I hear “where they are coming from” , on a daily basis.)

  • ardath_bey says:

    The NYPD like every police dpt. in every American town, small or big, exists solely to protect and serve the 1%, the rest is window dressing. I also find these “following orders” excuses ludicrous, the type of excuses used by troops to commit war crimes. The Geneva Convention sees generals and soldiers as the same under the rule of law. The same should apply to local law enforcement everywhere in the world.

    The NYPD’s particularly repugnant, with a long history of framing, harassing, humiliating and killing innocent people, especially minorities, the Louima and Diallo cases are just two examples. More recently, as if we needed more proof, these repulsive NY “Finest” showed their true colors again by spraying, trapping and jailing peaceful, unarmed OWS protesters. There’s no investigation, dismissal or punishment of these lawbreaking individuals.

    Let’s not forget that these are the people who make the tyranny of the 1% possible. Without them inequality, fear and oppression would be harder to sustain. Most of people who join law enforcement to begin with are empty, have no real life goals, no real talent for a real career, little interest in art, culture, in social justice or peace, though they do excel at brutalizing and controlling others. They feel naked without a gun. Their slowness is such that they can’t see they’re working against their own interests by working for the 1%.

    Law enforcement and artists are at the opposing extremes of humanity and as an artist I’m in full support of the Occupy movement. I applaud Glass, Anderson and everyone’s efforts at Lincoln Center yesterday.

    • Maury D says:

      Here, as per Seth Colter Walls, is Laurie Anderson on the cops:

      She took a different (if familiar) tack, saying that police were properly part of an ideal movement (“our colleagues and our friends”). She also asked the crowd to think of ways to talk to those “who are not necessarily your friends” about the Occupy movement.

      So I think you might want to withdraw your applause if you can hear of no tolerance for the police.

      Look, it’s really gratifying to view the NYPD as a monolithic evil, but I think a defended lack of interest in why people are betraying their own best interests is not a good foundation for a social movement.

      And this?

      Most of people who join law enforcement to begin with are empty, have no real life goals, no real talent for a real career, little interest in art, culture, in social justice or peace, though they do excel at brutalizing and controlling others. They feel naked without a gun. Their slowness is such that they can’t see they’re working against their own interests by working for the 1%.

      You don’t think this is a little bit doctrinaire?

    • brooklynpunk says:

      “…There’s no investigation, ..”

      While not defending the Police’s brutal history-- you statement-”pf fact??”- is completely UNTRUE- as there are a number of investigations ON-GOING- concerning the Police action on the Brooklyn Bridge/at Zuccotti Parl/ and other allegations of excessive force, over the last three months

      I am actually involved in some of these investigations- so -it’s ONE THIING to rightfully condemn what the Police have done-- but, quite another to state(incorrectly) that there are no investigations of their mis-deeds

      • ardath_bey says:

        A whitewash is not an investigation, wake up. The NYPD is at the forefront of the police state, they rarely punish cops for breaking the law. Cap. Bologna was “suspended” without pay for assault, which is what he did, pure and simple. He deserved a jail sentence, not a vacation. But video taping the police breaking the law is a crime in the US you know.

        You should all read about Michael Allison, who prosecutors in Illinois seek to sentence to 75 years in prison for video recording the police.

        As for Anderson’s statement, I certainly don’t stand by it, though I so applaud her for being diplomatic which is something I’m definitely not.

        • brooklynpunk says:

          With all due respect-

          Whether the final outcome of the various investigations of numerous allegations against the Police turns out to be a “white-wash”( which is always a saddening possibility ) remains to be seen.

          But- as we speak, the NYState and Federal Attorney General’s and Justice Departments have been petitioned to investigate , the end-results are FAR FROM finished- and the outcome unknown

          • ardath_bey says:

            The NYState and Federal Attorney General’s and Justice Departments are working for the 1% not you and me, get real. These “investigations” lead to nothing.

          • brooklynpunk says:

            then-just fergedaboutit, Bey..!

            Why don’t we all just lay down and kvetch, eh?

            It seems your more than slightly nihilistic world-view ain”t much better then those we are opposing

          • ardath_bey says:

            bpunk you don’t need a nihilistic world-view to realize that the justice system is a charade, it’s set up to protect and favor the 1% and these “investigations” neither punish offending cops or stop police brutality.

            The investigations are shams, simply because the orders to brutalize, harass and kill protesters if necessary come from the very top.

            Believing in a fair investigation process, prosecution and sentencing of cops is very naive on your part, the 1% is counting on people like you to fall for the charade.

  • brooklynpunk says:

    Slightly OTT-but (somewhat) related to last night’s performance, on stage--

    I had the great privelege to snag a rush ticket from the wonderful Varis program, and was sitting in Orchestra Row P/seat29(for twenty bucks-wow!)

    As I seldom get to sit downstairs, I have either forgotten, or ignored , previous postings regarding this-- but--was it my rapidly increasing hearing loss, or are there a number of real DEAD spots, hearing-wise, in the orchestra-level of that House? My seat was JUST at the border of the side Parterre overhang. I found, at many times that the sound from the Band was very hard to hear-- at that certain singers, and even the chorus, when at the back of the stage, were also quite muffled.

    BTW-- the House seemed to be pretty full last night-no?. It was nice to see from my seat downstairs, that the orchestra and parterre/grand-tier levels were pretty filled!

  • Will says:

    There are a couple of areas in the rear and side orchestra that can be dicey acoustically. I once heard Wozzeck from orchestra rear right; the echo bouncing off the side wall was about a half beat behind the sound coming from the pit and was quite surreal, particularly in Berg!