This post might be a bit of a fudge, but it’s of the moment. It encompasses Occupy, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the historiography of activism. Please bear with me.
Today is the two year anniversary of Occupy London beginning on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. I never camped but I know a few people who did, and I was there on the first night – I saw the riot cops, the snatch squads, the police dogs brought out in an attempt to intimidate a peaceful group of protestors. I was also there on the last night as the community that had grown there prepared to split apart and tried to work out what to do next.
Throughout the time Occupy were camped there I couldn’t believe the levels of vitriol being pointed towards people trying to bring the system (which everyone knows is screwed) into sharper focus. People camped out were angrily denounced by people who had much the same opinions as them. This Daily Mash article at the time of the eviction just about sums it up: Millions back removal of dirty hippies with whom they are in complete agreement
“I don’t know who I hate most – the bank that sent my business to the wall while awarding huge bonuses to its failing management
or the human sewage who have been pointing out what a fucking disgrace that is. Look at them, with their hair.”
This Sunday, I took my Fairy Godmother to see Jesus Christ Superstar. The choice was hers – I wanted to treat her, she loves Tim Minchin who’s playing Judas, so off we went to see Jesus Christ Superstar.
I hadn’t read any reviews – I’d seen a production when I was 11 and liked some of the music but wasn’t that eager to re-visit either soppy musical numbers I’d swooned about early crushes to, or Christian doctrine which is not really my bag these days.
After the first number I was breathless with excitement: the stage for Jesus Christ Superstar was just grey steps with banners and tents all over the place. The crowds had black bloc hoodies, jeans, and dreads. The Roman soldiers were cops with riot shields who suddenly loomed behind the crowd from the top of the steps exactly like the riot cops had on the first night of Occupy.
I cannot begin to explain how excited and grateful I was to see the story of scrubby radicals from 2,000 years ago portrayed in the clothes of scrubby modern day radicals.
The opening number ‘Heaven on Their Minds’ – sung by Judas is a (justifiably) paranoid activist telling his friend to tone it down before they all get in big trouble. When I heard it aged 11 it was just a good guitar riff – now it speaks to me of the mindset of people doing their best to be good but who know the system is doing everything it can to stop them. Who know there are spies in their midst and there’s a state narrative pitched at silencing them at almost any cost.
The scene with Mary Magdelene washing Jesus’s feet with expensive ointment suddenly made sense in terms of activist burnout. People who are deeply committed to a cause feel wasteful for even having a night in when they know there’s things they could be doing – a whole world they should be saving – but self-care is important, too. You need to take enough care of yourself and each other that you’re still any use to the cause.
Judas told Jesus off for having Mary Magdelene around because her presence as a sex worker could make their whole movement more easy to discredit. (Intersectionality!) Judas frequently worries about whether their movement looks consistent or knows where it’s going and thinks his friend Jesus has lost it lately and is putting their whole movement in danger. When I saw a production of this aged 11 it was a Bible story with some good music. This time around it spoke to my life and my preoccupations.
In the production Jesus was grabbed by a snatch squad in the Garden of Gethsemane, and brought to trial in an orange jumpsuit. The forty lashes and eventual execution are uncomfortable viewing any time, but these days seem closer to home the more petitions I sign for Amnesty.
I was so incredibly grateful to see Jesus portrayed as (I believe) he was: a radical peaceful religious leader who cared about the poor, hung out with sex workers, threw money-lenders out of the temple, and scared the crap out of the authorities – so much so that they sentenced him to death on some trumped-up charges.
I don’t have any doctrinal faith these days, so I don’t want to focus on the human sacrifice/son of God element of the story. (I was raised a Quaker and may return to it more formerly at some point. I’m also an effnik liberal Jew and went to an Evangelical Christian School. I have a fair bit of knowledge of different religions, but no particular faith.) What I want to focus on is the human narrative of activism, and the way – over the years – good people doing great things become elevated to a kind of whitewashed sainthood… which makes it more about the person being amazing and less about what they did, why they did it and how they did it.
I don’t just mean the Radical Rabbi. I also mean figures such as Martin Luther King Jnr, Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony, John Woolman, Harvey Milk, Malala Yousafzai and many more people than this scribbled article can possibly encompass. It seems the greater the person is, the further away they become. The higher the pedestal we (as a society) put people on, the less easily we can see the ladder they climbed to get there. But they’re all humans. They took paths which were brave, smart, kind, and often dangerous, but their paths and similar actions aren’t inaccessible to us.
We are as capable as they are of doing great and good things if we’re brave enough and determined enough. The fight to make the world better is never over, and there’s rarely, if ever, time to rest on your laurels. And people will say shitty, discouraging things to you every step of the way. So what?
Occupy were frequently sneered at about the most trivial things: apparently the existence of their iPhones or where they bought their coffees from disproved their overall message that the system’s fucked and we need to build something better. Go back a few decades and Churchill had some pretty vile things to say about Gandhi looking like a weird scrubby hermit. So bloody what? Gandhi’s weaving was one of his many ways of opting out of things he didn’t need – and sod Churchill for thinking less of him for it. (I can’t really imagine a universe where Churchill and Gandhi would be friends… let’s leave this argument where I found it… under the couch somewhere…)
I was uncomfortable at the 50 year anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jnr’s I Have a Dream speech that some people seemed to view it only as a positive, wonderful thing. It was all of those things – but it was not just an inspiring speech: it was not a victory march, it was a protest march. Kids in schools are rarely taught about how Washington DC was braced for a riot. About how they had thousands of cops on standby, most of the city was in lockdown and the powers that be had a button which could have cut MLK’s microphone any second if they’d wanted to. And the speech spoke at great length about economic injustice, not just those killer lines about his children being judged on the content of their character. Plenty of the problems MLK pointed out are still here today. And I’m glad Obama won the election instead of the other guy, but for crying out loud – Martin Luther King’s dream has not been realised yet. We have lots of work still to do.
But also: from where any of these (partially or completely) successful activist movements were stood at the time: victory was not certain. From the ground: it never is, until your ideas have been so absorbed by the society around you that no one remembers it was your idea. Success as an activist means no one saying thank you: success as an activist is people forgetting they ever fought you in the first place.
If you’re an activist you’re doing what you do because you care passionately about making the world a better place. If you’re successful your ideas may be adopted more widely or shape society as a whole. If you’re extremely successful and a great orator – someday you may get a holiday named after you or a religion built around you. If that happens: just hope and/or pray that people remember all of what you were about, and not just the bits which are the most convenient to them.