These first six weeks with Ragtime have helped me familiarize myself with the structure and content of the musical and its social, political and historical context. I have found some interesting parallels between this and my participation with in the Occupy Movement. Specifically, in the Occupy Congress protests which took place on January 17th which caused me to miss our first read-through.
Here is a brief description of my experience in Occupy Congress:
I was at the protest for about five hours from 11am to 4pm. It took place on the lawn in front of Capitol Hill. There were about two thousand people who had gathered. I saw teach-ins, food distributions, literature about the Occupy movement, music, dancing, shouting and lots of colorful clothing. I participated in a huge human mic of about 700 people where we talked about our goals for the day and established a plan of action. There were about half a dozen people who were facilitating the meeting and despite the incredible size of the group we were still able to communicate with each other. We later broke up into separate working groups to discuss the following topics: diversity of tactics (which means talking about the line between violent and non-violent protest), commonalities across the occupy movements and an Occupy protest calendar. At one point that Police came into the ground and arrested the former Philadelphia police chief Ray Lewis. This spurred a massive response by the protesters who swarmed around the police vehicle which Lewis was being loaded into. Due to the enormity of the crowd the police gave up their attempt to arrest him. This caused jubilation amongst the protesters but it also led to a stand-off. The police held their ground on one the edge of the lawn and the protestors lined up to rail against them. There were calls of ‘Pigs!’ and ‘Shame’ but there were also voices which encouraged dialogue between the police because ‘they are one of us!’ This tension eventually fizzled out and people moved back to the certain of the lawn to organize for the next part of the day. It was around this time that I left.
Some thoughts and connections with Ragtime
The protests that are depicted in Ragtime – the strike and Coalhouse’s activities – are far more violent than any of the protests in the Occupy movement. No one in Occupy has blown anything up and no police officers have ruthlessly beaten women, men and children. Does this mean that we are simply more civilized now? Has society in the US risen above the use of such violence by its police officers and by its activists or has society simply become better regulated through violent structures rather than overt physical violence? I’ll speculate here for a moment and say that protests in the US have become far less violent than they were before. This is because the state and economy has tightened its grip upon the population to such an extent that protestors hardly dare seek recourse in any kind of violence. As a result, the police need not be so overtly violent (though, they still claim their fair share of brutality) because the population is controlled through a more regulated structure. It is certainly a good thing that fewer people are being hurt by physical violence perpetrated by protesters or the police but I wander whether the total violence we experience in modern society hasn’t increased.
Also, when I was playing the militia man who beats on the protestor, I felt that I was wielding a baton which will one day crash upon my own skin and bone. I am an activist and I will participate in protest movements for the rest of my life. This will inevitably lead me to encounters with the police which are not as friendly as the ones I experienced at Occupy Congress. This made the whole scene highly charged for me. The strike scene, even though we were only blocking it out, still felt incredibly real to me. It also made me wander how police officers feel when they are faced by protestors. It is so easy demonize the man in the uniform who represents the violent had of the state. But, In an effort to humanize the brutalizers, I will try, at least in my own mind, to create a characterization which doesn’t involve heartlessness and evil. Perhaps the militia man I am playing sees no other way to earn money. Perhaps he has a family to support. Perhaps he really hates his job and wishes he doesn’t have to hurt people. This alternative mind set is important for me to create as an activist in order to not demonize the police who I’ll encounter in the future. It is important, I think, to always remember that no matter how much power someone embodies in their uniform, and no matter how much they abuse that power, they are still a human being with a unique context. This is not to say that the abuse of people by the powerful is excusable, but it prevents the activists who protest against that abuse from creating problematically narrow perceptions of them.