Free Speech

08.18.12

Occupy Wall Street Veterans Mass to Protest Pussy Riot Verdict

Remnants of the Zuccotti Park throngs converged on Times Square to add Vladimir Putin’s regime to their list of grievances and embrace the imprisoned punk trio.

Eleven months to the day after the Occupy Wall Street movement began its highly influential occupation of Zuccotti Park—only to scatter as winter and the NYPD threatened—a handful of diehard New York City occupiers were back in the game on Friday. Only this time, they weren’t protesting the suits on Wall Street, but rather the ones in the Kremlin.

Protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian courts erupted this week and came to a head on Friday, when the three members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years each in prison for “hooliganism driven by religious hatred” after they performed an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral in March.

Solidarity protests for the three members of Pussy Riot,  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were held in 64 cities from Moscow to Minneapolis on Friday. Russian chess legend Garry Kasparov was arrested protesting outside the court where Pussy Riot was convicted Friday morning.

Here in Times Square, the remnants of the Occupy movement gathered at about 12:45 p.m. after protesting outside the Russian consulate on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The crowd of about 40 was organized via a Facebook event created by members of the Occupy Guitarmy, Fair Vote for Russia NYC, and other protest groups. The New York Observer reported that six protesters were arrested outside the consulate.

Protesters chanting “Free Pussy Riot” and carrying signs made their way down Sixth Avenue to the corner of 46th Street, carrying neon pink and yellow signs with slogans like “Putin Peed Himself,” flanked by a line of about 10 NYPD officers walking single-file beside them. The crowd, many of whom had their faces covered by colorful baklavas, an homage to Pussy Riot’s unofficial uniform, gathered in the middle of Sixth Avenue and posed for pictures taken by an army of cameras almost as large as the protesters themselves. Alice Steiner, a legal assistant in Manhattan, condemned Pussy Riot’s sentencing, “They’re going to prison for expressing their minds for a period of one minute,” she said. “If we’re not careful, that might happen here.” Police stood by with white flex cuffs, although no further interactions between the protesters and police were seen or reported after the arrests outside the consulate.

Members of the Occupy Guitarmy sang songs in Russian and English, and were briefly joined by the Naked Cowboy, an underwear-clad Times Square fixture. The Cowboy, John Burck, 41, said he joined the protest because “I saw the sign ‘Pussy Riot’ and I came running down here.” He hadn’t been briefed on the politics, “I felt like I was misled,” he said, once he happened upon the group of protesters.

The group moved across the street for speeches delivered via a hallmark of the Occupy movement—the mic check—after a man who identified himself as Gary Phaneuf waded into the crowd, accusing the protesters of being “tools and puppets of the CIA” “It takes no guts to attack Russian standing in the U.S.A.,” he shouted, before chanting, “U.S.A., CIA, hands off Russia!” One protester wearing a black bandana covering his mouth yelled “shut up!” and tried to grab a sign out of Phaneuf’s hand.

Across the street, protesters argued about whether the United States was becoming more like Russia—or if that was even a worthy topic of debate. “Just because we’re in Times Square with all the tourists doesn’t mean everything is OK” in America, one member of the Occupy Guitarmy declared. “We’re not having a rally here about the United States,” another protester countered, trying to steer the conversation back toward Pussy Riot.

“It’s a much different movement now,” she said, “broader, more creative, but it’s harder to reach everyday people.”

Later, a protester encouraged the crowd to join a 24/7 occupation of the British consulate in Manhattan, to protest the U.K.’s recent announcement that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will not get safe passage out to Ecuador, where he has been granted asylum.

The confrontation was emblematic of a movement that has struggled both to take up any one singular cause—and that has often resisted the notion that any coherent message was necessary. Occupy is preparing for a city-wide march on September 17th, the one-year anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, but Daphne Carr, an organizer of the Pussy Riot protest and a familiar face of the Occupy movement, expressed frustration and sadness at the loss of what she called the “beautiful face-to-face interaction of people in Zuccotti Park.” “It’s a much different movement now,” she said, “broader, more creative, but it’s harder to reach everyday people.”

By 2 p.m, the crowd had mostly dispersed, and a group of befuddled tourists was lining up for ticket deals at the TKTS discount booth on 46th Street. The protest ended with a re-configuration of a song sung often in Zuccotti. The lyric “Wall Street, your kingdom must come down,” was replaced with “Putin, your kingdom must come down,” and “censorship, your kingdom must come down.”

The Russian-born guitarist, who identified herself as Alina, told the crowd, via a mic-checked echo, “we might not accomplish much, but we’re here, and that’s already a lot.”