Changing Minds with Guerrilla Theater (“Wentworth”)

[This interviewee chose to use the pseudonym “Wentworth.” To accommodate him, a few other names have been changed as well. He’s an old acquaintance of mine. We were both members of an affinity group that nonviolently blocked an important intersection in Seattle during the demonstrations there against the World Trade Organization in 1999.]

Sylvia: To start off, you’re both an artist and a house painter. Is that right?

Wentworth: Correct. Among other things.

At times in your life you’ve been involved with political activism. What in your past led you to become an activist?

 Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. Is it David Harris? He was married to Joan Baez? He came to my college when I was a freshman, when I was taking a lot of LSD and he was on his way to jail for burning his draft card and he laid out what the war in Vietnam was about. And it all clicked for me. And I decided I was not gonna go to Vietnam. I mean, I didn’t even like the idea of summer camp. Much less going over and shooting at people and being shot at. And of course, the culture of the time reinforced that self-examination, examining the social and political landscape, all the values we’d ever had and held and what our parents were doing.

Like trying to be upper middle class. My mom was pretty liberal and very supportive of me. She took me around to different churches when I was a child and talked a lot about Mahatma Gandhi. So it became increasingly obvious that what we were being taught in school and through the media was not the whole story. So that probably led to my questioning things and becoming an activist, more or less. Certainly many people did far more than I ever did and laid more on the line. I guess it felt like if I didn’t participate in the dominant culture and the economy that was a big enough job.

 I took, more or less, a vow of poverty. Not to pursue a huge career or make money the focus of my life. Or participate in any way that would further the military industrial complex. Timothy Leary was another big influence, as well as Ken Kesey and The Grateful Dead. Leary, just about that time when he said, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” I took it literally. And haven’t really looked back.

Now, had you been politically active before we all went to Seattle?

 Yeah, kind of marginally. I remember being in the Vietnam protests in Eugene when I was going to the U of O. Sophomore year, maybe junior year. For my first political art I made seven gold stars out of cardboard, maybe two feet across, for mothers who had lost sons in Vietnam. The mothers carried them in the march. And then about that time, I think somebody burned the ROTC building and there was some riots. I never really got into the violence part of it.

So was there anything else between then and when I knew you twenty-something years later?

 Let’s see. I lived for two years on a goat commune farm. We thought that we were gonna change the world doing that. Instead of my military service I spent two years slogging around a goat farm in Southern Oregon.

And was that accepted in lieu of military service? As alternative service?

 No, I didn’t need to do that. Wanna hear a funny story? I went to the draft resistance people on campus and they said, “We know a doctor. He won’t lie for you but he’ll write you a letter if he can.” So, I went to the library and I researched, I think it was petit mal epilepsy and described that to him. And he said, “Go get an EEG and if it comes out abnormal I’ll write you a letter.”

So, I went and got an appointment and I took LSD and speed and Dilantin, which they give to epileptics to alter their brain patterns. Which might not have been the right thing to do. Anyway, in those days they stuck 16 needles in your scalp and had you hyperventilate and it was quite an experience and it came out normal.

 So they called me up my sophomore year. I was taking art. And those were the days of the student deferment. I was gettin’ C’s, I don’t know what they wanted but they called me up. I got on the bus with a bunch of other bummed out people and went to Portland for my physical and jeez, I told ‘em I took every drug in the book, even ones I didn’t and tried to fake my eye and ear test and that’s really hard to do, apparently. But then they saw a letter from my doctor saying I had asthma and they seemed horrified. They gave me, I think it was, a pink card. So that was like the happiest day of my life.

 And then I couldn’t figure out why I was in school anymore. So, I dropped out of the U of O and hit the road hitchhiking with fifty bucks. And I was gone for three months. In those days you could do that. It was just the generosity and beauty of people. It was just an amazing experience.

Caught my first rock festival with Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane. And Steve Miller at the Santa Fe fairgrounds in California. And just hitchhiked. Got into Canada. Had a great time, kind of opened my eyes to what was goin’ on. And I came back to Eugene, went to the goat farm, then went back east and got on a boat and did the inland waterways on a boat for 12 or 15 years, like that. Lived on a boat. I bought the boat in New Jersey, 30 miles north of Atlantic City. And wound up in Key West, Florida.

And so you and Joan [Wentworth’s longtime partner] were living on this boat?

 Yeah. I don’t know if that was a protest. It certainly wasn’t a career move.

[laughs] What about your art? What role did your art have in this?

 Well, when they asked me to have a major, I couldn’t think of anything. Kind of got into ceramics, playing around with mud. So that was good. I was doing that at the U of O when I dropped out. And it seemed like a good idea to me. I was inspired by the Impressionists, and then the Surrealists, and then abstract artists like Pollack and people like that. I can’t say I’ve been very productive but Joan was quite an artist. [Joan died of cancer a few weeks before this interview.]

