‘We activists need to boldly go where no-one’s gone before’
In October we traveled from New York to Britain for nine cities in 10 days, then on to Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. In each town we visited we tried to meet local activists in the daytime, and then perform our stage show – influenced by that activism – in the evening.
I’m using the word ‘activist’ for those who physically press through borders, against laws or property lines or exclusionary traditions. We were taken into this kind of activism by the people along the route of our tour. We offered what we do – which is to sing all the right songs in all the wrong places. Those places could be parks, banks, corporate lobbies, museums. Each activist community directed us to their ‘Spiritual Trespassing’.
Video by Liverpool Walton Labour.
We had two producers who took us across England, Catherine Turner and Anthony Roberts. Catherine is fearless and smart and funny in a droll way. And, she happens to be a person with paralysis and blindness. Anthony is head at Colchester Arts Centre and our UK road general in our tours. This time, he drove a van for Catherine and after disembarking would give gentle directions. ‘Sharp right turn here…’ ‘Narrow door with a rug…’ She steered her wheelchair caning the space before her.
Catherine set the theme for the tour. We returned again and again to access for people with disabilities and more generally, we returned to the body. If the injustices we were fighting started with the violation of bodies - such as toxicity, incarceration, economic fatalism, police violence – each injustice seemed to dictate a physical ritual protest.
In Liverpool we were taken by UNITE, the union for hospital workers, cooks and cleaners and maintenance people – into the city plaza. The union folks told us about a woman named Freda, who died of leukemia amid the insults and technicalities of a privatizing-the-NHS subcontractor. We proposed a ritual protest with songs, holding of hands, a long moment of silence followed by friends directly addressing Freda. We set off through Liverpool’s downtown full of resistance energy, high stepping gospel style through stores and between cars stopped in the roadway.
After the Liverpool show that evening, we followed the audience out the door to a surprising second stage. We marched directly into the Royal Liverpool University Hospital. What, is there a stage in here? … Are we marching in a hospital? Our singing competed with the hallway Muzak and the TVs in the rooms, but mindful of the pain and suffering and sleeping patients, we selected a softer song.
The patients that saw us walk by their door seemed intrigued by our radical caroling. Security was more like stunned. We were all stunned, in a dream state. Eventually, we sang our way back out of the hospital. We stopped to testify on the driveway to the emergency room. Nurses and hospital cooks offered their moving stories. And I noticed at least two patients came out with us, standing there in their hospital smocks.
The singing combined with the shock-factor to break down a wall around a privatized health care facility. Our incursion was messy, born of an emotional kind of ‘decision momentum’ from the plight of Freda and the presence in the air of how many thousands of people painfully cheated by the surrender of the healing arts to profiteering. On the other hand, they suggested that there could be some kind of new force in their negotiations from the physical claim the Liverpudlians put on their hospital.
We activists need to ‘boldly go where no-one’s gone before’. For years our marches and rallies have been around the same track, guided by the same police to the same end. So much of our protest has become media and not physical at all. It’s time for some wrong turns and border-crossings! Our speaker’s corners need to spread back into that darkness of privatized space.
On our tour we got a lesson in what works. Our re-telling of the day’s stories on the stage, after the hands-on activism, was a reversal of the prevailing wind of the larger culture. The community filled us with Freda’s life. There was too much heart in it to call it merely information. Clearly it was the presence of Catherine that encouraged us to lead with the physical and emotional, with the whole body.
We start with the body and soul, not theory and data. We are touching and seeing and listening. Then we more easily stage representations of injustice and of love in the commons.
More public space seems to open before us. We go more places, in the same way that the sad and suffering were gladdened by walking the wrong-way out the emergency room door.
Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir perform at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in New York, on 10 and 17 December 2017.