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Pussy Riot, Partisan Politics And The Police State In America

Pussy Riot, Mediazona, Riot Grrrls at The Regent
Featured Image: Jessica Moncrief

Pussy Riot’s, Maria Alekhina spent 2 years in a Russian Work Prison along with her sisters in the band over their explosive “brand” of punk rock, performance art and protest in a place where protestors disappear on a regular basis. Through the process, facing certain imprisonment and the potentially high likelihood of political assassination, by Russian president Vladimir Putin, the women of Pussy Riot gained world wide infamy and affection for their refusal to back down to the growing totalitarian regime. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that counting views on YouTube ultimately means nothing. Internet 1- political oppression 666

Maria Alekhina- Pussy Riot/Media Zona

Maria Alekhina- Pussy Riot/Media Zona

Once released from a slave labor type Russian prison in a political police state that often disappears dissenters, Pussy Riot didn’t flee the country to pursue the monetary opportunities of their fast building “brand” and move to a safer proximity of distance away from the Kremlin and Putin’s new, contemporary KGB (FSB). Even though they are monetizing their story, they might’ve maximized their potential by, I don’t know, moving farther away from the political sniper rifles that must always be pointed at them in the case they need to be used as the ultimate example of what happens to the opposition in places like Russia. No. They stayed in Russia to poke the bear and continue to embed themselves and their bravery into the psyche of the Russian people through more art and the revolutionary news media company they launched fresh from prison, Mediazona.

As this woman sat in front us at The Regent Theater recalling the dire consequences of her activism, I couldn’t help but think of the hyper partisan, borderline propaganda media environment of the U.S. Presidential Election and distant memories of Occupy Wall Street and the fading enthusiasm of the not so distant, “Political Revolution”. I often think about why none of the political movements in America are able to gain any real steam or momentum, even as the gnawing feeling in the U.S. amongst so many is that we are generally moving in the wrong direction and I think I have finally begun to understand the answer to why all our grassroots movements are so easily neutralized and discredited.  More on that in a bit.

One might think that the terrifying anecdotes of Alekhina might’ve made many in attendance feel as if there were no parallels to be drawn between the jailing of artists and protestors in modern day Russia and the current political atmosphere here in the U.S. And I would agree. The parallels are more reminiscent of demagoguery of post WWII Germany- but semantics mean little to those living in a police state and even less for those that aren’t able read that writing on the wall.

Our host and panel moderator at The Regent Theater for the evening was Shepard Fairey whose “Obey” posters plastered all over Los Angeles in the 90’s invoked powerful social and political commentary in the streets and in the cultural subconscious of that time. You won’t find any Obey posters desecrating paid ad billboards anymore but you will find t-shirts in Macy’s or Nordstroms and you will find his larger than life commissioned work on the side of the West Hollywood Public Library, among other places in the world. Shepard Fairey has leveraged the interest in his “voice” into a very successful cultural brand that now appeals to a wider demographic in our country and yes, around the world. I find his continued efforts to make a political and social impact on our society through his brand to be quite admirable but yet, it’s protecting the monetary value of the brand that won’t allow Fairey and those like him to go beyond the partisan paradigm. I doubt it would be Fairey throwing any Molotov cocktails should dissent in America ever reach that fever pitch in his lifetime. In America, it’s the promise of bad credit scores, an arrest record or even the wrong kind of tweet that can make or break your brand and determine the levels of monetary and societal success one might achieve. Just as Andy Warhol might’ve suspected, we are all just waiting to capitalize on our 15 minutes of fame.

Obey the West Hollywood Library

Obey the West Hollywood Library

“Hopefully everyone on the panel will back me up when I say that we need to vote Hillary Clinton into office tomorrow” as Shepard Fairey concluded introducing the participants and began steering the conversation to an understandably hyper partisan direction.

To disagree with that statement in that crowd on the evening before our political “D-Day” would’ve been met with the typical vitriol and hate that is now commonplace for those with differing opinions in American society.

When asked about her time spent in a Russian Gulag, Alekhina said, “The prison is your mind” as she sat on a chair amidst the Fairey run panel at the Regent Theater, late on the night of election eve.

