RESIST

The Trouble with Pussy Riot’s Protest Inside Trump Tower

The members of the Russian collective called attention to political prisoners with a daring demonstration—but they also diminished the seriousness of sexism.


Courtesy of @pussyrrriot

Just a few months ago, in August, two members of the Russian collective Pussy Riot, Olga Borisova and Maria Alyokhina, were detained for protesting against the imprisonment of the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, whom many, including Johnny Depp, believe the Russian government unrightfully sentenced to 20 years on charges of terrorism. After unfurling a banner that read “Free Sentsov” over a bridge—and drawing attention to it with red and blue smoke—they were, unsurprisingly, also arrested, though let go much, much quicker than Sentsov.

And, perhaps because imprisonment is old hat to the collective—Alyokhina and two more from Pussy Riot were famously sentenced to two years in jail in 2012 for “hooliganism,” turning the group into a cause célèbre—three more members decided to pull the same move this Monday, though turning away from Siberia and towards New York’s Trump Tower. This version of the protest was sans smoke, but just as showy with the backdrop of the tower’s gilded interiors, especially when the activists, who were decked out in their signature wooly balaclavas, unfurled another giant banner reading “Free Sentsov.”

They succeeded in shutting down the tower for 30 minutes, and this time around, they didn’t even get arrested, given that parts of Trump Tower are technically open open to the public—even the public that’s looking “to call attention to political prisoners,” as Pussy Riot later explained of their actions on their Facebook page. “We’re calling on you today to raise attention to two guys from Ukraine: film director Oleg Sentsov and anarchist Olexandr Kolchenko, who are in Russian prison right now. Sentsov got 20 years in prison, Kolchenko got 10 years.”

The group added that after their last protest, Sentsov, who had already been tortured, had apparently been transported to a penal colony with “some of the cruelest conditions in Russia,” which is why they decided to work with activists in New York. “Defending political prisoners is an issue that transcends borders,” the post continued. “We are acting in solidarity against leaders like Putin, who has exercised authoritarian force and Trump, who is displaying authoritarian tendencies—because we all need to be fighting together on behalf of dissidents everywhere.”

It’s an important, inspiring message, but also one that contradicts an earlier, equally important part of their statement, especially as stories of sexual assault are currently dominating the news cycle in America: “We believe that political prisoners and their protection are more important than the sexist bulls— that people have been focused on,” Pussy Riot wrote in a statement. These words seem to diverge from their feminist roots; the group originally banded together to protest limitations on abortions.

But aren’t those who speak out against Trump and his administration’s sexist behavior also dissidents? They are, after all, accusing the President of the United States, a figure with ties to another figure Pussy Riot is all too familiar with, Vladimir Putin, for discrimination, harassment, and abuse.

Pussy Riot didn’t get specific about the “sexist bulls—” they were referring to—it could have been those who’ve added to the list of over a dozen women that have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, or the million-plus women in 85 countries that have come forward this month about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Or it could have been the still serious but comparatively minor offenses that women wearing sleeveless shirts have been barred from parts of the U.S. capitol, and Trump has continued to make unsolicited comments on women’s appearances while in office, including about that of France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron.

Each offense, however, is nonetheless relevant to Pussy Riot’s cause, because each is also evidence of how the world is run by men allowed to do what they please, to the point that they can boldly conduct their offensive and illegal behavior in public—which is also often where those who criticize them, including members of Pussy Riot, are then belittled.

In fact, calling out “sexist bulls—” actually goes right along with Pussy Riot’s ultimate call to action: “We, Pussy Riot, invite you to join our fabulous and bold path: ask questions of your politicians who shake hands with Putin in international forums, support advocacy, go out into the streets. And put on your own political, public actions too.”

* Update 10/27/17: Elly Brinkley, the woman in the red balaclava who took part in the protest, which she called “one of [her] proudest moments as a feminist,” has posted a lengthy statement on Facebook explaining that the “sexist buls—” portion of Pussy Riot’s statement was, she wrote, “a poor choice of words. We did not intend to suggest that drawing attention to the plight of political prisoners around the world should come at the expense of the attention that has been drawn to sexism and violence against women and queer people, much of which has been advanced by Trump’s sensationalist messaging. The point was instead to suggest that human rights abuses and the plight of political prisoners—and the threat of political imprisonment here in the United States—can often be drowned out, and that someone in Trump’s position should be using his political platform to advocate for people’s rights and talk about real issues instead of denigrating women and other historically marginalized groups. Our words were not meant to criticize or downplay the importance the #MeToo campaign or any of the conversations that stemmed from the despicable stories that have been emerging about Harvey Weinstein.”

