March 26, 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
By Katharine Mieszkowski
UNCLE SAM TEETERED atop a six-foot-tall unicycle, taking swigs from a can of motor oil. "I know driving the country to war drunk is dangerous," he slurred from his perch high above the sidewalk at the corner of Market and Grant on Friday afternoon. "But I don't want my habit to hurt anyone. I'm asking for support to get into a 12-step program to kick my oil addiction."
In one hand Uncle Sam brandished his greasy cocktail and a wavering American flag; in the other, three juggling pins he'd nicknamed "mini-nuke," "mother-of-all-bombs," and "shock and dismay." He veered all over the sidewalk, a pickled patriot on one wheel, burbling, "They keep telling me I ought to switch to biodiesel, but I can't get off the hard stuff."
The tottering unicyclist wore a red rubber clown nose; a top hat festooned with red, white, and blue rhinestones in the shape of the American flag; and a shirt emblazoned with a picture of Old Faithful. Beneath his hat a red-and-white-striped sun visor peeked out, and he periodically pulled it down over his eyes to illustrate that "Uncle Sam occasionally has trouble with being blinded by his ad-visors."
The drunk uncle's goal: "Liberate America to the Constitution," which he claimed was breached when U.S. troops went into Iraq. Like a Bible-thumping street preacher waving a religious tract, he held up a copy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and declaimed, "Go home and read them, and you too will be in shock and awe."
The political street theater over at Union Square was less clownish and more dirgelike. The cops had fenced off the square itself, apparently fearing protesters might make use of it to, say, safely assemble out of the way of traffic to publicly express their views.
Blocked from the square itself, a single-file line of 20 wailing women, most wearing black, marched solemnly, slowly along the periphery on the sidewalk as the bored-looking cops guarding the empty plaza looked on. The mourners in the mock funeral procession moaned and cried out, ringing bells and clanging chimes. In their labored procession, every step was an exaggeratedly heavy one. One woman carried a black umbrella, and the late afternoon wind blew it inside out, turning it into an awkward mess of spindly wires. Another displayed a sign that said, "Stop the United States of Aggression" on one side and "Drunk X-frat boy drives entire world into ditch" on the other.
The weeping women were from the American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org), a Quaker peace group that's raising money for humanitarian relief in Iraq. If Uncle Sam wanted you to read the Constitution, the wailing women wanted you to send the Iraqis soap. One weeper handed out a painful list of the basic supplies the group is seeking toothbrushes, wide-tooth combs, fingernail clippers, toothpaste, shampoo. It was fake funeral as fundraiser, or Wailing Women Gathering Hairbrushes for Peace.
For other protesters, the previous day, dissent took the form of the sun-salutation pose. On Thursday morning, as more-confrontational types got arrested for blocking the doors of Bechtel Corp., 22 yoga practitioners stretched and bent on mats splayed out across the street on the Beale Street sidewalk.
A yoga teacher exhorted her followers, "Breath in! I am peaceful. Breath out! I feel the earth." Was this supposed to set an example for the less enlightened souls in Washington, D.C.? Be your own peace, as it were? It could also have been a secret form of type A multitasking: unplug the war machine and work on your downward-dog pose at the same time! Namaste.
If tap dancers can click their heels on the pavement to tap into peace, taking a stand for "show tunes not war goons," and if Crafty Bitches Knitting for Peace can fight U.S. imperialism with their needles, is there anything short of a fistfight that can't be branded as a form of peaceful resistance? Got hobby? Well, take it out of the living room and into the streets.
Still, it's the serendipitous, unplanned street spectacles that take place when 1,600 arrests are under way that really steal the show. As police were struggling and failing to take the downtown stretch of Market Street back from protesters, a 22-year-old college student, who said his name was Clive, set up a chair and table he'd lifted from outside a Briazz and lounged insouciantly in the middle of the intersection of Market and Montgomery, giggling at the prim notice taped to the tabletop: "Briazz customers only."
You didn't have to see the trace of a smirk underneath the bandanna concealing Clive's mouth to know he was pleased with his nonpurchase. Who knew smashing the state was as fun as stealing patio furniture? A comrade-in-bandanna pulled another chair up to the table and announced that it came from McDonald's. A passing protester rummaged through his backpack to set their table with some oranges and hunks of chocolate. Sitting in the middle of the street with their corporate restaurant furniture gone bad, the two made an oddly restful tableau.
Clive put one sneaker up on the table and leaned back in his stolen chair, surveying the chaos of protest all around him. "It's a good spot to view what's going on," he said. "I don't like standing all day."