Alekhina and Fairey were joined by Sasha Bogina, 21 year old feminist reporter for Mediazona, Pussy Riot manager and confidant, Alexander Cheparukhin and O.G. Riot Grrrl and front woman for Bratmobile and Sex Stains, Allison Wolfe.

Shepard Fairey Moderates Pussy Riot Panel at Regent

Shepard Fairey Moderates Pussy Riot Panel at Regent

OG Riot Grrrl- Allison Wolfe

OG Riot Grrrl- Allison Wolfe

To her credit, Wolfe bravely but half heartedly responded to Fairey about the corporatism and hawkishness of Hillary, even as she and so many others, including myself ultimately declare our hope that Clinton defeats the quintessential crony capitalist and divisive cultural American figure, Donald Trump in this year’s election. I can’t seem to escape the feeling that the constant cultural pushing and tugging is becoming the main issue in American Politics and it feels as if there is someone or something purposely driving this wedge deeper between the American people.

The purpose of the election eve event was the screening of the 13 minute Pussy Riot Documentary trailer and the discussion surrounding the work of Mediazona. Young reporter, Sasha Bogina nervously and self consciously spoke her mind and described the work of Mediazona covering the Russian police state, events in Chechnya and some of their still jailed and less internationally recognized comrades.

Like their Ukranian born filmmaker friend, Oleg Sentsov, who is from the Crimea region of Ukraine and has been languishing in a Russian prison for the past 2 years and expected to serve 20 for charges of plotting acts of terrorism in his organized protests over the annexation of Crimea by the Russion Federation. He was beaten and threatened with rape to force his confession- a domestic terrorist that is stuck in Russia’s version of Guantanamo Bay.

The Regent Theater Panel and Political Prisoner Oleg Sentsov

The Regent Theater Panel and Political Prisoner Oleg Sentsov

Petr Pavlensky

Petr Pavlensky

They spoke of the art of Petr Pavlensky who first garnered international attention when he sewed his mouth shut in protest of the Pussy Riot arrest and subsequent incarceration after the band stormed the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, a symbol of Putin’s new Russia. Pavlensky is the prototype of centuries of the Russian legacy of art, culture and suffering, none of which can seemingly ever be separated from the other. Whether wrapping himself in a cocoon of barbed wire or nailing his scrotum to a concrete floor while sitting naked in front of Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, his actions and expression display the kind of dedication that let the State know that there is nothing they could ever do to him that could impede the dedication he has to his work or his ideology- meanwhile, here in the U.S., the threat of damaging your brand through some bad press and the threat of a night in jail can be the catalyst to take ALL the air out of some of the most promising American movements.

The Russian born panelists continued to tell harrowing stories of beheadings and disappearances of those who didn’t have the fortune and formula to garner as many views on YouTube as Pussy Riot have. There was laughter from the Regent Theater audience as if there were no understanding that these were stories of their friends being jailed or murdered-  Laughter from Americans who were probably old enough to have lived through the passage of the Patriot Act (Bush) and Anti- Protest Bills (Obama) but probably rarely thought of those as related in any way to the totalitarianism of the Russian Federation.

Alekhina impressively and methodically struggled slightly in broken English to relay her thoughts on the question of whether she was more of an artist or an activist, with long, late term pregnant pauses, she was looking for the right word to perfectly explain her position on the matter. The word she found was “framed”, explaining that it was her desire not to separate one aspect of her essence from the other and that framing herself as one thing more than the other limits her from the diverse being that she wishes to become.

Petr Pavlensky

Petr Pavlensky

“Activist or Artist. Describing myself in one or two words never felt right”, she explained.

“I like the word ‘queer’. It described me from an early age. I hate norms. I was always a problem”

Dick Art in Perestroika era Moscow

Dick Art in Perestroika era Moscow

Cheparukhin periodically interjected with old stories of Perestroika era of Gorbachev’s Russia, when freedom of expression for artists was exercised with an unfettered freedom by Russians that proudly pushed boundaries that other, so called democracies would’ve flinched at.

