By Daphne Carr
December 1, 2011 — the last night of the Lincoln Center production of Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha. The opera focuses on the political philosophies of Gandhi, and hovers around the titular concept that “truth force” will prevail over injustice and lies. Little did the audience know, it would have a pop quiz on the topic after the concert ended.
I was there that evening, but not as an audience member. I was one of several hundred who had come to participate in an Occupy Wall Street general assembly on the plaza. Hours before we all arrived, the police erected barricades around the entire perimeter of the Center’s public plaza.
When the 4,000 opera-goers came out onto the plaza, they found a cordon of police stood on the steps monitoring the large, peaceful assembly, which was held back by the long metal bar. As the audience approached we shouted, “Satyagraha is your life,” and asked “Join us.” (A video shot by the classical critic from the New Yorker, Alex Ross, is here.) The audience stood frozen and the police around them at attention.
Then one person walked down the steps. He reached us, and nothing happened to him. A couple followed, then a few more. Soon enough there were hundreds of opera-goers on the other side of the barricades. First they stood, but then some began to climb over the barricades to join us on the sidewalk. Then others began to grab the barricades themselves and shake them, trying to pry them loose. Hands rushed to lift and help twist, and as I was in the front I was one to help lift.
Over my hand came a huge, gnarled hand that looked like it should be attached to a Hobbit. Startled, I looked up, and it was connected to Lou Reed, who was lifting the barricade from the other side. We worked together to lift and turn the barricade, as some slipped under and others watched. Eventually, we got the barricade loose and the two groups became one together on the street.
We then held the assembly, with people taking turns talking about why they supported occupy or talking about their struggles. About an hour after stack was open, after the messages of Phillip Glass, a laid-off City Opera singer, Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson, a seasoned ACT UP activist, and an ashamed concertgoer, Lou Reed took his turn on the human mic. He said: “I’m a musician in New York. I’ve played all over. I was born in Brooklyn. But I’ve never been more ashamed than to see the barricades tonight. The police are our army. I want to be friends with them. I want to occupy Wall Street. I support it in each and every way. I’m proud to be part of this. Thank you.” His statement was broken up into fragments to be repeated in two waves across the crowd. As they repeated his words, he smiled.
While I consider Reed’s work with Amnesty International, AIDS charities, tsunami victims and other charities deeply valuable, I cherish most this moment of his political action. I saw Reed put the force of action behind his words. While many celebrities endorse positive change, they tend to shy away from public work against corrupt power. Still fewer will risk arrest, jeopardize their own safety, or leave the confines of the stage or their pocketbook to take direct action against injustice.
He was a great friend of the Czech dissident writer and philosopher Václav Havel, who advocated that one must always “live in truth” even in the face of corrupt laws or social norms. It is very similar to the idea of satyagraha, and could be considered a working rule for Reed’s own art making.
Reed’s radical action to undo a police barrier keeping two lawfully assembled groups apart was also a natural one for someone who spent a life making art about and advocating personal and collective freedom. It is easy to discuss these things theoretically, from the stage or podium, but in that tousled moment Reed was nothing but a human making a decision about wrong and right. Like his art, it was a risk worth taking and he took it naturally, completely, and with soul.