Holy Spirits perform “To the Shore” during OWS N17 protest.
Somewhere south of Union Square in Midtown Manhattan I’m in a full sprint with a messenger bag, a tote bag, and a guitar case around my shoulders. Attached to my head is a pair of massive headphones connected to the largest digital voice recorder I’ve ever been trusted with. The recorder and its microphone weigh about six pounds and there appears to be no easy way to sprint with it. I pine for the tiny, weightless recorder I owned in college and the informal interviews it allowed me to conduct.
I’m flanked by two videographers from Into The Woods, and the drummer and guitarist from Holy Spirits, whom we’ve been recording for the past hour or so. They couldn’t find a sound guy so they handed me the gear and gave me a brief crash course.
I’m breaking a sweat, bolting from stop light to stop light, trying to stay with my partners in crime and the several-thousand-member protest we’re informally a part of. But as far as the approximately eight officers on foot behind us are concerned, we’re just the same as any other Occupier obstructing traffic. A cop raises his night stick at the guitarist but decides not to follow through. Better keep running.
“It was just an opportunity for a bunch of unions to complain or protest, or whatever they want to do,” said NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg following the November 17 protest, a day of unrest organized in response to eviction of Occupy encampments nationwide. According to the mayor, the “vast percentage” included people with “organized signs and leadership.”
Unfortunately, Mayor Mike was not willing to take part in the gathering that stopped parts of downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn throughout. Had he been with the tens of thousands, he likely would have noticed a lack of organized and uniform signs and leadership. He would have noticed that leadership is in the hive mind. More than once, protesters clog up intersections like lost tourists in a subway station during rush hour. Nobody needs to say when, nor does any one person call the shots.
“Left!” screams a black-clad anarchist trying to reroute the mass of people along Canal Street. It’s too late. Hundreds are already beyond the point of no return. “We stick together!” responds a man who could easily be somebody’s anthropology professor.
What began earlier in the day as a fired-up demonstration at the New York Stock Exchange-- rife with arrests and brutality at the hands of NYPD-- eventually ebbs and flows based on energy, routine, and police intervention. Chunks of leaderless protestors create a tapestry of chants that can be heard from avenues away. As many as 16 Metro Transit Authority hubs spark into simultaneous protests around the city. Cars and trucks make themselves known out of both anger and support, while people in balconies in the Meatpacking District point camera phones or wave enthusiastically.
The Holy Spirits boys go with the flow-- trying to stay safely within the mob-- and fomenting chants pocket us with a music independent of Aaron Hodges’ mouth and guitar. Comrade and band member Michael Barron is there to support with his drum sticks and shaker. Despite the march’s rhythm, the duo settles into a song called “To the Shore.”
The non-boisterous presence of Michael and Andrew calms the social weather around us. Like the bearded thirty-something and his daughter in the stroller or the chanting group of hippy grandmas. The performance gently bounces off signs and car doors as we film the band with our backs to Manhattan gridlock. Motorists smile and collapse their side mirrors for us as we blindly walk downtown, to the shore. “The devil wanders alone/towards the rocky coast/clutching a love letter/no one wrote,” Aaron sings.
“[The song] is an impressionistic view of a relationship… not about a specific point in my life,” explains Aaron. “There’s no personal anchor there for me… just a collection of images that come together to form this idea.”
It's no wonder why their songs are expressed as composites. The sons of retired Army colonels, Aaron and Michael spent much of their lives moving from base to base. They met at Fort Benning, Georgia at the impressionable age of 15. Aaron’s father spent time training DEA and Border Patrol agents, while Michael’s father was a liaison to Newt Gingrich.
Aaron spent the typical aimless amount of time in college before finding a passion somewhere in the often-blurred region between theater, music, and modern dance known as performance art. Growing up a student in close proximity to the School of the Americas, dissent was always something in his periphery, be it a Martin Sheen-led protest outside the school house or catching wind of the immorality conducted within the base (for those who are unfamiliar, the School of the Americas is where third-world military officers were trained to destabilize their own governments at the expense of their own citizens).
“I remember thinking there’s all this structure, but something is wrong here and people are questioning it,” Aaron says.
It’s hard to ignore the parallels between Aaron’s narrative and that of which has unfolded in the last two months. The meltdown. The blame game. The occupations. The heavy-handed suppression spreading from East to West and back again. The viral fervor with no head to cut off or heart to puncture.
Unlike Michael, Aaron confessed he had never been to an Occupy event. The focus of his enthusiasm is mostly to "feel the energy and try to understand it."
“I never really wanted to have a voice,” Aaron says. "I guess im here because some part of me wants to transcend the core of this engrained mechanism.”
The conflict of having a soldier for a father can be a tumultuous one. One recognizes and respects authority as a given, an obligation. But transcending this ingrained mechanism gets to the core of the musicians.
“I’m walking with these people and I see these cops on the sidelines glaring and I feel something for both of them,” Aaron says. “People see this business man and say, ‘Oh, look at that one percenter over there.’ And it’s just obnoxious. There’s a lot of paradox in the movement in terms of how to feel.
Like the movement, the paradox takes on organic qualities. Protestors wait in restroom lines adjacent to police, their riot helmets on Starbucks chairs. Corporate suits can be seen fist-pumping in support of the movement as disheveled Occupiers walk by chanting. City council members and retired police are arrested and thrown in prison with the most dissenting of anarchists. Dreams and nightmares are created slowly or in a blink, and with more Occupiers singing out in heterophony, Bloomberg and the one percent only become louder. Lines of identity become incongruous.
As the sun goes down, police lights become brighter, senses become heightened, and the glow of rush hour becomes disorienting.
As Michael puts it, “The idyllic performance quickly became a harsh reality.” Police charge us on scooters and by foot. A protester gets thrown to the ground, beaten, and placed in plastic cuffs. Michael stops playing. “It was hard to keep going. Hard to stomach. “It’s like fetal cells attacking eachother, not recognizing that they need one another for a baby to form.”
The end of the day is filled with conflicted and paradoxical feelings of happiness and disappointment. We part ways from Michael, who wanders away from the chaos, pondering the day’s events. “I just had to find a park and sit...rethink everything I’d seen.”
And what Michael's seen isn't finished. The crowd marches on, while dozens of stragglers unite in the wake of a brutalized arrest to chant, “shame,” at police. Foley Square is next, where an approximate mile-long column of people gather to march on the Brooklyn Bridge, bringing downtown Manhattan to a standstill.
It's in these forced, still moments-- in the Occupy movement and its commensurate clashes-- that the internal conflicts felt by so many people like Michael are made manifest. It's the gridlock between man and political machine. Between doing what you're told and doing what's right. Between eviction and retaliation. Between Holy Spirits and sons of war who built them.