The sentencing this month of three members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot to two years in prison for “hooliganism” showed once again how authoritarian leaders fear the power of art and thus unwittingly undermine their own power.
After all, who had heard of this confrontationally named group until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparatchiks decided to make an example of them, to help quell a growing chorus of dissent? I had not, even though I am a punk activist and historian who was an early supporter of D.C.’s Riot Grrrl movement, a key inspiration for Pussy Riot.
Without overreaction by the Russian authorities, the band’s theatrical anti-Putin “punk prayer” at a Russian Orthodox cathedral would have touched almost no one beyond the handful present for the action. Now the three young women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich — are internationally known and have been deemed “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International, and their band’s racy name has become something akin to a household word. Conversely, Putin appears not only oppressive but scared, weakened by a show trial that was intended to solidify his rule.
I know this dynamic from the inside, having been one of the ringleaders of a similar punk escapade in 1987-88. At the time, Ronald Reagan was president and his attorney general, Edwin Meese III, was mired in scandal, with three special prosecutors on his trail.
Annoyed by Meese’s actions and eager to embarrass the Reagan administration, Dischord Records co-founder Jeff Nelson came up with a creative and rude action: silk-screening 3-by-4-foot red, white, black and blue posters that simply stated “Meese is a pig.” At my suggestion, three paragraphs making our case against Meese were glued to the bottom of each poster, lest the poster be dismissed as a mindless prank.
We had a sense of humor about our endeavor and few illusions about its likely efficacy. However, the effort was no joke. With help from Positive Force DC — an activist collective I co-founded in 1985 — and assorted other local punks, we proceeded to paste a couple hundred of the posters across the D.C. metropolitan area under cover of night in December 1987, including outside the Justice Department. Amazingly, we pulled off our guerrilla poster campaign without being arrested or even unmasked by the authorities.
We took pride in our work and enjoyed the minor local buzz around the mysterious posters that ensued, including in The Post. Nonetheless, the ripples we generated quickly dissipated.
As the scandals around Meese deepened, and pressure grew for his resignation, Nelson determined to do a second, larger round of posters, with a snarky — but stylishly rendered — “Experts agree!:” appended to the “Meese is a pig” line. This time we aimed to clandestinely post more than 500 of the eye-catching posters and dispatched our punk army to carry out the task late one evening in May 1988.
Our greater ambition, however, was not matched by sufficiently greater skill. This time, three of our teams had run-ins with the police, resulting in several tickets being written. However, these minor penalties soon escalated, and I found myself under investigation by the FBI (an agent told my lawyer he was acting at the behest of the Justice Department), while other organizers also faced charges disproportionate to the crime.
This effort at raw intimidation blew up in the face of the administration once our case found its way to the front page of The Post and — via the Associated Press — into newspapers around the country. While the charges were quickly dropped and the FBI investigation halted, the story was given renewed life when a bicycle courier making a delivery was denied entrance to the Justice Department because he was wearing a “Meese is a pig” T-shirt.
This time, the story rocketed around the globe. One friend read about it in a Russian newspaper; another heard a story about it on Indonesian radio. A crude prank that might have mattered only to a couple hundred denizens of our nation’s capital was given wings, spreading our message to corners undreamed of in our wildest imagination. Our tale had a happy ending when Meese resigned shortly thereafter, repudiated by his own Republican allies who feared that he might be a drag on George H.W. Bush as he sought to extend the Reagan era for four more years.
Thus did ragged punk vandals become celebrated voices of dissent. While the irony was delicious, at the time I often thought of the famous rejoinder of the august Times of London, drawing from poet Alexander Pope, to the arrest of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1967 on politically motivated drug charges: Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?
Scared, self-destructive authoritarians do, as Vladimir Putin has shown. Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich face incarceration — and, for two of them, separation from their young children — but they can take heart that their message has been heard around the world, given extraordinary power and resonance by the Putin regime’s foolhardy actions.