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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/02/24
by Jesse Jarnow

From the Field

When I arrived, the Hippies were working on the contingency plan, in case
they were arrested en masse and deported to Guam or something. A bearded,
dread-locked fellow with a Biblical name was "facilitating", apparently
because of his success at the same function during an earlier endeavor.
"Okay, you’ve got two minutes to finish your presentation," the Facilitator
was saying to one of them.
"Two minutes, I can do that."
"Do you think you can do that in two minutes?"
"Okay, so Charlie is going to do his thing, he’s going to tell us about his
previous experiences, unless anybody has any Issues with that, or Concerns,
but I think he can do it in two minutes, so go ahead, Charlie."
"Okay," Charlie said.
The six Hippies from Vermont, as well as Science Boy, his girlfriend, and
his roommate, were writing down their "secondary legal contact" information
on a small notepad that was being passed around. Just as the New York Police
Department was making extra preparations for the tidal wave of chaos
potentially brought on by protestors, the Hippies were making extra
preparations for the onslaught of legal minutiae brought on by possibly
having to deal with the Cops.
"Now," Charlie continued, "if you get a call – and you don’t always get a
call, I’ve heard that sometimes you don’t, in which case you don’t need to
do this, but you’re supposed to get one – so, what you want to do is call
the lawyer or, if you want, you can call here. That’s the other plan, to
call back here. Because the lawyer might not know to call here. So, you can
call here, or you can call the lawyer."
Science Boy, whose loft it was, began to speak. "Actually, just calling
The Facilitator interrupted him. "Excuse me, but I was asked to facilitate
this meeting, and it’s Charlie’s turn to speak, and then we have to keep
proper order. If you don’t me to facilitate, that’s cool, but people should
voice their concerns if that’s what they feel, because I want to know. But I
thought I was facilitating…"
Science Boy started to apologize, but caught himself before interrupting
either the Facilitator or the current speaker. Charlie continued, and
finished up.
The group began to explore different possibilities — if some were arrested
and some weren’t, if they were taken to different precincts, if they had to
get away. It was all getting a little absurd, frankly, but a red-haired girl
explained it.
"When we went down to DC for the last protest, things got really confusing.
A friend of ours was arrested, it was just one of those mass arrests. And
they didn’t let him make a phone call at first, and we didn’t know where he
was. And then we got a call from his lawyer, but the lawyer didn’t speak
English, and we didn’t really know where Davy was. We knew he was in jail,
but not where, and we thought maybe he’d been sent to Canada, because we
heard they were doing that…"
"Yeah, what about if they’re arresting people in groups again?" somebody
asked. "I heard in the Indie Media that the cops are gonna be really
aggressive tomorrow.’
"Maybe we should make the call time to 9."
"That might work."
Bailey, whose acne-scarred face was offset by a militaristic-looking black
beret, interjected: "honestly, if I get arrested, I think I’m going to call
somebody else, I can’t just call here. I’m gonna call, you know, somebody
higher…’ He trailed off.
The group continued to run through possible permutations of what could
possibly happen, crystal fractals of paranoia branching outwards, and
winding themselves into an ugly stupor. "I read on the ‘net," I wanted to
say, "that the Cops are gonna be dropping giant nets on the crowd, y’know,
to get ‘em all at once. If that happens," I suggested, "it’s probably a good
time to swallow your cyanide capsules."
The Hippies wound themselves up pretty tight without my help, and – by the
time I left – were settling down to give each other backrubs and de-stress.
It had been a long drive from Vermont, and tomorrow was bound to be even
more stressful. As they rolled out their sleep mats with an almost
militaristic ritualism, The Facilitator spoke.
"We’re gonna put on a video that Bailey made," he announced. "I think it’s
important that everybody watch it before the Protest. Though it’s not about
the Protest. Well, it’s sort of about the—"
"It’s more about the World," Bailey said. "It’s called ‘Everything’."
