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Orenstein_Agitational Performance

Orenstein_Agitational Performance - At the protests against...

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At the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in November 1999, leftist activists took to the streets with a vigor and an effectiveness the United States had not seen for a long time. For many this activity heralded the dawn of a new era of political activism in America. And given that the WTO events were followed up by large-scale protests at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, that prediction may yet be borne out. One of the most striking features of the Seattle protests was the extent to which they were imbued with elements of performance. As activist Andrew Boyd recalled in a Village Yoice article about the scene, "I watched a hun- dred sea turtles face down riot cops, a gang of Santas stumble through a cloud of tear gas, and a burly Teamster march shoulder to shoulder with a pair of Lesbian Avengers naked to the waist except for a strip of black electric tape across each nipple." The Republican National Convention protests displayed a similar array of costumed performer-activists and included the "Million Billionaire March-a parade of top-hatted and begowned protesters facetiously championing the cause of the rich and fighting for their rights, "Because," as placards proclaimed, "Inequality Is Not Growing Fast Enough." The Philadelphia protests were also conspicuous for the performers who were absent: more than seventy Puppetistas, activists who build large puppets out of papier-miiche and, according to Kellia Ramares, "trash that is left behind by others: to create art, to create vision, to create message, to communicate to the community." On August 5, as they pre- pared themselves and their puppets for a day of protest devoted to the theme of the prison industrial complex and the criminal-justice system, police raided their puppet warehouse, arrested those inside, and destroyed all the puppets. A December New Yor& Times article described the arrests and the "preventive detention" of activists as a sup- pression of free speech; eventually, after threats of long jail terms and hefty fines, most of the charges against the puppeteers were dropped. Evidently, in the wake of the dis- ruption of the WTO talks in Seattle, where puppets were simply confiscated, the power of performance in advancing social movements had not been lost on the authorities.
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O R E N S T E I N The use of performance elements, whether simple costumes, small skits, or more elaborately staged plays, has marked protest movements in the United States throughout the twentieth century. From the suffragists at the beginning of the century who put on plays, marches, and large-scale pageants to publicize and win converts to their cause, to the agitprop pieces of the labor movement in the 1930s, to the work of the Bread and Puppet Theater and the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the 1960s, to the energetic actions of ACT UP in the 198os, the twentieth century was ablaze with agitational per- formances in support of social movements. Young activists today have some advantages
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Orenstein_Agitational Performance - At the protests against...

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