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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Gandhi Opera Ushers In Occupy Hunger Strike

MANHATTAN (CN) - An Occupy Wall Street activist declared the start of a hunger strike Thursday night outside Lincoln Center after the curtain fell on the Metropolitan Opera's final performance of "Satyagraha," a show inspired, fittingly, by Mohandas Gandhi.

After bowing to a capacity crowd of about 3,800 standing operagoers "Satyagraha" composer Philip Glass joined the demonstrators on the street side of a metal barricade separating them from the city-owned plaza.

Hundreds echoed an English translation of a passage of the Bhagavad Gita spoken into the so-called People's Mic by Glass.

"Whenever the law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself on earth," Glass said. "I come into being age after age and take a visible shape and move a man with men for the protection of good, thrusting the evil back and setting virtue on her seat again."

Minutes earlier, tenor Richard Croft sang those words in Sanskrit as Gandhi, while an uncredited actor playing Martin Luther King Jr. mimed a thundering speech on a raised platform, with his back turned from the audience.

Onstage, black-and-white images of police brutalizing civil rights-era protesters shined upon a wall, which parted to reveal a bright blue sky in the production's final image.

Scenes of nonviolent civil disobedience continued outside the Metropolitan Opera House.

Many audience members disobeyed police orders to clear the plaza and stepped up to the Lincoln Center-side of the barricade. Security guards pulled several aside, but eventually resigned themselves to letting people stand on both sides of the divide.

The next morning, a New York Police Department spokesman said that none of the carted-away demonstrators had been arrested.

Officially, guards demanded that protesters respect a metal barricade blocking off a plaza.

Though most of it remained intact, many activists straddled it, shook it loose and passed through it during the three-hour demonstration.

Just as enormous puppets populated the stage of the opera, Occupy Wall Street activists carried a roughly 15-foot Lady Liberty, with one of her hands waving a victory sign.

Glass was not the only iconic artist to step up to the People's Mic that night.

Famed glam rocker Lou Reed humbly introduced himself as a "musician in New York," saying that as a citizen he had "never been more ashamed than to see the barricades tonight."

Mocking Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent boast that he commanded the "seventh largest army in the world," Reed fired back, "The police are our army."

Reed's wife, Laurie Anderson, also an iconic musician, urged the crowds to treat "the men and women in blue" as our "colleagues and our friends."

The next speaker, John, who wore a priest's collar and a newsboy hat, told a burly Lincoln Center security guard, "I care about you," and patted one of his broad shoulders.

John also jokingly riffed on Martin Luther King's "Mountaintop" speech, describing the journey to his $80 seats.

"I had to go all the way to the top," he preached. "It was a long climb. It felt like a mountain. I went all the way to the top, and I could barely see. But what I did see was Gandhi. What I did see was Martin Luther King. What I did see was 'truth force.'"

"Truth force" is the English translation of satyagraha, a concept that Glass said the demonstrators embodied.

"When the opera ended, I had to come down off that mountain. What I didn't know is that I would descend into a valley of justice."

Many speakers criticized Lincoln Center for making the prices so steep, while knocking down the salaries of their artists.

Daniel, a recently laid-off opera singer, told the crowd that City Opera general manager George Steel is the "1 percent."

After 14-hour negotiations, Steel allegedly shut down talks and axed former $35,000 salaries to $3,200, with no benefits.

"I know my colleagues support you 100 percent," Daniel said.

At the end of these testimonies, activist Joey Molinaro announced that he would start a hunger strike.

The crowd turned to Lincoln Center's security director Susan Bick, who was standing a short distance away, to demand the cultural landmark "guarantees the freedom of speech and assembly on the city-owned plaza."

Bick walked away with a small entourage as demonstrators made the announcement.

In his hunger strike, Molinaro goes up against a U.S. Court of Appeals decision allowing Lincoln Center to treat the plaza as a "limited public forum," and impose its own guidelines that prohibit leafleting and organized demonstrations.

After the general assembly disbanded, Molinaro told Courthouse News that the security department ignored two of his calls before the in-person announcement, but he believes his protest will not be ignored much longer.

"They'll get a thousand phone calls, emails and negative publicity from around the world, and that's what's going to sway them," he said. "If they buckle, it'll only be out of self-interest."

Occupy Wall Street disseminated his announcement on Internet video, and organizers told the crowds and online viewers dial up city agencies.

"The Department of Cultural Affairs' phone number is 212-513-9300," he said for the cameras.

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