She had quite a bit of talent. When I met her she was working on the Miami Mural Project. They had contests for the art, the artists, with a prize of $2000 which was quite a bit of money back then. She essentially supervised house painters, putting up these murals on nine downtown buildings in Miami. She was the one that made the patterns and mixed the colors and kind of interpreted what was going on and made them do what they were supposed to do.

It was funded by a CETA grant. [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, an anti-poverty program started under Nixon in 1973.] And she had gone to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade [an organization founded jointly by Students for a Democratic Society and the Cuban government.] So, I thought, “Wow. This is a pretty neat girl.”

She was never proud of the fact that it was illegal and that the FBI knocked on her door when she got back. But I guess there was nothing they could do. She never really talked about it much except that it was a good experience and, just like any bureaucracy, there were good parts about Cuba and bad parts about it. Cuba then was kind of sexist and pretty homophobic. But I thought it showed a lot of courage for her to do that.

Now, when I first met you, we were preparing to go to Seattle to oppose the World Trade Organization when they were going to have a big meeting there. And we were training to be an affinity group that would eventually travel up to Seattle together and participate in an action together. Was that a break in your pattern, a new activism? Did someone recruit you for that?

 A break in the pattern. I was active in the Grower’s Market [a local buyer’s club, volunteer-run, that supplies organic foods at rock-bottom prices] and a few other things. I heard about the World Trade Organization and it seemed like a really bad idea to me. So I thought that would be a good thing to do, sounded like fun. Actually I’m not sure how I heard about the affinity group. I got in on the very end of it. I felt totally honored that I was accepted by you guys and that all we had to do was go. But it was quite an inspiring thing. All the art. All the activism. That’s where we got the inspiration for the street theater.

Now, what was your role? I don’t remember what you and Joan were doing in Seattle.

 We were observers, witnesses if people were arrested or something like that. We didn’t sign on to get arrested. Like I said, I didn’t even like the idea of summer camp. But you know, we were there. And with the group.

Were you in the circle around the people in lockdown?

 Yeah. We were supposed to observe, and weren’t you a legal …?

Yeah, I was the contact person so that if someone was arrested I could go and get a lawyer for them and possibly arrange for bail or whatever was required. I didn’t understood what everyone was doing. I knew the people who were in lockdown and I think Peg was carrying human waste to dump it somewhere [laughs] for the people who had locked themselves under the float.

 The planters in Seattle were well used.

So, that’s what they did with it?

 Yeah.

Well, anyhow. Charles [Charles Gray my late husband, <www.charlesgrayactivist.com>] was the media representative. So whenever anyone wanted to know about what was happening – and so many people from the media kept coming around — we would direct them to Charles and he would give them the story.

 Unfortunately, I think what made it into the media was the same thing over and over again, the people breaking into the Starbucks.

On TV, yeah, or the anarchist kids, the Black Bloc, tearing down the Nike sign. There were a lot of things that were very peculiar about the coverage — like there must’ve been 50,000 people in the street, but no one was permitted to be on a high building to take photographs.

 Yeah, I think they reported 20,000 or something.

Well, there were at least 20,000 at the [steelworkers] union demonstration that had been authorized by the city. After the union event ended, many of those people started coming down to join us. Of course, we’d been authorized to have a little march but instead we blocked the downtown area so the WTO delegates couldn’t get to their meeting.

 And then I remember beforehand, when we were at the park, it was like dawn, and there was like two cops there, and hundreds of people. [On the morning of the demonstration, many affinity groups met before dawn at a park not far from the Pike Place Market.] And you could tell they were nervous and they didn’t know what to make of our float which was like this huge welded thing. And I remember them looking under it and not seeing the lockdown devices.

It was dark and foggy. It was almost impossible to see anything.

 Yeah, well, I think they were totally outnumbered. They weren’t going to make a big issue out of it.

I understood there was a point where they started confiscating things.

 But, they didn’t hassle us. We got all the way to 6th and Pike, correct?

Yes, but there was a reason they didn’t hassle us. Now, I’m the one who’s giving testimony here! [chuckles] We heard that the cops were confiscating these things that people were going to lock themselves to, not our affinity group but another group that was at the park.

 I vaguely remember that.

They called them towers but they were very small towers [the sort that forest activists chained themselves to, to block logging roads]. And the police were confiscating them. This young woman in our group, a student at the U of O, she said we all had to shout, “We know about the law against prior restraint!” So a whole circle of us women, we’re shouting again and again, “We know about the law against prior restraint!” And I didn’t have a clue. [laughs] But apparently they were not allowed to seize things if nothing wrong had been done with them. So they stopped. They were kind of scared off. As you say, they were greatly outnumbered anyway.

