I am a lousy singer. Lots of enthusiasm, but little talent. That’s why I like singing in groups. I can participate with enthusiasm and the people listening don’t need to don ear muffs.
Recently, I have had a little video on auto replay on my computer. The production values are not prime time ready. In fact the images are literally shot from the hip on a tiny hidden camera (I know I should not sound so awed, but at a time when most people have little cameras on their cellphones or smart devices—I am so behind the times that my spellchecker still wants to turn the word cellphone into cellophane). The action opens at the beginning of a foreclosure auction in a typical courtroom—this one at the State Supreme Court in downtown Brooklyn. People are sitting in the benches and up front a woman sits behind a low bench and begins the process of selling someone’s home—a building on Fulton Street being foreclosed by a company with a money-dream name of Instant Capital.
And then a rupture in business as usual—voices; not of auctioneers or buyers or gavel-whackers, but of people. They implore, they entreat, they demand, they sing:
All the people here,
We are asking you to hold off the sales right now,
We are going to survive but we don’t know how.
The words are simple. The tune is catchy. The sentiment is strong. People who are getting kicked out of their homes are not alone, we are all in this together, the systems and institutions and cogs that grind away at people need to be infused with humanity, with voices, with song. The auction is disrupted, the court room cleared, the singers threatened with arrest. They stay, they continue to sing, and they are taken out in flexi-cuffs. 100 or so people outside hold signs and banners and commit to disrupting future auctions that make people homeless and put money in the pockets of corporate interests.
I have watched it over and over again. And I cry each time… Because it is so brave and it is so beautiful and so different. It is hard to describe, so I will just ask that you watch it.
The group who planned the October 14th action is called Organizing for Occupation. It is small and informal and committed to helping people stay in their homes, challenging the banks and the Instant Capitals and the shysters that offer a quick buck and—with fast talking and a sleight of hand—rob people of their futures. They say:
We firmly believe that safe and affordable housing is a human right, and that the government and the private sector have failed to meaningfully address this crisis. Therefore it is up to those who are most afflicted by the lack of affordable housing, homelessness, and foreclosures to actualize that right themselves through non-violent direct action.
They have been doing amazing work and are gearing up for more.
Song is powerful. It has a way of getting attention, of cutting through the endless mobius strips of argument, bureaucratic rationalization and political entrenchment. Witness Against Torture, another small and informal group, has been working to close Guantanamo and end torture since 2005. We are trying everything. Last year, one of the things we tried was “Guantanamo prisoner walks” through the halls of Congressional office buildings. We wanted to haunt the corridors of power with the silent and miserable specter of justice delayed and denied—many of the men at Guantanamo have been deemed no threat to the United States and cleared for release by both the Bush and Obama administrations and then left to languish there because of political cowardice and partisan brinksmanship.
We ended our haunting solitary vigils by coming together beneath Alexander Calder’s huge “Mountains and Clouds” sculpture in the Hart Building lobby and singing “Courage, Muslim brothers, you do not walk alone, we will walk with you and sing your spirit home.” It is a twist on the song South African prisoners during the Apartheid regime sung to those being taken off to torture and death. Our singing is not as good as the O4O folks, but we definitely got the attention of everyone in the building as we—ever so slowly—exited the building (The link includes a reflection on the action and a video, I can’t remember who wrote it, but it was not me—even though it says Frida Berrigan’s blog at the bottom).
Singing is primeval, elemental. It is woven into what makes us human. And we respond to it at a deep and instinctual level. It touches us all. Hearing singing makes us want to sing, which is why it is such an effective and affecting tool in the activist toolbox.
Here are a few other great singing actions (some political and some not so much, but all staggeringly beautiful interruptions of business as usual).
In May 2010, activists took over the lobby of the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco with a brass band and sang a version of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance (“Boycott the Bad Hotel”) to support union organizers working for affordable healthcare and a fair contract.
In April 2011, the Alliance for Greater New York showed up outside a private Bryant Park breakfast hosted by the Wall Street Journal where the head of Wal-Mart was speaking and sang “Mr. Wal-Mart” to the tune of Jean Knight’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Courage to Resist members interrupted a private breakfast with President Obama, serenading him about Bradley Manning in April of this year. It was all very polite and decorous—as befitting a $5,000 breakfast, I suppose—and only one or two singers were escorted out of the hall. Obama thanked the singers and remarked that they had “much better voices than mine.”
On July 4, 2006, more than 300 activists in Copenhagen marched on the U.S. Embassy there wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods. In front of the Embassy, they sang “Amazing Grace,” calling it a “birthday card” to America.
I might be a bit of a sap, but I find all of this very moving. Even that sort of hokey Hallelujah choir at the food court in the Welland Seaway Mall in Ontario at Christmas last year stirs me deeply.
Singing is also a metaphor for good organizing. It reminds us of the power of cooperation. One voice singing invites harmonies, gets stronger the more people join in and makes room for others’ solos. Singing needs to be practiced and experimented with. And everyone can learn it: even those of us with scratchy voices have a part to sing. We can all be schooled into better singers—there is an innate talent in all of us that can be encouraged and honed and given center stage. People who sing well together work well together, and the labor is made lighter by the beauty of the voices weaving together.
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