Colonialism: the Musical

"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, February 2006

"Riots Mar Summit of the Americas." "Protest Turns Violent." " Violence Flares at Anti-Bush Protest." Virtually all of the news headlines about the protests against the pro-globalization Summit of the Americas in the beach resort of Mar del Plata, Argentina began in a similar way. Of course, this is to be expected from CNN, the BBC or NPR. But my daily news source, Free Speech Radio News, a worker-run collective, carried a shockingly similar story, where they praised the mass demonstration led by soccer star Diego Maradona, but decried the "violence" of protesters who set a bank on fire.

I'm so sick of hearing about property destruction described as "violence." Especially when no one gets hurt -- except, of course, masses of people beaten by the cops. Hello -- we're talking about a bank! What could be more gorgeous than the most obvious everyday symbol of the violence of capitalism, tumbling to the ground in flames? What could be less empowering than a mass demonstration of thousands of people who fail to challenge the status quo? Any "progressive" news source should be ashamed to equate the burning of a bank with the brutality of institutional oppression.

Speaking of institutions - I actually went to see the movie version of that smash Broadway musical, Rent. I wasn't planning on it - I swear -- even though I was curious about the part they filmed on Sixth Street in San Francisco. But I got a call from a friend who had free tickets -- and the movie was playing at the corporate theater right across the street from my house -- so I couldn't really turn it down.

Okay, so the best part is that these nice white straight squatters are living in a gorgeous loft space somewhere in downtown New York, 1989, and the evil ruling class landlord who's trying to evict them... is black. Not only is he black, but he used to live with them, until he married into money and became evil -- you know how that is. This is the way Rent simultaneously erases economic realities and creates a false history -- oh wait, that's the whole point!

But the scariest part is the way that the movie drew me in. Never doubt the allure of a false history that contains elements of truth packaged within a well-choreographed spectacle. Here's what happens -- the performance artist is having a big show at a huge abandoned building, and it escalates into a skirmish with the cops. Okay, I cried when the cops attacked the protesters -- I admit it. But then the whole crew ends up at Life Cafe, one of the grossest restaurants in all of downtown New York -- someone dragged me there once for some kind of tofu stirfry cooked on the meat grill, or something. It's open 24 hours, but this is New York -- there are a lot of things open 24 hours.

Anyway, the business at Life Cafe will certainly pick up after this lovely movie, since there's a scene filmed inside the cafe where the squatting preppy straight guy filmmaker and his straight ex-junkie roommate with AIDS, the white performance artist and her black lawyer girlfriend, the Latina drag queen and her black boyfriend face-off against the evil black landlord and his white cronies. They do a song about the joys of bohemian life, "Viva la Vie Boheme," which is choreographed on top of the tables and features numerous queer gyrations that feel almost vaguely maybe close to realistic, or at least glamorous and confrontational, and somewhere in the song the straight white ex-junkie guy with AIDS and the Latina junkie who's courting him notice that their watch alarms go off at the same time -- AZT break! Oh -- and in a terrible flourish -- someone writes "Fight AIDS" on the blackboard, and I think they all say "ACT UP Fight Back Fight AIDS." Or something like that -- that's all we get for AIDS activism in 1989, at the height of ACT UP.

But I cry before that, somewhere in the scene where the bohemians face-off against the landlords, who leave. If only it worked that way in real life.

But there's lots more. The melting pot HIV-positive support group is so realistic -- there's the black professional woman, the white woman beatnik, the white theater guy (I guess maybe he's a fag), the straight white ex-junkie guy, the Latina drag queen and her boyfriend -- everyone's in it together, even the HIV-negative (but so supportive!) preppy straight filmmaker squatter is there, turning the crank on his camera as the participants slowly disappear. That's right -- everyone looks great until they fade to nothing. Except the Latina drag queen -- she pays for her gender transgression, lesions and intravenous drips in the hospital bed as her friends try to cheer her up until it's time for the graveyard tell-all.

At the graveyard, we're getting some chosen family drama, because the evil black landlord is now dating the Latina junkie stripper with no morals, stealing her from the straight white ex-junkie. They all fight, then the lesbians are getting married and the Latina junkie prostitute's dying -- but she's revived -- just in time for the grand finale!

But what about San Francisco's Sixth Street? It's the scene of a New Year's street party outside a glowing corporate Nothing Beats the Wiz store (created just for the shoot) - everyone's supposedly returning from Times Square in time for a quick glimpse of San Francisco's Market Street. Okay, so we've got San Francisco's skidrow masquerading as New York's skidrow in the movie version of the musical that claims to represent the combustible downtown New York of the late eighties while profiting from the literal and figurative death of that very culture. And these are just a couple layers of this atrocity.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz addresses this layering of colonialism in her new book, Blood on the Border: a Memoir of the Contra War, when she describes some of the ways in which the northeastern part of Nicaragua in the early eighties reminded her of Oklahoma, where she grew up: widespread rural poverty, Hank Williams blasting from the houses, evangelical Protestant hymns, and a hunger for US products. But when do we get the musical?