 Then I remember we got to 6th and Pike and there was an urban tank and a line of horses from window to window, across the street, up on the sidewalk and everything. So, we plunked the float down right in the middle of the intersection.

I don’t remember any horses, but there was a line of SWAT team policemen in full battle gear.

 Remember the 5-gallon bucket drum brigade?

Yeah. The sound of drumming, and the chants and the slogans!

That was really powerful. And all the street theater. Just the creativity was amazing. Remember, there was a convergence center in an old warehouse where consensus meetings were held before the big day. Which was an amazing exercise in democracy. And that first day we owned the streets and it was ecstatic. It was a wonderful feeling. I hadn’t been that hopeful since the 60’s. So when we came back to Eugene, we fell in with some other folks and started the street theater.

So why don’t you talk about the street theater — also called guerrilla theater when it’s used for political purposes. What was that like and what was that about?

 Joan and I were at some kind of meeting right after Seattle. We met Don and Beryl and I guess it was Beryl said, “We should get together and have a street theater group.” So David is a really talented musician and an actor and we gathered a lot of talent and we decided to call it the “Urgent Carnival” and at that time the FTAA was about to be voted on. [Free Trade Area of the Americas, a trade agreement still being negotiated to expand NAFTA to 31 more countries in the Western Hemisphere]

 So we decided to create some skits to educate people, explaining what it was and how we could stop it. So we started making street theater props and puppets and …

When you say puppets you mean those giant puppets commonly used in guerrilla theater?

 Yeah. The two main big puppets were Bob the businessman who was 12 feet tall and you carried him on a backpack where you had a little window probably where his belly button would be, and he carried a briefcase that said, “Work. Obey. Consume.” He had a red, white and blue tie and a blue jacket and looked very business-like and a big cigar, red ruddy face. And then his antithesis was Gaia who was an indigenous woman. She was created out of paper shopping bags so it gave her kind of a non-white face and she held the planet in her two hands and had a really colorful and indigenous kind of costume like you might see in Central America or South America. And she was about 11 feet tall. And carried on a backpack.

So they sort of played off of one another and we made a bulldozer out of cardboard, just all these different props, masks, and we had an elephant and a donkey. We built the bulldozer in our living room and then, duh! we couldn’t get it out the door. It was too big. I don’t know how we thought we were gonna transport it.

So anyway, we started making things in modular pieces that we could assemble when we got to wherever we were going. And Don was really good at creating songs, alternative songs. I remember we went to Valley River Center [a local mall]. We looked like a church group, we were all dressed up and we had like a dozen re-written Christmas carols with far-out political messages. And we made it through almost the whole set before anybody realized that, “Hey, wait a minute, these aren’t Christmas carols.” And we were asked to leave. It was pretty funny. [laughs]

Don was playing guitar. We had some real talent, people that could act and all the scripts were original. Joan and I just did the props, pretty much. But Joan got into acting sometimes when people were away or not able to participate, and all the props kept evolving. For one demonstration I carried Bob and I had a little light inside and we rigged up one of those small amplifiers in the microphone? And I had enough room in there where I could actually read a script, because I can’t remember scripts. So, you know, I would do that and project out.

We did a farm workers thing up near Salem [Oregon’s state capital]. And then Joan wore Gaia when the Dalai Lama came to Portland. We somehow got in this march for about a couple of miles and she carried it. It was really windy. It was like a sail. So she was like fighting this huge thing.

 And a little Tibetan girl adopted her. I don’t know if she thought she was real or was just holding onto her dress. I remember the Dalai Lama saying it was pretty much up to the people in the United States to tell their government to stop doing bad things in the world. Which, at the time, seemed pretty bold for a religious leader to be doing. So, yeah. The street theater became a thing. We put a lot of time in for a couple of years. I don’t know how many performances we did but what we found was the space where you could actually have free speech became smaller and smaller and smaller. In fact, now, Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza [in downtown Eugene] is like 8 x 8.

In other words, when you’re performing there you don’t have the whole space?

 No, not anymore. I think you can still do it in front of the post office, but that’s one of the only other places. Like anywhere there’s private property, can’t do it in the mall. If you’re on the sidewalk, you have to keep moving. So, it seemed like it was getting a little futile.

I was trying to register voters this summer before the primaries, and I was in front of Market of Choice [a big local supermarket] and they were shooing me away from there and the police said that I couldn’t do it there.

 Registering voters. How un-American is that? That’s crazy.

Yeah. I was not allowed there. So I went in front of the main downtown library and nobody stopped me there.

 Yeah. So, the space where we could perform actually became really hard to come up with. I think our right to free speech has been eroded considerably.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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