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 demonstrations.

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 like that."

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."

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