Wagner’s "Lohengrin" blasted as still images of society flashed
hyperactively. This gave way to a heady tribal trance record titled "Drum
Spirit" that loosely connected to the Koyaanisqatsi like stream of
pictures. The film was far better than it had any right to be, and the
Hippies went to sleep, visions of Yippies dancing in their head.
On the way uptown, we talked about the Phish setlist from the night before,
and I felt way guilty. The talk around us was heavily politicized —
globalization, terrorism, germ warfare, creating an obedient public through
fear brokering, and all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things – and there we
were, pinned up uncomfortably against the wall of a subway car and wondering
about whether a bunch of hippies had played a fucking inane song like "Golgi
Apparatus" correctly or not. So it goes.
Coming out of the subway at 59th Street and Third Avenue, the mood was oddly
giddy, people unsure about what to expect as they moved closer to the locus
point of the protest. We caught the first glimpses of the obscene
sloganeering that dotted the cardboard placards, people laughing and
pointing them out to each other like attractions. And they were. The mass of
people became an ever-shifting geography of colorful signs, tapestries, and
puppets, only available for the people immediately around it, and only
useful for a moment or two before it morphed into new shapes.
There is a nice, active functionality to the metaphor of The Movement, and
the crowd demonstrated it as it moved over to Second Avenue, still hoping to
get within sight of the day’s legion of speakers. As the corresponding
blocks filled up on First Avenue, the police barricaded the cross streets in
order to prevent overcrowding. It seemed like a right fascist gesture as it
was happening, but it made sense to keep things from getting too packed in.
We were pushed uptown, the streets closing seemingly as we walked by them,
before we crossed over to First at 68th Street.
The Movement is self-perpetuating, and – in some ways – relies on its own
illusions of momentum to carry on, which really just means a matter of
self-confidence. The crowd up and down First Avenue certainly qualified.
Whether or not it can do any good is perpetually up for debate, but it
does provide an alternative to straight, cold fear, which is always
valuable, simply by providing a connective space – real or imagined – for
people who believe themselves to be, y’know, Sane.
At first, we were dislocated from the protest itself. A jumbotron screen was
placed on the entrance ramp to the 59th Street Bridge, so we could see who
was speaking (Rev. Al Sharpton, when we arrived), but we couldn’t hear.
Watching the body language of public speakers without hearing their voices
is always a bit frightening. The techniques used to win crowds are generally
the same no matter if the speaker is advocating good or evil or whatever.
Crowds are dangerous places, physically and mentally, but are maybe right
necessary from time to time.
Around us, the crowds sang their own songs, created their own chants. Some
of them spread rapidly, depending on their catchiness. Others failed
instantly, too wordy or rhythmically clumsy to appeal. People smiled and
helpfully flipped off a group that had hung a pro-Bush sign from an
overlooking window, others flyered for their own sub-causes (including one
that oddly resembled the Fair Play For Cuba Committee). I saw very few
people selling protest-related goods, short of a few button vendors. A
friend of mine wandered through the throng making field recordings of the
rich sonic environment.
We moved down First Avenue, towards the 59th Street Bridge. Gradually,
radios were produced and the so-called People’s Speaker System of WBAI-FM
was tuned in, broadcasting a feed from the public address system at the
stage. Larger amplifiers were set up on most of the street corners, cutting
in and out and reproducing the voices with tinny compression.
Soon, Pete Seeger came on, who occupies a peculiar space in my personal
pantheon as quite possibly my first genuine hero. I understood little of his
politics at the time (hey, I was four or five years old), other than the
most fundamental reduction: singing is fun and emotionally healthy. So, when
ol’ Pete, gravely voiced and all, led the crowd in "Somewhere Over The
Rainbow", I sang. It felt nice, like an activity that couldn’t possibly be
Under the 59th Street Bridge there were drum and prayer circles, and beyond
that an impassable police barricade. We stopped in front of it. People
clamored at the cops to let them through. Other than a tension that rose
around that, the entire afternoon was extremely peaceful from my
perspective. There was vast potential for conflict, to be sure, but I saw
respectful cops and respectful citizens, and all seemed well. That obviously
wasn’t the case through the whole crowd, though.