You can read Brinkley’s full statement here, along with Pussy Riot’s clarification: “Trump is known for his horrible comments about women and queer people. We will always be against this. The words that fly out of his mouth are sexist bulls—. It is unacceptable. We made an action to remind everyone who see and hear us that we have to overcome fear and fight together.”

How Celebrities Protest in the Streets: A Visual History of George Clooney Getting Arrested, Kanye Occupying Wall Street, and More

Emma Watson attended her first-ever march when she made it to the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year—and brought along her mom, who dutifully wore a pussy hat. Though Watson is a United Nations Women Global Goodwill Ambassador and often speaks up about gender inequality, this time around, unlike the other celebs in attendance, she stayed on the streets instead of onstage, opting to yell instead of use a mic.

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Muhammad Ali, who was sentenced to five years in prison and had his championship title revoked after he refused to serve in Vietnam, also protested with members of the Black Panther Party in New York in 1970.

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In late September of 2001, Brooke Shields, Glenn Close, Bebe Neuwirth and more Broadway stars, some even in costume, rallied in midtown Manhattan to support the New York entertainment industry, when Broadway and the city’s tourism in general took a hit after 9/11.

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If you couldn’t tell by the fact that he founded his eponymous nonprofit group dedicated to promoting environmental awareness at age 24, in 1998, Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s also starred in a climate change documentary and even flown commercial to his annual foundation fundraiser, is so dedicated to environmentalism, he recycled a manila folder to use as a sign when he showed up at the Climate Change March in Washington, D.C. earlier this year.

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Meanwhile, back in the capital, Jessica Chastain, one of the industry’s most outspoken voices and advocates of women, passed out buttons to the hundreds of thousands gathered at the Women’s March.

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Despite the snow, Laura Dern also took part in the Park City Women’s March while at the Sundance Film Festival, regretting not being able to make it to the capital but grinning all the while.

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In 2011, Kanye West and Russell Simmons both made it all the way downtown to Zuccotti Park to take a peek at Occupy Wall Street, apparently in support of the movement. “I love how sweet and tolerant he was to the crowd,” Simmons, who in fact made several appearances, later tweeted of West, who unlike Talib Kweli and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, refrained from performing. Simmons also spoke up for a silent, stony-faced West at the protest: “Kanye has been a big supporter spiritually for this movement … He wants to give power back to the people. That’s why we’re here.”

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Before attending the Women’s March on Washington and marching arm-in-arm with Jesse Jackson, Cher attended another rally in New York a few days earlier, where she called Trump “this unbelievable narcissist” and went off about “those assholes in Washington.” “I tried not to have a potty mouth, but it’s just me, okay? You must never give up, because the thing that will help us, that will get us through this is anger,” she said in a real-life extension of her long stream of all-caps, emoji- and anger-filled tweets.

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A Cate Blanchett sighting might be rare in the U.S., but the actress marched along her fellow Australians (and husband) in 2006 in the Walk Against Warming rally.

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Madonna didn’t get to do too much marching at the Women’s March on Washington—she kept it mostly backstage, hanging with Gloria Steinem and Amy Schumer—but she did deliver a powerful speech to the hundreds of thousands present. “The revolution starts here,” she told the crowd, after lamenting that “it took this horrific moment of darkness to wake us the f— up.”

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Here, in 1971, Jane Fonda was picketing a Safeway in Denver with the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee in protest of the chain’s lack of support for unions, but that was hardly the only time she’s taken to the streets: Starting with supporting the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers in the ’60s, she’s long made a name for herself as a political activist as well as an actress, to the point that she and her husband were at one point monitored by the NSA. Still getting arrested en route from an anti–Vietnam war fundraiser in Canada and infamously earning herself the nickname Hanoi Jane haven’t stopped her: She also showed up at the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year.

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George Clooney was arrested—alongside his father, Nick Clooney—during a demonstration outside the Embassy of Sudan in Washington, D.C. at a rally held by Amnesty International and the nonprofit United to End Genocide to call for humanitarian aid for the thousands facing governmental violence and starvation in South Sudan in 2012. After paying his $100 fine to avoid a court appearance, Clooney, who’d recently visited Sudan, then met with President Obama to discuss the crisis.

