Occupy Art

by Tony Bartolone, Staff Writer

pLAywriting in the city

As I walked through downtown Los Angeles, I looked up at all the monstrous structures of steel and stone feeling somewhat small. I looked around to see the homeless at the heels of all those giants of finance. That is what America has become, a sea of poor drowning while the rich pirates hijack our country. I walked past all the bank buildings, and felt the cold sting of the night, knowing that people would be sleeping in that same cold. However, it was not just the homeless that would sleep without houses. There were all those camped out by city hall. Protesting what has become the accepted method, angered at the thought of government by the few. And then there were us. The artists marching in support of all those that had been living on the lawn for forty-four days.

I arrived to a less than overwhelming number of people ready to walk in protest on November 14th. Where were all those actresses I’ve met at parties, all those supposed producers, all the painters and musicians? I started feeling even smaller. I was asked if I would hold a painting while we marched. “Sure.” I said. And I lifted one side of a painting of a cartoon pig, rabid with power and a word bubble that read, “Greed kills!” Those with guitars (plus one with a banjo and another with a ukulele) started playing old protest songs, and we started walking. We tailed a cop car weaving in and out of parked cars, and all were instructed to stay on the sidewalk as to not upset the police.

I started to wonder if what we were doing was of any consequence at all. I started doubting the entire occupation. With my arms tiring from hoisting that animated hog above my head, I felt like this was all a waste of time. Then as we neared city hall, the coldness of the night was replaced with something else. There was an undefined electricity in the air. A wave of energy was radiating from the tents pitched on every square inch of the city hall lawn. Something shot through me so profound and exciting I can only describe it as freedom. And I felt every human being there united as one entity, in solidarity.

Photo by Ted Fisher

Performances were kicked off with a beatnik poem. A large drum came out of a colorful case and there sat an old man who I had recognized as an unrecognizable icon. That man was John Densmore, who played drums for The Doors. Instantly every night of high school came flooding back to me. So many late nights spent with Jim Morrison screaming in my head. And before me was the very man who supplied the percussion for all those adolescent evenings. As soon as his bare hand beat down on that beatnik drum… Ba-boom! All my doubts were dashed and gently blown away in the breeze.

It was in the 1960’s that the world came together. When the counter culture rose up in peaceful protest to expand the minds of the general public. And bands like The Doors supplied the soundtrack to the movement. Musicians and writers stood up and lead the charge. I had never seen anything like this revolt in my lifetime, outside of documentaries. I had seen my generation stand idly by and watch our country be ceased by billionaires. But not anymore. It was truly inspiring to see all the artists there, as they were all artists. Art is defined by expression. And protest is nothing more than pure, passionate expression. Whether it was the young woman who sat with typewriter next to a sign that read, “Free poems!” or the man with a balloon hat (who called himself “The Juan Percent”) dancing and shouting or those quiet in their tents with signs posted outside.

This was a huge platform for artistic expression. It was a freak show unlike any other. The disenfranchised demanding a voice, which is what art is. Everything from the absurd to the prurient to the angry, it was performance at it’s core. On the Westside of City Hall, on a hill there were individual signs with individual messages on them, organized to make a massive star-spangled banner. All these unique voices coming together to make an impact on our world, to make a change, to make America.

I observed a yoga class at the foot of the steps of the main entrance of the public structure. Then a workshop for general assembly. This is protest in our modern age. I attended the G.A. as a subtle observer. And it was innately theatrical. From the hand signals to the public speakers. This entire protest was theatre.

Photo by David Freid

At one point the meeting was interrupted by a man demanding to speak. He was told to wait his turn. Arguments broke out around the meeting. Money. They were arguing about money. Apparently some money (somewhere around between two and five grand) had been lost or stolen, and people were extremely angry and abrasive about it. What you need to understand is when a protest becomes this large it becomes a business. There’s money donated and allocated. And protestors, while well intentioned, are not always the best business people. They are thrown into it underprepared and overwhelmed. And organization is always a challenge with so many unpredictable variables.

The tension built as crowds began forming around screaming matches. Questions being shouted. Demands asserted. More and more attention was pulled from the G.A. and given to the surrounding face offs. A potential catastrophe was building. Suddenly, rogue groups were shouting, “Let him speak!” The assembly was turning wildly aggressive. While the emcee struggled fruitlessly to diffuse the situation, somebody unplugged the speakers rendering his microphone mute. And finally, they let the man speak.

T.C. Alexander took the stage and riled the lot. He made accusations of racism (which seemed completely unsubstantiated). He said “Brian” was the one to blame for the missing money. The crowd was littered with shrieks of “Let Brian speak!” Brian this and Brian that, everybody murmuring and arguing. Until eventually a man with long hair and long jacket walked to the microphone. Silence rushed over the crowd and the man spoke, “I am Brian.” He explained how he had the money in his backpack while they had a meeting to figure out what to do with the cash. And by the end of that meeting his backpack had vanished. “If you haven’t had your stuff stolen, then you’re not part of the community.” Brian plainly stated.

There was not yet a police report filed, which was a suspicious element of the story. Brian assured everyone he would file one first thing in the morning. But the mob was not pacified, and the tension intensified. A vicious riot was almost certainly about to erupt. And all the non-violent protest would be in vain. The police and the local government would have the grounds to shut it all down.  Then somehow, something remarkable happened. The anger and the aggression just gradually calmed down. The more belligerent members of the audience disbursed, and the tension dissipated like the smog breaking in the morning LA city streets. Non-violence prevailed, my faith in protest was restored, and it was one hell of a show.

Tony Bartolone is a community college drop out. He honed his craft at Cerritos College where he did nearly twenty plays, won several theatre and writing awards and made some best friends with whom he started two theatre companies.  You can not see him in the season finale of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia because his scene was cut. And his TV pilot has been thrown in the trash by some of todays most influential television producers. “At the end of the day, nobody is any better than a punk rock love song.” Tony also writes for The Huffington Post and The LA Theatre Review.