As Cheparukhin expanded on ideas that Alekhina struggled to relay, a woman sitting just in a row of seats right in front of me yelled, “Let her speak for herself. Stop speaking for her!” As if a woman like Alekhina would let a “mansplainer” join her on a promotional tour of the country. And suddenly, all our problems became crystal clear to me.

Janky Smooth photographer, Jessica Moncrief yelled, “Shut up” in a display of the type of struggle America is wrestling with in this generation- the struggle between a trendy faux feminism and activism and the illusion of fighting the system, juxtaposed by the real type of activism that landed Alekhina in Russian work prison or American suffragette, Alice Paul in an American jail.

The illusion of activism which frames the debate in a partisan manner, only serves to divide us by a perception of our identities and give the illusion that somehow, American’s don’t all have the same interests in the type of government they’d like to represent them, just by pushing emotional trigger buttons that were studied based on demographics, focus groups and political think tanks. It’s why Hillary Clinton the moderate was against gay marriage and stricter gun control laws in the 2008 primary and why Hillary the Progressive hammered Bernie Sanders on Gun Control and sexism in the 2016 primaries- I would submit that it’s the thing that has damaged her brand most.

The ever escalating process of making our elected officials legislators of morality and giving each citizen the feeling that everyone can achieve their own personal utopia’s started with Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” after the Civil Rights Act was passed by LBJ and the Democrats in ’64.  The politics of identity gained momentum as a political strategy through the abortion, gay marriage and now, the debate about where trans individuals can use the bathroom.

All throughout the night I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling I’ve had for the past 16 years that Americans have been subjected to psychological warfare. Pussy Riot showed the world that internet activism is the most powerful bullhorn the world has ever seen but in America, it has culminated into a hash tag head fuck type of identity politics and faux activism where culturally, the hashtag for #neverhillary can be used in the same tweet as #netflixandchill.

Since everyone’s online crusade to bring African warlord Kony to justice in 2012, I haven’t seen anyone who was so emotional about it those many years ago even so much as mention the topic in passing in quite some time. Hyper-partisanship and political identity in America is as fleeting as our short lived political movements. Without assigning too much blame to one party or the other, both sides have been convinced that our fight is with each other, rather than the growing corporate influence that is occupying all branches of American government.

Politicians grand stand for CNN cameras in a growing oppositional gridlock that prevents any progress on much of anything, as news cameras auspiciously go missing during crucial moments in government, like they did on the night Congress convened to decide the future fate and control of the American food supply on the night of the Dallas PD shootings. Distracted by a real cultural tragedy, Congress easily, without much debate at all, almost unanimously voted to make food labeling illegal. All the Republicans that go on endlessly about states rights voted without debate to take those rights away. Democrats that campaign on reducing corporate influence in our country seemed pretty influenced that night to make monumental decisions on the future of our food supply.

Do you know that Big Pharma has complete immunity from prosecution or liability?  They also control our vaccinations and the mandated, seemingly well intentioned injections that have now become required by law and can prevent you from participating in society if you decline the vaccines for any reason. Ask your questions quietly lest someone get wind and expose you to the internet shaming lynch mob, so that you can be in as much fear of your reputation being destroyed by the Facebook KGB as you are for the health of your children.

Angry Internet mobs scour the web for “science deniers” to crush any discussion outside of the well framed parameters of well defined issues to not allow any deviation from trite but effective talking points and tweets. Declarative statements on Facebook statuses dare anyone to disagree with their opinion so that the death nail can be driven into the Facebook friendship, as Petr Pavlensky drives death nails into his scrotum in the middle of the Red Square in Moscow.

petr pavlensky

petr pavlensky

Every 4 years, we panic to avoid yet another existential crisis. Democrats are convinced that Donald Trump is the devil. Some nebulous, forming political party is convinced Clinton is the anti Christ. Trump and his rabid cultural political base is the most extreme example of this hyper partisanship and has made jailing journalists and political rivals acceptable as long as Trump tweets that it can server to “Make America Great Again”. The biggest, self proclaimed “patriots” have transformed into all out nationalists with no irony over their belief that Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt politician on the face of the earth, as they long for the good old, pre Obama days of Bush and Cheney, who are still wanted in The Hague for Iraqi war crimes and we the tax payers continue to pay for the romp in Iraq that generated 100’s of millions for Cheney’s former company, Halliburton.

