By now you’ve watched viral video of 23 protesters who delayed (or, disrupted, depending on your point of view) this weekend’s St. Louis Symphony program to dedicate a requiem to Michael Brown. Here’s a bit more of their backstory from the three organizers, Sarah Hermes Griesbach, Elizabeth Vega and Derek Laney. They’re middle-aged, parents (including one grandparent, Vega) and all have been involved daily in Ferguson—from street protests to doing healing art with children to planning actions—since the late hours of Saturday, August 9.
Of all places for an action, why the symphony?
Because Cardinals Stadium didn’t work out too well. A few weeks ago Griesbach and Vega, by all appearances two middle-aged white women in Cardinals jerseys, showed who they really were. “When we lowered our Michael Brown banner,” Griesbach says, “we went from people being smiled at to instantly being perceived as representing something that was hated.” A wall of sports fans started screaming, ‘Pants Up, Don’t Loot’ and ‘Lock Them Up!’ After being handcuffed and escorted out of the stadium—moreso “for our own safety,” both say—Vega recalls Griesbach looking at her and deadpanning, “I think we need a new venue.” Vega says she cracked up. “I really needed to laugh, then,” she says.
A couple of days later while reliving their game nightmare at a local Thai restaurant, Griesbach hit on the symphony crowd—mainly because they weren’t the typical Cardinals crowd. “I knew they would be more receptive. I knew this was a public that was interested in the world, that listened to NPR, read newspapers and [was therefore likely to hold] nuanced views.”
Oh my God, but that song?!
Vega got the idea for, “Which Side Are You On, Friend” from a 2013 Rebel Diaz remix featuring dead prez.
“That was stuck in my head. I had been arrested a couple of days before and I was in jail singing this song,” Vega says. The hardest part of their planning meeting was figuring out the new lyrics.
Derek, that voice!
Laney fit right into the cultural milieu as he started off the round in a seemingly stage-quality baritone. “No, I’m not a professional singer,” says Laney who also started the hashtag, #ChalkedUnarmed. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to cherry-pick singers so I just stepped up to do it.” Unsurprisingly, he’s had several compliments on his voice since.
Vega points to this moving quote from conductor*, Kenneth Woods:
“One friend of mine questioned whether staging a protest on private property was fair to the hall, the orchestra and the audience. I’m not sure I agree. If the concert hall can’t be the center of civic life, a hub for intellectual discussion, a place to share ideas, a place we can mourn, cry, scream, love and heal together, we may as well burn every concert hall to the ground. When we value genteel niceties and professional convenience over the existential questions of right and wrong, life and death, we, as artists, have probably made ourselves completely irrelevant.”
What’s next for the upcoming Weekend of Resistance?
This coming Friday night, Vega says there will be a día de los muertos (day of the dead) event for all people killed by police this year. The reading of the submitted names will be followed by a two-mile march to the Ferguson police station to challenge its 11 p.m. curfew. On Saturday, look for five “pop-up” potluck lunches to take place throughout St Louis County. Mike Brown, race, class and privilege will be the topics of conversation, all led by trained facilitators.
Also, find an updated schedule of events here.
* Post has been updated since publication to accurately reflect that conductor Kenneth Woods is not affiliated with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.