Puppets Behind Bars
by Ben Winters
In These Times magazine, November 2000
In what has become one of the more notorious incidents from
this summer's Republican National Convention, 75 people were arrested
on August I while building puppets and costumes for use in the
Dave Bailey and Rebecca Tennison are two of these so-called
"puppetistas." Like many of those arrested, the two
Chicagoans are young-both 24-and more artistic idealists than
fiery radicals. They interrupted a vacation to offer their puppet-making
skills to friends at work in Philadelphia and never expected to
hang around for the protests, let alone get arrested. Both are
now out on bail, facing up to five years in jail.
Tennison and Bailey grew up within a few blocks of one another
in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood. By 16, Tennison had discovered
her love of performance and puppetry. Since then she has been
involved in a score of local arts groups, including teaching theater
games and storytelling to kids and co-leading Theater Dank, which
hosts the annual _ Chicago Puppetry Festival.
Bailey didn't get into puppetry until recently. He's a union
carpenter with strong political opinions, who only discovered
the medium-and its possibilities as a form of political expression-at
this year's Puppetry Festival.
When the two traveled to Philadelphia, it was to be one stop
on a summer road trip. "I have good friends in Philadelphia
who are puppeteers," says Tennison of their presence at the
now infamous "puppet warehouse." "When we got there,
the people we knew were rallying, trying to finish these puppets
in time for the convention."
They stuck around to pitch in, showing up each day at the
warehouse, where a loose group of 70 or 80 people were busily
constructing, among other things, a giant "Copzilla"
float and 138 skeletons representing victims of Texas executions.
And there they were on August 1, when the building was surrounded
by police and everyone was arrested on a variety of charges, including
possession of an instrument of crime; everyone, that is, except
for the four undercover policemen who had represented themselves
as union carpenters from Wilkes-Barre.
Under a 1987 mayoral directive, Philadelphia police are barred
from exactly that kind of infiltration, a restriction sidestepped
by the use of state policeman.
In their application for the search warrant that allowed the
sting operation, state police reference a report from the Maldon
Institute-a far-right think tank funded in part by the Clinton-baiting
multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife-as the source of information
that protesters were funded by "Communist and leftists parties
[and] the former-Soviet-allied World Federation of Trade Unions."
Tennison and Bailey, along with 73 other "puppetistas"-comprising
approximately 20 percent of total arrests made during the RNC-were
tossed in holding cells, where Tennison would remain for 10 days,
Bailey for 11, before both were released on $1,000 bail. "We
saw people being strangled, held up against the wall for height
measurements," says Tennison, recalling what she describes
as the "surreal" treatment of those arrested. "One
kid came out hog-tied, and he was bleeding all over the place
because it was on so tight. I've never seen the police do shit
To Bailey and Tennison the charges seem as laughable as the
McCarthyite language of the search warrant: Canisters worn around
the waist to support puppet poles were presumed to be bombs, and
police claimed the warehouse was full of kerosene-soaked rags,
a charge Bailey says is completely fabricated.
Meanwhile, in the days immediately following the arrests,
Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street declared that none of the protesters
arrested in his city would go unpunished: "In other cities
after these mass protests, at the end of the day, individuals
were allowed to just walk away," he proclaimed at a City
Hall press conference. "That will not happen here."
Bailey and Tennison go to trial at the end of October, meaning
a third trip to Philadelphia in as many months. They are represented
by public defenders, but the cost of the trips is beginning to
mount; both elected to take on the 14-hour drive rather than fly
back again for trial. Though frustrated by the ongoing legal process,
Bailey has no inclination to lay down his puppets, nor his newfound
dedication to the movement. "It strengthened my conviction,"
says Bailey, who went back to Philadelphia in early October, three
weeks before his trial, to work on a local puppet troupe's street
festival. "450 people are now diehard protesters who might
not have been before."
But the experience in Philadelphia has rattled Tennison, to
the extent that she's thinking about maybe getting out of Chicago
for a while, taking a hiatus from performing. However, she remains
convinced that the experience of the puppetistas illustrates that
something so seemingly harmless can have a powerful affect on
the public. "I'm convinced that puppets are an effective
and beautiful thing," she says. "They're so peaceful
and direct. What a great way to rally a community."