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Friday, December 2, 2011

A Prisoner of Hope

On Thursday night, December 1, 2011, I joined several hundred people in occupying Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.  The Occupy Wall Street movement – evicted from Zuccotti Park and now wandering the streets looking for places to protest -- called a general assembly for 10:30 on the Lincoln Center Plaza, right after the performance of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha” at the Met.  The composer had suggested the meeting and was to speak to the crowd.  

I showed up a little before ten, hoping to get the lay of the land before the action began.  When I arrived, police were setting up barricades at the foot of the stairs on the east side of the plaza, obviously planning to keep protesters away from the central area around the fountain.  I slipped in as they were setting up the last of the barricades, and eventually found a handful of other protesters conferring on the plaza near the Met.   One had a cart full of the latest Occupied Wall Street Journal.   Three of us wound up handing out the paper to opera-goers as they poured out of the Met, and directing them to the barricades where Glass was to speak.  It took me back to my days as a newsboy in the 1950s.   “Get your Occupied Wall Street Journal heah,” I bawled, “Latest Tissue!”   Within minutes, all my papers were gone.  (It was a friendly crowd, fans of Glass’s opera about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and many of them were eager to go over and join the people at the barricade.)  

By the time I got there, Glass had already spoken and the General Assembly was underway.  Several hundred people were bunched now on both sides of the barricade, with a line of cops in between.   A couple of scuffles broke out, provoking angry shouts from the crowd, but the organizers succeeded in bringing the focus back to the speakers, broadcasting their messages over the famous human microphone.  To me, the most touching speeches were from young artists – a Juilliard student, an unemployed dancer, a chorus member from the New York City Opera who had just been fired.  They were close to tears at the sight of the barricades, set up to keep them out of the very place where they had studied and performed.    

Lincoln Center was conceived in the 1960s as a place where high culture would be available to the masses.   I have spent a large part of my life there, as a sometime dance critic, a music-lover, a father of two dancers, and a midtown worker who loved to take lunch next to the tranquil pool around Henry Moore’s sculptures.  But now I am a protester, against an arts center that has gone relentlessly upscale, and cares more about revenue than beauty.   The last straw fell the day before, when I went to buy tickets for a family excursion to New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker.  This has been a family tradition for decades, made possible by the popular prices that were part of the mission of the New York State Theater.   But the New York State Theater is now the David H. Koch Theater, renovated with a gift from the billionaire right-wing financier.  And a seat in the third ring now costs $112.

What is to be done?   I was happy to be a newsboy outside the Met, and a broadcaster for the human microphone.  But I have been a journalist and critic for all of my adult life, and I feel I must use whatever talent I have to fight a battle that will be long, and difficult, and unsure of success.  And so this blog.   

When I got home after midnight from Lincoln Center, I took a look at the Occupied Wall Street Journal.  The lead article is by Cornel West, headlined “A Love Supreme,” a title from John Coltrane.  It concludes with a call for a revolution, which I will take as my conclusion.  

West writes:  “Revolution may scare some people because of its connotation of violence…  but the revolution in our time – against oligarchy and plutocracy – need not be an ugly and violent one.  The rich legacies of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, and recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, have taught us that we can deal with our social catastrophes with compassion and that we can transform unjust societies with courageous visions and nonviolent strategies.  If we equip ourselves with truthful systemic analyses of power in our minds, moral commitments of steel in our backs and a genuine joy in serving others in our hearts, then our dream of justice spread across the globe may be no mere illusion.  

“We are prisoners of a blood-stained, tear-soaked hope.  This means we are free to imagine and create a more deeply democratic world than we have yet witnessed in history.” 


As for Philip Glass (and Lou Reed)  I did catch their comments later on Youtube.   Check it out at

-- Tom Phillips