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Street Bands Bring Protest to the Internet through Flash Mobs


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Snapshot of a video of members of the Brass Liberation Orchestra doing a flash mob action at a San Francisco Hotel. Credit: Pride at Work

Some marching bands are getting more creative about making a political spectacle, by becoming the protest themselves, and using the internet to make their message viral. Making Contact’s Pauline Bartolone knows all about it. Her roommates are in a band called the Brass Liberation Orchestra in San Francisco.

BARTOLONE: When Jamie Spector’s sister moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, the two immediately started talking about starting a radical brass band. Her sister was in one in Italy, and Jamie had seen her in action.

Spector: Soon after we started talking about, what if we tried to start something here?  You know, both my sister and I had gotten involved in different sort of left political work, and I think also we’re both feeling somewhat frustrated by the sometimes factionalization and sectarian atmosphere… About fifteen of us started playing in someone’s living room.  I picked up the trombone for the first time and started learning from a friend who just sort of taught me the positions enough that I could play a base line on a song.

(music: ‘BLO second line’)

BARTOLONE: So in 2002, the band hit the streets as the Brass Liberation Orchestra. The idea was, and is, to support unity within the left. In the beginning, they were playing at a lot of the anti-war rallies in San Francisco, like the massive street protests in 2003 opposing the US invasion of Iraq. The BLO was there at the breakaway marches, where a couple of hundred people often came face to face with the police. They played their music in the hopes of de-escalating the tension, as opposed to encouraging confrontation.

(music of Raymond Scott song underneath)

Spector: We used to play, for example, this old Raymond Scott song, Powerhouse, which is sort of in lots of cartoons and things (imitates music line).  And so we would play that song and sort of run around the intersection and it would sort of, you know, confuse the police and also the protestors were kind of like, “Ah, you know, that’s really funny, what’s going on?”  And it definitely helped to sort of, you know, give pause and break the tension in the air a little bit in those moments.

(music from Hey Mackey video)

BARTOLONE: Over the years, the band has seen dozens of members come and go and come back again. The BLO has been spotted at environmental justice marches against a Chevron Oil refinery, they’ve played at coop block parties, political fundraisers, Cinco De Mayo, and the US Social Forum. And when things were really heating up during the summer of 2009 around health care reform, band members weren’t happy when the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey wrote in a column that health care was not a human right.

SARAH: Mackey is being pretty hypocritical to sell expensive, organic food that is inaccessible to poor people, and then to say that poor people don’t have a right to treatment.”

BARTOLONE: That’s Sarah Norr, a union organizer and a BLO percussionist. Together with other organizers, they all decided to do a flash mob protest using a pop song.

(sound of “ hey Mackey” flash mob)

JAMIE: … we said, “Ah, let’s go for Mackey.”  So, one of our band mates rewrote the lyrics to that old, I guess 80’s song, Hey Mickey

BARTOLONE: Band members took the lyrics – “Hey Mickey You’re So Fine” and changed it to “Hey Mackey You’re A Swine.”  They brought this musical message into the isles of a Whole Foods supermarket in Oakland, California. They were sure to bring their brass instruments, dancers, and a bullhorn.

JAMIE:  And then, all very low-key, went into a Whole Foods, like we were gonna shop.  And then, once folks were in the store, and spread out through the store, at a given cue, I can’t remember which started first, the music or the singing.  But it all erupted, the band playing, the people got in with their instruments, people were dancing, singing,

(sound of “ hey Mackey” flash mob)

BARTOLONE: So there, in front of the refrigerated dairy section, the BLO gave song and dance to grocery shoppers while security guards talked into their walkie talkies. Alto sax player Ofir Uziel compares the scene to watching fireworks.

Ofir Uziel : I think people were in shock, and were like, you know, it’s kind of like, “Somebody call the police.”  That’s the reaction, you know, or the security guy will come, or not will come; it’s kind of hesitant mood, and kind of, let them finish and everything will be okay.

(sound of “ hey Mackey” flash mob)

BARTOLONE: The band called it ‘Operation Mackey.’

OFIR UZIEL:  You know, people didn’t understand if it’s a good thing or bad thing.  And that’s great, because, you know, we continue to do our thing and they can think in their own terms if it’s good or bad.

BARTOLONE: It was hard to tell what impact the mob action had, but it wasn’t really about what happened on that day. It was about the media buzz it created. Everything was caught on video, and immortalized over the internet.

