Conventions and puppets


    Every four years the United States becomes gripped in morbid fascination with our electoral machinations, and grassroots organizers often find their ongoing work derailed by the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions that precede our presidential elections. This 2012 cycle is no different. As activists prepare to protest, the police departments and ruling elites in the host cities are acquiring the newest non- and less- lethal weaponry, while passing laws and regulations that vie for being more repressive and harmful to free speech than the others.

    It’s no surprise, then, that Tampa — host to the Republican Convention now — and Charlotte — host to the Democratic Convention next week — have been preparing for months. More than 50,000 people are expected to converge in Tampa, and it has already spent a $50 million security grant from Congress on everything from new uniforms to armored tanks and EOD X-ray machines. Tampa has also already effectively outlawed some basic elements of free speech — including puppets. (And by “puppets,” I’m not talking about the politicians!)

    The city has banned sticks, strings and masks — the basic rudiments of puppeteering — during the convention. Police have been very clear that this was targeted at puppets specifically. Andrea Davis, a spokesperson for the Tampa Police Department, explained the reasoning to the Tampa Bay Times: “Their heads have been used to hide weapons and other matter, fecal matter.”

    Really? I have been a puppetista — someone who creates, fabricates and deploys puppets for use in civil resistance — for about 25 years. I have never heard of using a puppet to hide shit — that would be too degrading to the puppet and all the hard work that went into producing it! But, time and time again, I have heard many allegations from authorities that urine or shit was going to be used in some kind of assault — with no factual basis of it ever having been done. This is just one among many examples of how, as David Graeber has eloquently illustrated, police hate puppets.

    There are many examples of puppets being scary enough to the powers that be that they have been banned — long before 2012. Throughout the ages, theater of all types, and puppets in particular, have threatened governments, churches and the status quo.

    In medieval Europe, as church-sponsored puppet plays started becoming opportunities for bawdy entertainment and slapstick humor, they were banned by the church — only to be embraced by and for the entertainment of the masses. England, in the mid 1600s, and France, in the late 1700s, also criminalized theater and puppets for a time. Once again, doing so only released puppets from official control and allowed the shows to flourish in the streets among the people to share political realities, tall tales and revolutionary ideas. The Nazis also tried to brutally suppress all experimental (“degenerate”) art, including puppetry.

    Back in the United States, giant political puppets have been a big part of the protest scene since Bread & Puppet took the streets in New York City with anti-Vietnam War images in the 1960s. Since then, this kind of creative work has flourished all over the country, most recently during the large-scale creative demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, in Washington, D.C., at World Bank/IMF protests in 2000, and in Philadelphia at the Republican Convention that same year. Both in D.C. and Philadelphia, the Convergence Art Workshops where puppets and art for the demonstrations were built were illegally raided in advance of the resistance actions by authorities. Art was confiscated and destroyed, and many artists were arrested. Undercover police assigned to monitor the artists coordinated the hits. Since then, many of these raids have been found illegal or unconstitutional by the courts, and millions of dollars of reparations have been paid out by the cities responsible.

    Something about these colorful and media-genic objects really scares the authorities. Is it a fear of being upstaged? Or a fear of masses creatively building things together? Or a fear of recognizing themselves in the bits of paper held together by spit and string?

    Taking the authorities’ level of repression as an indication of the power of puppets and objects hold is suggestive. Puppets allow us to seize the opportunity to tell our own stories, through our own words and images, in full public view in the streets — especially on location, where many are excluded from attending events that directly affect them.  This is one effective and fun way we can build capacity and possibility for a more inclusive and creative future. No shit.

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