Does the world feel different?
Because Saturday, at noon, an exorcism was performed on the AT&T Building in Lower Manhattan. If you’re not familiar, the AT&T Building is a building that would be rejected by the production team behind Power Rangers as too obvious a location for a supervillian lair. It is 550 feet tall. It has no windows. It is clad entirely in concrete thick enough to withstand an atomic weapon. It has three subterranean levels and enough food to support 1,500 people for three weeks, supposedly. At night, it remains unlit, an imposing clot of concrete that casts 29 stories of Manhattan’s glittery skyline in permafrost shadow.
Within those concrete walls is a massive telecommunications operation and, as The Intercept reported in 2016, probably a NSA surveillance hub.
But no more! Because Saturday, some hippies in weird outfits said some funny things and the great concrete giant shook itself off and saw the light. It washed those spooks right out of its Brutalist hair and gingerly stepped its great concrete toes in the soft green grass and vowed that from now on, it’s just going to live and let live, man.
Okay, that did not happen. Obviously. But what did happen was a tongue-firmly-in-cheek event inspired by the grand tradition of performance protest.
Walking up to the concrete façade, for a half second I was worried about finding the protest. It’s a big building—what if I missed them somehow? But there was no need to be concerned because there, in a fenced area referred to as the “pig pen of democracy” a group of fifteen or so protestors chanted. They were wearing stylish tinfoil ensembles and silver face paint. Some had beards and were holding instruments. The pen looked like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes mated with a cable channel series on alien enthusiasts.
This merry band included the event’s organizers, the editors of The Quiet American, a journal that “explores the dreary, hysterical landscape of US media and proposes a brighter, gentler alternative.” According to The Quiet American, Saturday's event was inspired by the infamous 1967 attempt to levitate the Pentagon and a 1968 exorcism of Senator Joe McCarthy’s grave.
I was handed a program with start and end times—you must keep your exorcisms very organized or things get messy, I assume. The docket included both impassioned speeches in support of 4th Amendment rights and the ceremonial smashing of an ostrich egg. Similarly, the chants veered from sacred to profane, scary to silly, from concern about the erosion of privacy rights to your mom’s naked pictures.
According to an interview with Gothamist, Quiet American editor Noah Harley said the tone was quite purposeful. “To be frank with you, we’re walking some fine line where it’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but we’re not doing it in an ironic way. That building is real.”
The protestors were joined by roughly the same number of press, and surrounding the pen were various passerby, most of them holding up their phones and recording the shenanigans. A few cops stood on the periphery, looking remarkably bored as they watched the ceremony. It takes work to look bored at an adult man dressed in fluttery tinfoil chanting over an ostrich egg.
The climax of the protest was a group chant in which the crowd beamed mirrors and camera phones at the building, hoping to pierce the concrete façade with positive energy and create a feedback loop so powerful it would suck out any NSA-related evil. Supposedly we’d know it worked if the building shrank two stories.
“Did it work?” someone asked.
“Oh yeah,” one of the organizers said. “Yeah, it worked. It worked everybody!”
He was kidding, of course. But everyone still applauded and recorded the whole thing on their phones.