[February's controversy, the second, over the display in a publicly-funded New York City museum of an art work (Renée's Cox's "Yo Mama's Last Supper") which some, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have called blasphemous or anti-Catholic will be treated in depth in this section in the April issue, thereby coinciding with the celebrations of Easter and Passover. The disputed work, currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum is Yo Mama's Last Supper. Modeled on the Da Vinci masterpiece, the work portrays the central Christ figure as a nude, black woman. The artist is Renée Cox. Ed.]
Hail to the Thief
I am one of many Americans who, though we hadn't recently (or maybe ever) played an activist political role, were galvanized by Election 2000 -- and the theft in Florida of a presidency -- to get involved. Last November, feeling disconnected, frustrated, bewildered, I saw mention of a Times Square demonstration in favor of the recount. I drew a huge sign -- We the People Choose Our President -- and took the train from Brooklyn to Midtown. That day, I met for the first time the people of Democracy NYC whom I have gotten to know well in the months since.
The group was soon renamed DemocracyMarch. We rallied in Washington on January 20, Inauguration Day for George W. Bush, along with VoterMarch and many other groups. There were so many of us, those who came to cheer Bush were outnumbered and deflated. The media omitted to cover many of our demonstrations, yet we were visible and audible all over Washington. Anyone who was there that day knows how numerous, how vocal and strong, how funny and fierce we were. For that one day at least, Washington D.C. was reclaimed.
People in the group contribute in different ways. I'm no good with graphics or computers; I'm hopeless with logistics and organizing. Other members of our group have those skills, like Joe Katz, the originator of DemocracyMarch, and Cheryl Guttman, both of whom have been crucial in putting together our various actions. My talents are songwriting, playwriting and sketch comedy. I have offered those talents wholeheartedly to the movement which has emerged all over the U.S. among voters resolved never to accept Bush and never again to tolerate any abridgment of the right of franchise.
persist between the Gore and Nader factions; participants differ in their
degree of enthusiasm for confrontational acts of civil disobedience; in
short, there is a range of differing views of the sort one can expect to
emerge in an alliance of volunteer activists which was formed overnight
and is now burgeoning. However, we are firmly united in the central belief
that the Bush presidency is illegitimate, and bonded by our abhorrence
of his reverse Robin Hood, anti-woman, anti-minority, anti-environment
agenda. We all agree that the stolen election underscores the imperative
for real electoral reform (up to and including the abolition of the Electoral
College) and for campaign finance reform as embodied in the bill sponsored
by Senators McCain and Feingold. We all see the need to renew the push
for voter registration, for countering the right-wing bias of the mass
media, and for new activism by that silenced majority of
the population who went to the polls to deny George W. Bush the
mandate he sought. If the U.S. has ever been a grass roots democracy, we
must fight to restore it now.
One Bird on a Wire, Five Ducks in a Blind
I was asked to sing two of my songs at DuPont Circle in Washington on January 20. One was a ballad I've been performing since the recount dispute.
in the Wind
How deep a mark
must a ballot bear
The ballots, my
friend, are blowin' in the wind;
How many wars will
Chickenhawk George start
The ballots, my
friend, are blowin' in the wind;
How many women will
lose the Right to Choose?
When the ballots,
my friend, are blowin’ in the wind,
How many species
will become extinct?
That the ballots,
my friend, are blowin’ in the wind,
As it happened, I went on stage at noon, just as, elsewhere in the Capitol, Dubya was being sworn in. We stopped to observe a minute of silence, and then I sang – and I can think of no better, more bracing way to have borne that painful transference of power and privilege.
On Sunday, February
18th, a day before Presidents Day, groups all over the United States commemorated
an occasion we called "Not MY President Day" on which we repudiated our
faux commander-in-chief. During preparations for that event, I suggested
we make use of group member Vicky Raab's life-size puppet representations
of the five Supreme Court Justices who handed Bush the election. I wound
up writing a mock trial sketch, in which the Five are brought before the
American people and compelled to answer for what they did.
THE TRIAL OF THE
SUPREME COURT FIVE
(Setting: Any place suited to the exercise of the First Amendment 'right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.')
A LAWYER stands ready to accuse the Supreme Court Five, who are depicted by life-size puppets. The Lawyer turns to address the crowd.
I am not a lawyer. If a famous lawyer had been on hand and had been willing to participate, he or she might have played the lawyer in the sketch. As it was, I wound up with the role. After a few rehearsals, I managed to do it off-book -- not hard, since the things I say to the Justices in the sketch have been much on my mind in recent months. The sketch has immediacy and power. A few people with acting experience in our group, like Nancy J. Rich, and Jill M. Simon, held puppets and provided voices for some of the Justices. But most who have participated have been non-actors; at various times Joe Katz, Josephine Cilia, Bracha Lieberman, Helen Guinsberg and Chris Bronder have rehearsed or performed with us.
All the puppets caricatured the people they were meant to represent, but when some of us found the caricature of Justice Thomas too harsh, Sally Egan went out and with her own money bought an expensive, rubber Mr. Potato Head mask -- which worked beautifully – as well as a Boris Badanov mask for the Scalia puppet. (Each was labeled with a play on his name: Scalia's was "Stalina.") Jenny Hurwitz, who has lined up musicians for our events and also performed herself, and Joel Landy, a musician with his own folk show on cable who emceed our Not MY President Day event, rehearsed with us but were too busy with their multiple roles on the day of that rally to perform.
