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Heat From the Arts on Mayor Mike Bloomberg | The Nation

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Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Heat From the Arts on Mayor Mike Bloomberg

It was Glass war, not class war, at Lincoln Center Thursday night, and Glass won, composer Philip Glass. It should come as no surprise that the maestro of mesmeric repetition has a knack for the “human mic.”

Occupy Museums, a group of roughly two hundred OWS-inspired protesters showed up outside the last performance of Glass’s Satyagraha Thursday. Satyagraha the opera tells the story of M.K. Gandhi’s early struggle against colonialism and segregation in South Africa. “Satyagraha” the word means “truth force.” Said the protesters to the opera-goers: “Mic Check. Mic Check: Let’s tell the truth… let’s tell the truth. Join US!”

It’s a pretty elite OWS spin-off for sure, but there was a precise policy target. In their call to action, organizers pointed up the irony of Satyagraha being performed at Lincoln Center, where in recent weeks people have been arrested and forcibly removed when they attempted to protest colonization of the arts by .001 percenter David Koch. (One of the theaters now bears his name.)

Koch’s money is not “generous philanthropy” they said, it’s a means of control. I’ve called it “philanthro-feudalism.” Out of one side of his wallet, the billionaire Koch fuels anti-tax thuggery (the worst of the Tea Party)—and then he and his brother drop cash on the influential elite to keep them at the trough. Typically, it works because with tax revenues slashed, the arts, like hospitals and schools, are desperate.

Occupy Museums also has a righteous beef with Lincoln Center’s leading corporate sponsor—Bloomberg LLC: “The juxtaposition is stark: while Bloomberg funds the representation of Gandhi’s pioneering tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience in the Metropolitan Opera House, he simultaneously orders a paramilitary-style raid of the peaceful public occupation of Liberty Park, blacking out the media, while protesters are beaten, tear-gassed, and violently arrested," they wrote.

The targets were clear, but as usual with Occupy thus far, the process, not the politics, packed the punch.

Long before Satyagraha let out, police erected a line of metal barricades, cutting “Occupy Museums” off from the opera-goers, and cordoning them off the swanky plaza, down on the “people’s” street. When they emerged at last, opera-goers stood awkwardly at a distance (some belligerent, most befuddled), warned by police not to approach.

It wasn’t until Glass popped up on the “Occupy” side that the power of police intimidation wore off. Celebrity trumped class angst. Also, allies of the occupiers among the performance-goers reached for their neighbors and invited them to close the gap. In a wave, they did. Suddenly, while Glass was mic-checking passages of the Bhagavad Gita, a “Granny for Peace” started breaking up the barricades, surrounded by a thicker—and warmer—crowd of the 100 percent.

After Glass’s mic check, others spoke, among them, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, but also an opera singer who’d just lost his job after thirty-plus years at the city opera; a tap dancer; artists who talked about their working conditions, their debts, about the art they’d like to share with their kids as it was shared with them but they can’t afford it, or have too many jobs. Someone reminded the crowd that seven thousand low-income, people, mostly of color, were evicted in order for Lincoln Center to be built. (What art might they have made?)

It’s not the last we’ll see of Occupy Museums, I bet. (Full disclosure—I know these folks!) The OWS movement is keenly aware of the role high-visibility artists played in the civil rights struggle, the anti-apartheid movement, ACT Up, the Women’s Action Coalition. In New York, the arts have some special potential agency: they are awfully close to the man in the middle of the OWS struggle: Mayor Bloomberg.

Bloomberg’s family foundation is to distribute $32 million to arts organizations around New York City over the next two years. Over the last decade, the Carnegie Corporation funneled $200 million of his personal fortune to arts and social service groups. Mayor Bloomberg is a personal fan as well as a patron, and a man who knows how to make friends and influence people. He’s also a leader among city mayors. When he approves the busting up of free libraries and kitchens, other would be park-busters take note. It would make for an interesting moment if high-level artists started demanding change (along with their grants). Or started getting arrested in Bloomberg’s streets.

What happens next? The next big day of OWS action is December 6. A handful of new initiatives around “Shelter & Sanctuary”—for occupiers, people facing foreclosure, immigrants—are in the works. Will the Radio City Rockettes high-kick their way to the human mic? Who knows?

“Beat us and we come back stronger. Erect a barricade and a hundred will pop up on the other side to join us,” cheered music producer and activist attorney Roma Baran, later. “Feel the power. Feel the hope.”

For Mayor Bloomberg, she could have added, just possibly, “Feel the heat.”

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