This is a guest editorial by Hunter Heaney, executive director of The Voice Project, a US-based NGO that has raised over $100,000 for support and safety monitoring efforts for the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot.
They were tired of their rights being stripped away. Tired of their government not representing them any more. Tired of ultra right-wing policies that seemed to be driven by oligarchs and secret concentrations of wealth divorced from the needs of everyday citizens and oppressive to those with less political power in the current plutocracy that seems and acts more and more intimidatingly, more authoritarian every day.
So they sing. In public. They raise their voices as a way to express the basic human right to be heard by those would purport to govern them. And for that they are arrested. Sounds familiar.
It’s not Pussy Riot.
It’s not Russia.
The Solidarity Singers and the Raging Grannies gather every weekday at the Wisconsin state house to sing. They are trying to express their feelings about Governor Scott Walker and the run amok right-wing policies their state seems to be implementing at ALEC’s behest. And the powers that be are having none of it. Not only are the singers being arrested, but so are the spectators, just for attending, just for watching, just for reporting on it. And remember this is all happening in the public space of the state capitol building, the people’s building, the people’s property.
Free speech? Free press? The right to peaceably assemble? Not so much in Russia, not so much in Wisconsin, not so much in a lot of places these days.
Welcome to the modern world, welcome to modern America. Bit by bit we’ve lost the things we held dear. We’ve slowly let the freedoms we were so proud of, that were associated with our dream of this country, be disappeared like an extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo. No trial, no explanation, just a black bag over the head. Habeas corpus is just a thing we once had, or we thought we had. An effective free press, well, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert remind us every weeknight where that’s gone (and they help us laugh to keep us from sinking into a national depression).
We’re surveilled like something out of the pages of Orwell, propagandized like scenes from V for Vendetta with fear campaigns like The War on Terror, beaten and pepper sprayed for peaceful protests, resigned to our running jokes about how Congress seems to have now abandoned even the facade of representing the people in favor of the supranational corporations and the 1% who finance their campaigns and their lives.
And the poor, well, forget about them. At least that seems to be the hope anyway. How much have you personally heard about one in four kids in this country being on food stamps now? Pensions being stripped away from those who worked and saved for them, just like George Carlin predicted they would be? It happens now through “strategic municipal bankruptcies” and other financial and legal maneuvers. It starts with carefully planned campaigns hatched by conservative think-tanks that talk endlessly about “entitlements.” Isn’t that clever?
We are now a shadow of our former selves. The “Greatest Generation” are dying. My dad was one. There are a few left, but they must not be impressed by what they see, what we are doing with what they fought for. Some of them certainly know that in no universe of realistic thought does Scott Walker’s Wisconsin or our modern America respect the sentiments they held dear enough to defend. They’re codified in Wisconsin’s State Constitution as:
“Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right, and no laws shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”
“The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
No wonder the dystopian-future fantasies are so popular at the box office, they must ring true, or maybe they let us think it’s not quite so bad right now in comparison. But make no mistake, we’re there, welcome to Dystopia. You’re soaking in it. Sometimes I think we’ll wake up from it all—take the red pill. It does seem to be happening in other places around the world, like Gezi Park and the streets of São Paulo, even if the dissent suppression machines seem stronger than ever.
Here in America though, I often think we’re just like slow boiling frogs, nodding off to sleep while the heat is steadily turned up, too late realizing what happened as things fade to black. Hopeless and specious tropes about how protest songs don’t matter anymore appear to have even some musicians convinced, and seem to signal our giving up. And that’s when I give thanks for Pussy Riot, for the Solidarity Singers, for the Raging Grannies. Let the armchair quarterbacks debate their musical quality or performance characteristics or predict the demise of protest singing. While they’re at it perhaps spoken and written words, literature, ideas and the rest of the humanities should be thrown in there too.
Of course there are ideas and words and performances that matter, like “I Have a Dream” or “We Shall Overcome” or “Redemption Song” or yes, “Punk Prayer” that will speak truth to power, that will inspire, that provide aid and succor to those who will resist. The Solidarity Sing-Alongs are to me without a doubt among the most important performances taking place today. Same with the 40-second performance that landed Pussy Riot in labor camps for two years.
Content matters. Ideas matter. So Pussy Riot is my band. The Raging Grannies are my band and the Solidarity Singers, too. They’ve inspired me to write this, and I’m going to go check and see if some friends want to join me in supporting these singers and what’s going on in Wisconsin.
When members of Pussy Riot were here in New York this past spring, they stayed over and we had some long talks. “Shaiba” said, “It feels like we’re building this great mafia around the world, friends everywhere.” I hope so. I think this is the way it’s going to need to work if we’re ever going to stage a comeback here. We’re going to need to look out for each other, work with each other in the face of great concentrations of power. Some say the key will be localism, a renewed reliance on our geographically proximate communities, but I sometimes worry an overzealous application of these ideas as a solution may lead to isolationism. I believe we’ll need to help each other, even across great distances and divides.
“Helotism” is a word I learned from Pussy Riot. Worth checking out the etymology on that one. One of the many things I learned from the girls. These are the kinds of things I’m remembering today, that I’m thinking about on this anniversary. That we can learn from each other, help each other, that we can stick together, we can make songs matter and turn ideas into action, that we can inspire each other, and we can decide to lay down and take it… or not.
Hunter Heaney is executive director of The Voice Project, a US based NGO that has raised over $100,000 for support and safety monitoring efforts for the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot.