Saturday, January 7, 2012

Puppet Underground Sets the Stage for Franklin School Occupation

At this point, most people are probably familiar with the Occupy movement. It started in September with Occupy Wall Street in New York City and has spread to hundreds of cities throughout the world. Arts and Culture committees are common in many of the occupation sites with art projects helping to build community, beautify spaces, enliven actions, and illustrate hopes and visions. And Puppet Underground is proud to be a part of this movement, bringing puppets to the occupation!

In this blog post I will be focusing on just one puppetry project we organized, a cabaret for Occupy K Street. But puppetry is starting to blossom in other occupations, perhaps most notably in New York City with the Occupy Wall Street Puppetry Guild who formed in October and helped organize the Occupy Halloween parade. The Puppet Underground cabaret, “Occupy Kabaret Street”, was organized in coordination with local organizers and activists to support an action—the occupation of a vacant building—planned for November.

The Context:
On November 19th, DC activists identying themselves as Free Franklin occupied the Franklin School building, a publicly owned building in downtown DC that has been vacant for years. From 2002-2008 it housed a homeless shelter but that was shuttered as part of the trend in the last decade to cut homeless services and push shelters to remote areas on the fringes of the city.

Enter the Activists:
With national attention focused on the concerns highlighted by the Occupy camps, local activists and organizers decided to draw some of that attention toward the local issue of how public property is regularly misused and sold to private developers while there continues to be a severe shortage of affordable housing and homeless services. In recent years the city government has been trying to sell off the Franklin School building to private developers (one proposal was to turn it into a boutique hotel). It was an occupation in 2002 that originally pushed the city to open Franklin as a homeless shelter, so it seemed appropriate that another occupation would serve to highlight the potential public uses of the space.

The Cabaret:
The goals of the cabaret were layered: to introduce new people to Occupy K Street, to educate Occupy K Street activists about social movement history in the area, to creatively provide the story (and local significance) of the Franklin School building, and to provide witnesses to its occupation. (Up until the end of the cabaret, no one had any idea the school had been re-occupied.)

The cabaret was organized like a walking tour: sites related to social movement history were chosen and the shows were set up at each of those sites. Musicians played while the audience was led from one site to the next and activists presented the history of the site at each new location. The final location was in front of the Franklin School and hosted a show about the history of the building. At a dramatically timed moment toward the end of the show, a forty foot banner reading “Public Property Under Community Control” dropped from Franklin’s roof and the show ended with the announcement that Franklin was now occupied. A statement from the occupiers was read and an after-party commenced with pie-eating (OccuPie!) and music to support the activists inside the building.

The Performances:
The Bread and Puppet Theater performed two short shows. Local puppet group The Shadow Senators offered a tribute to Joe Hill. Music was provided by rock band Ugly Purple Sweater and Mexican folk music band Son Cosita Seria. Poetry was read by Zein ElAmine and a monologue was performed by political performance artist Quique Aviles. Puppet Underground ended the cabaret with the show about the history of Franklin School.

Follow Up:
The Franklin School building occupation garnered significant local and national press attention (with several international stories published about it as well). It successfully put the issue of the loss of public property and cuts to homeless services back in the spotlight. Two days after the action a community meeting was held to discuss publicly what longtime community members would want to see happen with the Franklin building. Currently activists and artists are continuing to plan how to use their momentum to support affordable housing campaigns, to broaden public engagement in the issues, and to follow up with communities about their ideas for reclaiming and repurposing their vacant public property.


PBS News Hour’s interactive tour of the cabaret (capturing pictures, video, sounds and stories from the route):

Video of the banner drop and Free Franklin’s statement:

Huffington Post article describing the arrests of the activists: