The October 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Federal Housing Cuts to Blame for Homelessness

Judge Halts OHA Evictions

The Crime of Pushing a Cart

Giving Love to a Homeless Dog

Clergy Denounce Police Sweeps of Homeless

St. Mary's on the Move for Justice

Oaxaca's Radical Teachers

Berkeley Is Hard on the Homeless

Giant Puppets Stand Tall for Justice

Poor Leonard: On History

October Poetry of the Streets


September 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Giant Puppets Stand Tall for Peace and Justice

Story and photos by Lydia Gans

Sun And Moon, beautiful giant puppets created by Maria Lexa, stage a magical performance at the Peoples Park Anniversary celebration held in Berkeley in 2006.

A giant puppet made by St. Mary's Center marches in Oakland to demand healthcare, affordable housing, peace and food for all.

The man in the White House talks a lot about freedom and democracy. However, under the cloak of the "war on terror," freedom isn't quite what it used to be, and democracy -- rule by the people, from the Greek word "demos" -- is rapidly being usurped by corporate powers.

What does it take to make our politicians pay attention, and to act in the interests of the people they are supposed to represent? We can write letters, make phone calls, send e-mails -- and we can take to the streets and demonstrate.

So what does it take to make an effective demonstration? It takes more than a lot of people making a lot of noise. It's okay to march down main street and shout, "What do we want?" and "When do we want it?" But, in the end, the shouters go home and nothing much changes. If there are a great many people waving flags or clever signs, the whole event may get 15 seconds on TV, which may inspire more people to take part in the next protest.

But ultimately, the masses of people have to be moved to act for the cause -- to refuse to fight, to go on strike, stage a sit-in, block a street, or whatever action might force those in power to change. It takes more than shouting. It takes drama. It takes engaging people's minds and hearts.

This writer has been an activist for a long time and I remember back when music was the great organizing tool. We all knew dozens of movement songs. There were inspiring songs about the Spanish Civil War and songs celebrating the World War II fighters against fascism. There were the many organizing songs of the labor movement: the maritime workers, textile workers, auto workers, miners, and so much more.

In the 1960s, the drama of standing together and swaying side to side with thousands of people singing "We Shall Overcome" was a profoundly moving experience! "My Song Is My Weapon," the title of a book by Robbie Lieberman about those songs of protest, says it all.

We haven't had as much singing lately, but street theater and other cultural expressions are flourishing. The San Francisco Mime Troupe is out there dramatically exploring the issues of the day. And activists with an artistic flair are creating drama at rallies and protests with masks and giant puppets.

Huge caricatures of unpopular political figures add vigor to the marchers accompanying them. Puppets depicting people's heroes, especially the symbolism of the giant Gandhi puppet, give power to the protesters for peace and justice. A group of women wearing oversized masks performing a mourning ritual move their audience more than the most passionate speeches.

Bread and Puppet Theater

Much of the inspiration for the puppets and masks that are showing up at events these days goes back to the renowned Bread and Puppet Theater, "a politically radical puppet theater" which was started on the East Coast back in the '60s.

Bread and Puppet is more than a collective of people creating puppets and putting on performances; it is a way of life for its participants and an institution in the broader community. A number of local activist puppet makers credit Bread and Puppet Theater as their inspiration.
Art and Revolution

In the Bay Area, Art And Revolution came out of the Bread and Puppet tradition. David Solnit, a longtime activist, is one of the organizers of the group. A man of many talents, he describes himself as "an angry revolutionary puppeteer, an arts organizer, a direct action organizer."

He sees art as an important element in organizing. Recalling the giant puppets that were used in the first big protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 2000, Solnit suggests that "without the arts and puppets, the WTO would not have been shut down and history would have been very different today." That might be a bit of exaggeration, but no-one would deny that the puppets were hugely effective.

Solnit describes what drew him into puppet making: "I've been trying to change the world for a couple of decades," he says, "and about 10 years ago I was searching for new ways to communicate our ideas and to resist. So I started working with artists, musicians, dancers and puppeteers and using puppets and other forms of culture as a form of struggle. And also as a way to communicate.

"As I got more into building giant puppets, creating them and marching them through the streets, I realized that puppets have sort of a magical and powerful history. Almost every culture in the world has puppets; and they've often played a very positive and subversive role, like Punch and Judy shows that can criticize the elites and the aristocracy. And there is also a certain surreal and dreamlike element in these sort of effigies or giant images that have a life of their own."

Wise Fool

Wise Fool is another group of puppet makers that got started in 1989 when they brought their puppets to the Nevada Test Site vigils against nuclear weapons tests.

Their guiding spirit, K. Ruby, defines the mission of Wise Fool as being slightly different from that of Art And Revolution. While for the latter group, political activism is the motivation and puppets are a tool, Ruby explains, "I think the main thing is we don't think of ourselves as activists first; we think of ourselves as artists first. And we care to make our art about things that we consider important, like all artists. It just happens that our group finds a lot of political and social messages of import and worthy to make art about."