Science Boy, who hung with the Vermonters for the afternoon, witnessed cops
riding horses into crowds, caging people in areas and not letting them out.
In any event with 400,000 people, there are bound to be varying accounts of
what happened. I can’t say that I was particularly prepared for
confrontation with the cops, and wasn’t too surprised to not find any.
Coincidentally, the Vermonters went in with a full-on battle plan, and
almost found need to use it. Of course, they went wading headfirst into the
thick of it.
It was also bitterly cold, and – after an hour or two – we decided to head
back towards the subway. As we walked underneath the Tram station, I noticed
the Bread and Puppet theater troupe from Glover, Vermont gathering forces.
Like a ragtag hippie army, they had broken themselves into ranks — some
carried molded cardboard bodies affixed to long planks, others were dressed
all in black and carrying lifeless mannequins, a marching band tuned up, and
still others were wearing abstract white paper mache masks topped by
exaggerated black fedoras. I was drafted into service.
At first, I held onto one of the large bodies. Peter Schumann, the man who
founded the radical performance group on New York’s Lower East Side in the
’60s, was everywhere at once trying to simultaneously recruit more marchers,
mobilize those who were already there (as well as keep their morale up), and
deal with the cops — who (needless to say) were a bit suspicious of the
whole affair.
"Hey," somebody called out. "We need more Butchers. Anybody else wanna be a
I looked over and saw the group wearing black robes with the white masks.
They had now also donned white gloves splattered with red paint (blood,
presumably). "Sure," I called out, and leaned the body against the wall. I
was handed a robe and a mask.
A man was calling out the instructions to the group. "When I play a drum
roll, hold your hands in the air and show everybody your gloves. When I play
another one, slowly point at the Iraqi women." He thumbed in the direction
of a group dressed in black robes and carrying slumped fake bodies. I put on
the mask, which fit around my whole head, muffling the sounds around me as
well as my vision. The nostrils of the mask were at eye level, and I saw the
march through a small window.
Soon, the band struck up "Down By The Riverside", and we moved out into the
street, heading east. "Hands up!" the man with the drum called. "Point!"
Behind me, I could hear the band. It was a triumphant feeling, pulling
through the crowds. It was a brigade, to be sure, but one so sloppy that one
would be hard-pressed to accuse it of following orders.
It was an odd way to walk through midtown, kind of liberating in the sense
that nobody could see me behind the mask. Strangers stared at the grotesque
procession before them, most of them cheering or smiling. Cameras flashed
around us. Smells filtered in before I could see their sources — peanut
vendors, horse shit, hot dogs. As we got further away from the protest, the
crowds around us thinned out. The marching band, which had continued to run
through their repertoire – including "Silent Night", "When The Saints Go
Marching In" and others – was now some distance behind us, no longer fueling
the front end of the march.
By the time we got to Central Park, it was almost as if the protest wasn’t
happening at all. It felt like another normal day in Manhattan — which, on
one hand, emphasized the surreality of the scene but, on the other, made me
remember how fucking cold it was. As we passed the snow-covered ramble of
the southern tip of Central Park, couples walking arm in arm along Frederick
Law Olmstead’s winding paths, the marching band quieted themselves so as not
to scare the carriage-drawing horses in front of the Plaza Hotel. I began to
drag and wish we were at our final destination.
We passed Columbus Circle and headed up to the 61st Street. As we approached
the end point of the march, I could see Peter Schumann in the street. I
couldn’t hear him through the mask even if I wanted to. He was singing. And
dancing. He held a large flag and spun it around his body in a joyous,
flowing wave. His body language, driven by and endless energy, was
completely assuring and amazing, somehow exuding peace and grace in its
I took off the helmet and realized Schumann was dancing and singing "Down By
The Riverside". Others joined him, filling up 61st Street near the
intersection of Columbus Avenue, and sang along. "I’m gonna lay down my
sword and shield, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the
Jesse Jarnow ain’t gonna study war
no more. Well, maybe.

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