(sound of “ bad hotel” flash mob)

BARTOLONE: So almost a year later, when some 9,000 hotel workers were facing increased health care costs and work loads, the BLO teamed up with a group called Pride at Work to encourage a boycott over Pride Weekend.  They changed the lyrics of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ to ‘Bad Hotel.’ Two of them dressed up as a lesbian couple in business suits, and pretended to book a room while the rest of the band trickled into the fancy lobby. Jamie Spector was there.

Spector: And then when they saw the sousaphone and the bass drum then they started and one of them shouted, you know, “Wait, we can’t stay here; this hotel’s under boycott!”

(protestor: Wait a minute honey! This hotel’s under boycott!)

JAMIE: And she started singing, and then when she started singing, everyone else started singing, and dancing, and we started playing.

BARTOLONE: Different song, different cause, but they used the same tactics. This time, the video of the flash mob got over a quarter of a million hits on YouTube. A Huffington Post article linked to the video, and called flash mobs the new face of political protest. Now, the idea of doing flash mobs themselves is going viral.  A different radical Brass Band invaded a target store, with camera’s rolling, to protest that corporation’s anti-gay political donations. And rumor has it that The Yes Men, handed out the lyrics to the Hey Mackey song during a screening of one of their movies in Manhattan, after which audience members took it to a nearby Whole Foods.

(sound of “ bad hotel” flash mob)

BARTOLONE: The flash-mob idea isn’t anything new, but it’s not often used for political purposes. Ofir Uziel of the BLO says the actions are an appealing way to convey political messages, but they may not be so revolutionary.

Uziel: And so that’s a great advantage, people can be more active through that channel, through the Net, in a sense, and create communities online.  The disadvantage is that you disassociate yourself from the streets, which, it’s a big part of the civil rights action and movements.  And, you know, people get upset, they go to the streets, they go to City Hall, you know, and if we get to continue with the trend of, “Oh I don’t want to be in the street, I don’t want to interface with, you know, actual people,” you create division of class and race, and you are excluded to the people that you know online, and what you know online, the people that get you the links, or whatever.  So, in terms of access and exposure, there is advantages and disadvantages.

BARTOLONE: The BLO is still doing flash mobs, but it prioritizes direct actions in local communities. Activist groups invite them to play for their causes Deciding what gigs to play, requires a monthly meeting, as the BLO operates by consensus.

(sound of BLO meeting)

BARTOLONE: The band asks groups to answer questions to help them consider what gigs they’ll play.

(sound of BLO meeting)

Spector: Two political questions; what is the leadership of communities of color? Was anyone from that neighborhood involved in planning this action, or is this sort of this outside idea that’s getting put here?  And those kinds of events, we’re not so excited about.

The Brass Liberation Orchestra playing at a fundraiser in Oakland, California. Credit: Pauline Bartolone

BARTOLONE: Just as the BLO is conscious about where they put their music, the also have intentions about where they take it from. Jamie Spector says from the start, they knew they wanted to play world music, so they had to have politics about cultural appropriation.

Spector: Because it is so common for particularly, sort of European, or European-descended people to play and use and exploit and profit from music from oppressed people from around the world, that it’s important that we say something about what our thinking is around that.  So, we do play music from around the world, our goal is to do it as respectfully as we can and to say, you know, to identify, the music that we’re playing; to give credit where credit’s due, to educate people about the history of a song that we play.

(sound of BLO performing)

JAMIE: So when we play a song from El Salvadore, we don’t just say, “Oh, this is a cool Cumbia,” we say, “This is a song that comes from this political tradition in El Salvadore.”  And we play it, specifically in solidarity, with people in El Salvadore struggling; there, and immigrant communities here.

BARTOLONE: In a sense, the Brass Liberation Orchestra is in itself a political project.  – what they play, how and where they choose to play it, how the group operates –it’s all based on their desire for social justice. Like many groups on the left, they do struggle with diversity. While no one person speaks for the BLO, I think all members would agree, the band is a work in progress, where creating something different is as important as the music. Ofir Uziel.

Uziel: And the compromise is that the music will be a little bit cranky (laughs) or noisy or off-tune a little bit sometimes… because when the energy is high and we do our best with love and with energy for a just cause, it doesn’t matter that it’s not a perfect, you know, song, that we are not really perfecting our musical skills.  It doesn’t matter; we are just dancing like crazy, so it’s good.

For Making Contact, I’m Pauline Bartolone.

Author: Radio Project

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