Remember my Post WWII Germany example? How ridiculous does it seem now?

I imagined yelling out at the Regent last night that America was heading towards the type of political police state of The Russian Federation and I imagined the shaming I would’ve received in return, even if I gave examples like the arrest warrant issued for Democracy Now!’s, Amy Goodman and the TV media black out of the protests surrounding the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the Dakota Access Pipeline. I have no huge fear of being mocked by those I’m trying to help but like Sasha Bogina stated last night when asked about feminism and women who hate feminists, “I don’t want to fight for the rights of people who don’t need it”.

Mark Baum, one of the people portrayed in the film, The Big Short stated, “We live in an era of fraud in America”.

He is correct. Investment bankers that were partly responsible for wiping out entire generations of pensions, savings, 30 year mortgages, 401k’s and other investments and life’s work of the American people, got fat bonuses and zero repercussions for one of the biggest white collar crimes in the history of the world, while the American people engage in venomous debate about whether or not an unarmed kid and his arrest record for petty crimes made his murder justified.

Hyper-partisanship, party politics and the way they exploit the demographics through pushing identity buttons are 100% responsible for the downward spiral we are in while we continue to argue about which party is more corrupt. Meanwhile, civil rights and financial opportunity begin to disappear slowly.

Republican voters talk about the corruption of Clinton foundation and donations from foreign countries even though it was just a few years ago that they defended the SCOTUS decision on Citizens United, towing the party line and saying “corporations are people” and “money is speech”.

People who vote for Democratic politicians and policy state on a fairly regular basis that the GOP is owned by the gun lobby and respond almost as often that there is no evidence that SuperPAC donations led Clinton or Obama to any quid pro quo- even as Obama appointed a Big Pharma lobbyist to be in charge of the FDA and Americans pay more for their medications than any other population in the word. But yeah, where’s the proof?

Conservative voters seek to stockpile their pea shooters in the event they need to defeat the armies of a country that spent at LEAST $601 BILLION on our Military in 2015 and can incinerate targets large or small from space.

Neither base of either party seems to understand that what totalitarian states fear most is an uprising of the people. The biggest weapon is in our wallets and as long as we are arguing about identity politics, we will never be in a position to pull the trigger. If all of us decided not to buy gas for just 48 hours, the term incremental change would be decimated in an instant.

I suspect that most people in attendance at The Regent Theater last night felt grateful for their lives in America when hearing the stories of Alekhina and Bogina. Beheadings and political kidnappings by secret police seems like it’s so far from our reality, that even making those comparisons is akin to some wing nut science denier. That what we really need to fear is the porous Mexican border and ISIS infiltrating it and instituting Sharia Law in America. The period of time between the fall of the Soviet Union and the uncertainty that may allow an authoritarian to take power through the vote could never happen here. Comparing the past few presidents to Hitler and drawing comparisons to Nazi Germany has lost it’s edge since it’s invoked so often, so I don’t blame you for rolling your eyes.

The music and art that inspire me most are the politically and socially conscious work that inspired things like anti war protest, the civil rights movement, the kind that helped end Apartheid in South Africa, festivals that saved American farmers and that inspire both love, rage and action. Where is our Pussy Riot? Where is our Rage Against the Machine? Where is our Bob Dylan?

There is plenty to be angry at in America yet it feels like our art culture is completely devoid of it and the American become more and more outraged about all the wrong issues.  I suspect, scratch that, I know that young artists are all taking the advice of their booking agents and managers and protecting their “brands” by not turning off a potentially big and profitable demographic to their art by taking a definitive and vocal stance on issues they feel strongly about.  

Well, what about the brand of America? Will we be so scared to go into debt or risk a financial future that isn’t guaranteed to us anyway, as witnessed by the financial crash of 2008, that we refuse to fight for each other and for our futures?

We are a people that have been given the appearance of fighting against something in a system in which both political parties seem to be equally corrupted by campaign cash, as we argue in defense of politicians engaging in legal corruption and give up the only real weapon we have- UNITY.

Words: Danny Baraz

Photos: Jessica Moncrief 

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