Since the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protesters at Zuccotti Park, occupiers in New York have twice taken over space at Lincoln Center in conjunction with some fortuitously timed operas. The first action took place on November 16th with the American premier of Peter Maxwell Davies’ new opera Kommilitonen! (roughly: Comrade Students!), which is a work showcasing the radical politics of past student movements. The opera is a celebration of students’ roles in fighting for social justice, and the protesters gathered to highlight the glaring contradiction of staging a celebration of struggles just days after their violent eviction from Zuccotti Park. This was the first time in New York, to my knowledge, that there was an explicit call to end the mere performance of struggle and the spectacle of protest and to join in fostering its real development.
A few central organizers gathered in the evening with signs saying “The Student Movement Lives” and chanting “Off the stage/Into the streets.” Within a short time, they were joined by dozens more protestors. As the people’s mic was buzzing with stories of struggle, resolve, and inspiring quotes from the recently concluded opera, the police response came swiftly: a barricade cordoning off a section of the sidewalk opposite the Juilliard campus was constructed, and both the audience and students were prohibited from using a section of the public walkway. When exiting audience members stopped to express support they were immediately interrupted by uniformed police officers and instructed not to block the sidewalk. An overwhelming police presence soon prohibited pedestrian traffic while paddy-wagons, cruisers, and a line of armed officers clogged the road. Plain-clothes officers and even more police arrived, and all students were prohibited from looking on from Juilliard’s second floor balcony. When Peter Maxwell Davies himself came to join the protest, he expressed gratitude that his work was being taken seriously, but few were permitted to hear his rousing words and see his beaming face due to the alienating, oppressive, and isolating tactics of the NYPD.
Two weeks later, on December 1st, the Metropolitan Opera concluded its scheduled run of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, a work highlighting the non-violent politics of the young Gandhi. This time members of Occupy Wall Street, galvanized by the contradictions of, on the one hand, an operatic celebration of non-violent protest, and on the other, a severe crackdown on its real-world deployment, came out in force. Hundreds gathered at the fully barricaded steps of Lincoln Center and protested their eviction from Zuccotti Park, the court-ordered exclusion of political protest of any kind at Lincoln Center, and the hypocrisy of the situation. An open letter to the Chair of the Board of Directors and the President of Lincoln Center detailed specific grievances such as the loss of public space, the abrogation of First Amendment rights, and the corporate (i.e., 1%) funding of the arts. The letter highlighted the glaring “irony that Bloomberg L.P. is one of the Lincoln Center’s leading corporate sponsors,” while Mayor Bloomberg has used his “private army” of police to stifle “free speech, free press, and freedom of assembly in an aggressive campaign against Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York,” which has thereby “influenced a crackdown on the protests around the globe” (quotations from the open letter). Despite this crackdown, the resolve of occupiers has only strengthened. Taking inspiration from Gandhi himself, some have begun a hunger strike against the prohibition to occupy space at both Lincoln Center and elsewhere in the city.
By broadcasting the impossibility of occupying yet another privately owned public space, the Occupy movement signaled a new phase in its New York development. The mass gatherings of labor and other protests earlier in the week showcased the staying power of an idea whose time has indeed come. This was driven home when Phillip Glass joined the protest, just like Peter Maxwell Davies had with the earlier action. But this time he was heard loud and clear. The outpouring of support from those who attended the opera made a mockery of the private army’s attempts to isolate the protestors and the attendees with barricades. Into the early morning hours the protestors and the high culture of Lincoln Center had come together in common cause, while men in three-piece suits carried the Occupied Wall Street Journal, and the recently evicted occupiers staged their own operatic performances. We are witnessing a large, progressive, and increasingly radical movement that is amplifying a diversity of voices that went unheard even just three months ago. And this is only the beginning.