ACT UP & St Pat's = Moscow Pussy Riot Action
Reporter Daisy Sindelar of Radio Free Europe contacted me via email last week requesting an interview about my involvement with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power's infamous protest inside Manhattan's St. Patrick's cathedral. Sindelar said her story was part of RFE's comprehensive coverage of the trial in Moscow against three young women in the punk group Pussy Riot. They staged a musical protest in one of Russia's most revered churches back in February and now face seven years in prison.
I agreed to speak with Sindelar, to show RFE's audience how an anti-religious demonstration with deep political motivations was handled in this democracy we call America, where free speech is protected even when it's unpopular speech being expressed. Sindelar included some of my comments in her main story and there's an accompanying First Person interview with me regarding my role at the St. Patrick's demonstration.
Needless to say, I'm hoping all the international headlines condemning the charges against the young Russian musicians and solidarity for them leads to charges being dismissed, or if they're found guilty that their sentences are suspended.
Here are excerpts from today's RFE's story, with this fantastic headline: "Decades Before Pussy Riot, U.S. Group Protested Catholic Church -- And Got Results":
Nearly a quarter-century before Pussy Riot staged its now-notorious protest in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, a similar demonstration was brewing in New York City. It was there, on December 10, 1989, that thousands of activists gathered outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, the most powerful Roman Catholic church in the United States.
If Pussy Riot's aim was to creatively call on God to "cast out" a resurgent Vladimir Putin, the New York demonstrators had a different goal in mind: to protest the Catholic Church's stand on AIDS and abortion rights. Outside St. Patrick's, a carnival atmosphere reigned, with many of the protesters dressed as clowns, Catholic bishops, and even Jesus Christ. [...]
"You have people from Act Up and the feminist groups standing up trying to read statements of complaint, you have parishioners reciting a prayer, you have other protesters lying down in the aisles, you have assisting priests distributing a written statement [supporting the church], and then you have me, standing up on a pew," says participant Michael Petrelis. "I first started blowing a whistle." [...]
The protest made international headlines, and was widely condemned by U.S. government officials including then-President George H.W. Bush, as well as newspaper editorialists, and Catholic faithful for its brazen attack on a place of worship.
Even among Act Up's own members, there was discord about whether the group had crossed the line between protest and religious hatred -- particularly after it was revealed that one of the St. Patrick's protesters had crushed a communion wafer in his hands and tossed the crumbs to the floor in front of the archbishop.
Jeff Stone, a gay Catholic who was among the protesters outside the church, says many demonstrators felt uncomfortable about the audacious confrontation with Cardinal O'Connor despite their anger over his stance on AIDS and abortion. O'Connor, he says, remained "very, very disturbed" by the event even years later.
Screengrab from December, 10, 1989, ACT UP protest video.