We performed the sketch again the next night at an "anti-inaugural ball" at CB Gallery, a performance space next door to and affiliated with CBGB's. I am grateful to all who have helped put it together, each time. I was glad that the audience -- who had no script or rehearsal -- when asked for their verdict, each time shouted, "GUILTY!" I hope the people watching find the sketch as therapeutic as I do.
Scalia Winces at Princeton
On Friday, February 23, a group of us were scheduled to go to Princeton University in New Jersey to protest Justice Scalia’s lecture appearance there. I felt burned out after the last event, and not really motivated to go. However, when someone emailed me the following Scalia quote, reported by Mark Curriden in the Dallas Morning News on February 15, I changed my mind.
[The federal courts]shouldtell
the people to
Reading that was enough for me. I'd be going to Princeton. I even wrote a new song for the occasion:
I’ve Just Met
a Judge Named Scalia
The most partisan sound I've ever heard...Scalia!
Scalia! I’ve just
met a judge named Scalia.
Scalia, his sons
wanted a smooth transition
Scalia, he's so
proud of his contribution:
Say It Loud . . .
When we arrived at Princeton, school officials told us that the Democratic Left, our local student hosts, only had a permit for a fenced-in area, a chicken-wire kind of dog run really, which had been cleared of snow from Thursday's blizzard -- probably less out of concern for our welfare than for fear of snowballs. Loads of mud and ice remained underfoot, and both took their toll during the three hours we stood in it, chanting ("Selected, Not Elected!" and "Antonin Scalia, we hold you in contempt!") and singing among the banners we'd strung from tree to tree.
When a man we took to be Scalia arrived, we cried, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" and kept it up long after he'd ducked inside. "Antonin, go away! Racist, sexist, anti-gay!" Some Princeton students who had come to investigate the commotion stayed around and discreetly distributed flyers for us. Others gawked at us, laughed, and a few heckled. We staged our puppet show, with the eager participation of a Princeton student as Clarence Thomas. We let the Thomas and Scalia puppets remain aloft long after the sketch had ended.
Folks strained in the twilight to read the lyric sheets we distributed, and sang when they weren't chanting or listening to the speakers for the event. "The most partisan sound I ever heard: Scalia! All Republican devious tricks in a single word: Scalia! Scalia, Scalia . . ." We were joined by the Jersey-based Solidarity Singers, led by Bennet Zurofsky, and they sang a song called "Florida Redux," by Dottie Gutenkauf (to the tune of "O Tannenbaum" – an old stand-by of past Lefties). We sang old Union hymns: "And if Scalia’s in the way, we’re gonna roll right over him . . ." and "We shall not be moved . . ." People wrote new verses on the spot, passed them to Bennet during choruses, and he shouted them out as he led us through the next verse. We sang Civil Rights era songs, like "This Little Light of Mine" – again, updated with a few new twists. We sang "We Shall Overcome," and added new verses: "All votes shall be counted . . ." and "We shall choose our President . . ." We sang ourselves hoarse, planted in that icy mud.
But, meanwhile, Justice Scalia could hear us from inside the hall as he held forth on James Madison and the Constitution. People who walked out on his speech told us so; they told us that our cries of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" had disoriented, even unnerved him so much at one point that, unable to shout us down, he'd turned on the news photographers in the hall and rebuked them sharply for taking too many flash pictures. I delight in thinking that we rattled Scalia. When he exited the building, he did so by a door different from the one he used to enter it.
Swing Your Partner, Pick Your Brick
Networking in Princeton with members of new groups, all the many which have sprung up everywhere spontaneously and independently, was another great pleasure of the evening there. I freely offer my songs and my sketch to anyone who's gotten involved in this new movement -- or is thinking to -- especially if one of the not-so-high Five is coming to your town to speak. I will keep up my involvement in this fight because it is a way to stay sane, to stave off cynicism. I will continue to bring to the cause a sense of humor and fun mixed with politics because it's the kind of contribution I can best make and because, as Emma Goldman said, "if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution." If you want to be a part of this, write us at email@example.com.
In some ways, our lot as a nation is not as bad as it was during the twelve years of Reagan and Bush, Sr., and I'm not so alienated as I was then. We bear collective responsibility for the actions of those administrations; electing those people was something we did to ourselves. We must share in the responsibility for their crimes against other nations (Nicaragua, Iraq and others). But this time is different; this time it was done to us. It's possible to see this stolen election, therefore, as a gift to the vigilant, a wake-up call to the complacent, an appeal to the otherwise engaged. We can relearn how to peaceably assemble, demand redress, refuse consent. Once again, movement can become wall.
On Election Eve, November 7, we all knew California and New York were a lock for Gore. The three most closely disputed states were Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. One by one the networks called each in turn for Gore and each was converted from white to blue on the map. I was elated. Then, one by one, they began to equivocate on Florida, saying it was too close to call, converting it back to white on the map. Too soon, they called it red, and prepared to broadcast Al Gore's concession speech.
I crawled into bed, weary and heartsick. It was a bleak, bleak time, but it's over. We know now that Gore won, Bush lost, and we're clear on all that needs to be changed. The country will be what the people who live here choose it to be -- despite Resident Bushes.
New York, February 24, 2001
Song lyrics and
sketch: © 2000, 2001 Judy Klass