Maria Lexa, a puppet maker from Denmark, is the creator and director of Sun And Moon puppets. Their performances with beautiful giant puppets and masks are an almost magical experience.

A member of the group, Michael McCamish, describes their show as more spiritual than political; but, he avers, "political is spiritual in a way." The point is not so much the message itself, but the fact that they take it to parks and street fairs where ordinary people gather. "We like to take it into places that theater doesn't usually exist. We like to cross the boundaries where theater is supposed to be and not supposed to be."

The Gandhi Puppet

A giant Gandhi puppet states: "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."

Jes Richardson was studying for a teaching credential and working as a teacher's aide in a high school history class in Marin County when the Iraq War was threatening. The class decided to join the antiwar demonstrations in San Francisco -- and decided to make a puppet depicting Gandhi. They didn't know anything about making puppets and it was originally planned to be much smaller.

Richardson recalls, "I was looking for something to form the head with and I couldn't find anything." Then, at a store in Mill Valley, "a very sweet woman donated a beach ball - and the project got bigger." Since then, that Gandhi puppet has been carried in countless peace demonstrations.

At the time of this writing, Richardson was in Washington, D.C., with the puppet participating in a peace demonstration with Code Pink. He has earned his teaching credential but, he says, "after having visited Camp Casey, I have decided to devote my entire life to peace."

The Mourning Mothers

The Mourning Mothers hold baby rag dolls, symbolizing the tragic loss of innocent life in war, at a San Francisco peace action.

The devastation of the Iraq War inspired the Mourning Mothers, a group that does street theater wearing oversize masks. Mary Bull describes the genesis of that group. She started out as an activist for economic justice. In 2002, she went to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate against the World Bank and the IMF. The next day, there was a massive peace rally where Bread And Puppet did a theater piece with giant puppets depicting suffering Iraqi women holding babies.

When she and her colleagues came home, they adapted the idea by making giant masks. They took the name Mourning Mothers. Wearing black robes, masks, and holding rag doll babies, they perform a grieving ritual. Bull explains, "It is done in silence. We spread out a cloth, sometimes the American flag... One by one, we take the babies and lay them on the flag and then welcome people in the audience to come and lay tokens on the babies. We've distributed flowers to everyone to participate in this ritual."

With minor modifications, the Mourning Mothers have done this many times in many places. Mary Bull described how effective it is. "People need to be reminded deeply what it's about and this poetic way of showing people the human cost of war really hits to the heart of it - strikes a very deep chord in many people. It reminds people why we're out there, without a lot of blood and gore. Rag doll babies and strange masks where the mask is so huge and the body is so tiny takes you into a different reality."

Sydney Carson, one of the Mourning Mothers, describes what it feels like to be part of a vigil. "You wear (the mask) over your head, you look out of the mouth. You only see a little bit so you need help crossing streets.... The first experience I had was very powerful because I looked out of that mouth and I saw the effect we were having on people. It was very moving, it made me cry. I felt the emotional power of it."

Liberation Art

Creating the puppets is also a meaningful process for people. Sally Hindman was teaching a class in Liberation Art at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union. The class "was to explore how liberation theology would apply to the arts." The class decided that a project that would "support a group like the Coalition on Homelessness in their work to secure more housing for homeless families would be 100 percent appropriate."

Encouraged by Solnit, class members decided to create giant puppets and participate with the Coalition in a Mother's Day demonstration in San Francisco. The students made 12 puppets depicting figures such as Saint Francis, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and others that represented "Saints and Prophets." They marched with the giant puppets to S.F. City Hall to demand more affordable housing for homeless families.

Susan Werner, creative arts facilitator at St. Mary's Center in Oakland, is teaching puppet making to the seniors at the center. Creating the puppets is giving the homeless and low-income seniors a means of expressing their feelings and experiences; and they are reaping the satisfaction of seeing their puppets used in demonstrations to influence other people.

Werner explains, "The more that we're able to empower the seniors to express their stories, to give testimony to the needs of people out in the streets, out in public... This is another vehicle to make our message more visible."

The message is about poverty, about the need for food, housing and health care. In the words of Levander Perry, one of the participants at St. Mary's, the message is about "people crying for help."

Carlodia Dixon says, "I wanted to represent the four races of people that are homeless. I created a brown face. That face was the face of fear. I feel fear if I was this brown face. I feel anger and I feel resentment because I'm homeless. And I feel that nobody cares for me. I go through a lot of different kinds of emotions."

This month, the seniors at St. Mary's are creating a giant puppet of Martin Luther King Jr. to represent the struggle for justice and the eradication of poverty. K. Ruby of Wise Fool is directing that project, which is to be introduced in a march on October 17 in downtown Oakland, as part of the observation of the International Day To Eradicate Poverty [see "St. Mary's Center On the Move for Justice," in this issue of Street Spirit].

Just as the Gandhi puppet, now in its second incarnation, has become an icon for peace and is used in many protests, the Martin Luther King puppet may become the symbol for the struggle for economic justice. Will the time ever come when the puppets can simply be museum pieces?

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