I Went Down to the Demonstration

Last Monday here in New York City, a rally was held in front of City Hall at noon, in support of the National Endowment for the Arts and in protest against the current administration’s proposed defunding of the agency. (You can check out news coverage of it here.) A few days prior, Actors Equity Association informed its members about the rally, asking for volunteers to attend and provide a show of support. Since I’m displeased by this administration’s stance on the arts – as you might remember – I felt it was important for me to attend. Especially since it was conveniently taking place during my lunch hour. 

I arrived just as the first representatives from the performers’ unions were starting to gather at a public square around the corner from City Hall. It therefore didn’t look like there were very many of us, as a handful of volunteers handed out buttons and T-shirts as tourists strode past all around us. However, as the time for the rally drew near and we all lined up to enter the square, it became clear that there were more of us than first appeared. We filled the area before the stairs, and still the line of arts professionals, looks of grim determination in their faces, snaked its way along Chambers Street.

I mention a line to enter and a prompt start time, and from that you can safely conclude that this wasn’t a particularly fraught or raucous protest. Whether it was even a “protest,” properly speaking, is up for debate. It was organized by members of the City Council and tightly coordinated with local media and law enforcement. The testimonials from various industry professionals – headlined by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – were all tightly stage-managed and on-message. And it’s not like the New York City council can actually dictate federal policy, or has anti-arts legislation before it. It’s not as if New York City is a hotbed of organized activity against arts funding. This was mostly a staged event to put our concerns on the record. Essentially, a photo op.

They asked us to take up positions behind the various speakers, so that the cameras could see a united field of artists and citizens. And I’m in there somewhere, about five rows back. There’s no way to make me out; with a group of people that size, the people in the back are there to make clear the depth of field, not to stand out themselves.

I was an extra.

Protests have a habit of generating counter-protests, and I was curious to see if there were people so fervently in favor of this administration, or against the arts (perhaps a ballerina ran over their dog when they were children?), that they’d show up to try and shout us down. But there was none of that. We did have to try and be heard over a New Orleans-style brass band which was busking in the area, working its way around the block throughout. But mostly, what professionals there were walking past on their lunch hours, and what tourists there were on downtown walking tours, seemed quite content to let us do our thing. The gates around City Hall prevented them from either joining in or interrupting, so our event continued happily on, another thing to see in the big city.

So, I was an extra in a staged event, on behalf of a cause which few if any people in this city would disagree with, during a week when there were a dozen or so other issues which should arguably have our attention instead. (You all noticed that we almost started World War III, right? Right?) And I took part in this event on my lunch hour, with no disruption to my life or routine. It was quite literally the least I could do – thus raising the question of whether I should have bothered to do it at all.

The thing of it is, though, that while the event may have been staged, its participants were clearly sincere. No permanent protesters or radical chic here; we were a bunch of work-a-day performers, as regular as our kind can ever be, coming out in force. It’s been remarkable how mundane, how ordinary the protests against this administration have been thus far. Past movements have become subcultures, in which declaration of identity wound up mattering as much or as more than the issues. Not this time – it’s regular people who are frightened and upset who are putting together these events. And events such as these are cumulative. The more there are, the more the conversation about this administration is shifted, and the more people across the political spectrum can agree that something is dreadfully wrong. It only requires the patience to keep on doing this, to keep up the pressure on as many fronts as possible.

And New York actors know how to be patient. We spend a lot of time as extras, after all.

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