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In 2014, Alicia Keys organized a protest in New York to raise awareness about the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls that Boko Haram had kidnapped for six months at that point, which her husband Swizz Beatz dutifully attended.

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Marlon Brando joined the Congress of Racial Equality to protest an all-white housing area in Torrance, California in 1963, a full decade before he boycotted the Academy Awards and asked Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather—who asked the crowd for better treatment of Native Americans—to accept the Best Actor award for The Godfather in his place.

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Before he made a splash at this year’s March for Science, Bill Nye, aka the Science Guy, showed up in a bowtie to New York’s take on the Global Climate March in 2015 to talk environmental advocacy on the steps of City Hall, as Mayor de Blasio was gearing up to head to the Paris Climate Summit.

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Liza Minnelli, Joey Gray, Patti Austin, Lily Tomlin, and Cleve Jones were just some of the celebs to march at the forefront of an AIDS candlelight Memorial March past the White House in 1992.

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Rarely afraid of, well, just being Miley, Miley Cyrus showed up to L.A.’s Women’s March in a smiley face-covered unitard, declaring her nonprofit the Happy Hippie Foundation’s support for fellow nonprofit Planned Parenthood while marching alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

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Woody Harrelson has been arrested multiple times, but the time in 1996 that he scaled the Golden Gate Bridge with members of the group Earth First! to hang a banner in defense of redwood trees was definitely the most scene-stealing.

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Last year, after a sniper killed several police officers in Dallas at a protest following police killings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Snoop Dogg and The Game led a peaceful march to the Los Angeles police headquarters in an effort to promote unity amongst people of color.

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Susan Sarandon, Christopher Reeve, Alec Baldwin, and Robert Kennedy Jr. all got together in 1995 in favor of protecting New York City’s watershed before an EPA hearing on the safety of the city’s water.

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Shailene Woodley and Rosario Dawson both protested the Dakota Access Pipeline in New York’s Union Square last summer. Woodley ultimately made it out to North Dakota in October, too—and was arrested for criminal trespassing and engaging in a riot. She pleaded guilty—and wrote a personal essay for Time saying she hoped the publicity would spur others into action.

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The night before Trump’s inauguration, Cynthia Nixon joined thousands of New Yorkers and plenty more celebs outside Trump Tower to promise her continued attention to causes such as healthcare, climate change, social justice, and immigrant rights throughout the president’s term.

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Alicia Keys and __Janelle Monae also made it to the Women’s March on Washington, where both also spoke out and performed. (The latter also invited the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, as well as more murdered at the hands of the police, up onstage.)

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Like any good star of an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, Olivia Wilde joined Mark Ruffalo and Michael Moore at Trump Tower, a few months after taking care to rid of her Melania-like hair.

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Scarlett Johansson joined the scads of celebrities speaking out at the Women’s March on Washington, but chose to focus her speech specifically on Planned Parenthood and women’s healthcare. (Before it was cut short by a sound outage.)

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At the Sundance Film Festival during the Women’s March, Charlize Theron still took part in the action in Park City, Utah, carrying a banner and crying while marching alongside other celebs like Laura Dern, John Legend, and Chelsea Handler.

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Before showing up to the L.A. Women’s March, too, Jamie Lee Curtis became an early advocate of the #NotMyPresident hashtag, speaking out immediately after the election results.

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Back in 1996, Jesse Jackson gave Bruce Springsteen a hug at a rally opposing prop 209, which would end affirmative action based on race and gender in state and local government, in front of the Federal building on Wilshire Blvd. where Springsteen also spoke and performed.

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Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Bella and Gigi Hadid, who are both not only supermodels but proudly Muslim, managed to sneak into New York’s #NoBanNoWall march in response to Trump’s moves to build a wall bordering Mexico, and to place an indefinite ban preventing Muslims from seven foreign countries from entering the U.S.

Courtesy of @GigiHadidsNews

Over the years, Mark Ruffalo has spoken up—and hit the streets—in support of reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and the environment, and against fracking, with the latter to the point that he claimed in 2010 to have been placed on a terror advisory list. It’s no surprise, then, that he not only showed up at Occupy Wall Street to speak out against fracking the next year, but also just this week led a protest with Michael Moore against Donald Trump, whom he’s gotten increasingly real about, and in remembrance of Heather Heyer, who was recently murdered by white supremacists.

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Related: Inside Donald Trump’s Unwelcome Homecoming to Trump Tower

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