Interview with Dan Kinch: Activism, Performance, and Jury Nullification

Q: Who are your influences? How have you been involved with Occupy?

I’m a longtime playwright. I write about people who get in trouble. Specifically people like the Ploughshares movement. People like Carl Cabbot. People like the Barrigan Brothers. And the play I had was something that we had been touring around when I still had a company during the Iraq War, [the theme of] which was: How do you change things? You know, how do you change things through non-violent civil disobedience? And the title of the play was How To Stop the Empire While Keeping Your Dayjob. And it was out of that that I performed at the first big protest in Brooklyn, which was November [of 2011]. The people involved in that were interested, so I kept doing the play.

My continued involvement in the Occupy movement has been towards the cultural side. What I think of in terms of being affective protest, I lean towards the side that you need a bigger cohort of people who, if not on your side, are at least relatively neutral about what’s going on with Occupy. What I say to people is that I understand why the twenty-somethings are in Zuccotti. What I don’t understand is why their parents aren’t there. ‘Cause their parents are going through the same kinds of things, in a different way. Their parents don’t have pension money, they’re watching their kids struggle, they’re being told that whatever happens with Medicare and Social Security, it’s going to be less than what their own parents had. So how I see myself in Occupy is as someone who reaches out to a generation that’s more my age cohort.

Q: You use stories to reach this population. Can you talk about stories?

A: For over 10 years we were touring a play that I eventually did for Brooklyn For Peace called, A Clown A Hammer a Bomb and God. And what I wanted to do was I wanted to talk about the Ploughshares movement. People who non-violently disarm nuclear weapons as what they see as a religious act. You know, following the Biblical exhortation of Isaiah to turn swords into ploughshares.

Now, do I think that somebody who is watching that particular play, which has been done 200 times in the United States and Europe, do I think somebody is going to go out there and do one of these protests? Actually, someone did – but they were pre-motivated to do this. What changes, though, is not that brave activist doing that act; it’s that the activist is in front of a jury of his peers who suddenly understand what he’s doing. That if you change public opinion about Occupy, then maybe some of the action starts to make more sense to people. There’s a context.

What I see artists as doing is making sure people know what’s going on. You don’t have to agree with the kids who are camping out, you don’t have to agree with having a drum circle in your neighborhood, to understand that there are some things about the economic status quo that need to be changed. And it isn’t just change because the 99% are on the losing end, it needs to be changed because the planet can’t support the status quo. You cannot have an economy that keeps growing, keeps using more energy, keeps pumping out more carbon dioxide. And if you don’t make that information available to people in a way that they can kind of connect the dots themselves, I don’t think we can succeed in what the movement is trying to do.

I have some really good friends who have been arrested for civil disobedience against nuclear weapons in Europe. If they had been arrested in the United States for what they had done, they would have served heavy-duty prison time. And there was a lecture that I attended once, because I wanted to understand this. It was by a Belgian human rights lawyer. And he explained that things in Europe had gotten to the point where the government couldn’t put heavy charges on people for civil disobedience against NATO and nuclear weapons because they could never get a jury that would convict. (I should say that if you do something violent, the jury is going against you.)

If you get to a point where the jury system will no longer automatically return a conviction, where the judicial system can no longer count on the obeisance, if you will, of the sitting judges, then things change. It’s sort of like: If every single person who was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge [on October 1, 2011] had the confidence that they could say, “Nope, I want a jury trial,” then the judicial system is not set up to put 700 people on trial. It’s kind of a way of playing chess. At some point, if the judiciary loses the respect of the people of this country then things can start to change, I think. 

HANDOUT: And that’s Jury Nullification.

A: Jury nullification is this great thing. William Penn is jury nullification. One of the founding fathers not talked about. But yes, in the American judicial system – this dates back to the colonies – you are allowed to vote your conscience regardless of the evidence you are presented with. It was how the Quakers kept from going to prison for not worshipping in the Church of England. And that has been true forever. There’s an organization called the Fully Informed Jury Association, which actually will send you leaflets and flyers that explain your rights as a juror. But people don’t hear that.

When an acquaintance of mine was put on trial for temporarily disabling the nuclear weapons targeting system, she wanted to present evidence that she felt would show that this was a first-strike weapon, this was not defense. This was about the United States taking an imperial role in the world. And because of a motion in limine, which keeps her defense from introducing things that are considered not pertinent to the trial, she wasn’t able to do that. And she said that after that, that what she was going to fight for in her life was that people understood jury nullification. And that especially people who are progressives, people of conscience, should actually try to be on juries.

Q: How do you think our stories can be taken back from Hollywood, big publishers and particularly the advertising industry? How can we take our stories back? Do advertisements work because people are starved for stories?

A: People love narrative. The thing I think that writers come into this world doing is being able to put a narrative over the top of something that looks like a lot of random action. I mean, praying mantises don’t have narrative. Whatever happens happens, they’re fine with it, that’s okay, but they don’t invent a narrative. Human beings have almost always invented narratives. Now how do you get your stories away from, I don’t know, Stephen Spielberg? You need to have a counterweight to Hollywood. You need to have a counterweight to big media. We’re falling down on that because we get very entranced by all the toys. We get very entranced by all the CGI graphics and everything else, and we forget that there are stories underneath.

One of the things that is saddest to me about the decline of organized religion is, whether you like or dislike the point of view of a specific sect or religious order, there’s a counter-narrative there. What happens in the last 30, 40, 50 years is that that counter-narrative has gone away. The idea of sacrifice and self-service is not what it was. The idea of civics, of a responsibility that we owe each other is not part of the common narrative. 

One of the things that’s a theme that I keep playing with – and I see it with a lot of lefties and old line protestors – but you think of the parts in the Christian gospel where people come up to John the Baptist and say, “Are you the one? Or do we have to wait for another?” And I think a lot of people on the left get their hearts broken because they think, “This is the one.” They keep looking for “the one.” They think, “This is gonna be the movement that makes the change.” I think Occupy has that to some degree. I saw a lot of gray beards out on September 17th. And people are looking for somebody to shout that the Emperor has no clothes and they’re hoping that Occupy is actually the ones to do that and doesn’t get co-opted, doesn’t get bought into an experience.

There are narratives being played at all times, and I think that our narratives have to change, we have to get smarter about, I guess. What’s the figure name? The Griot: the person who brings the stories. There’s a thing called verbal literature that we have completely lost any sense of, which is one of the things I’m in love with is a one-person show [which] is verbal literature. That’s how you tell a story. The thing that I like about doing the play How To Stop the Empire is: I just show up. Whatever I’m wearing is fine, whatever I have in my pockets will work, and that’s the story. And I think there’s a movement right now that needs to be embraced of: how do you get the essential parts of a story? What are the real essential parts of a story? Okay, fine, you can have the hootchi-koo and the burlesque dancers are making a comeback and so forth, but it’s all about story and you don’t have story narrative anymore. 

Q: Part of that change has to be that audiences seek out lefty storytellers, and that includes lefty audiences.

A: The Griot has to be a truth teller. Not to trash Stephen Speilberg, he’s a wonderful person, I hope he gives me money to do the tour, but he’s really in love with happy endings. And with endings, especially, that don’t mess too much with your head. That’s kind of generalized and maybe unfair. In the clown play I also take on George Lucas. And George Lucas is also someone who talks about narrative and does narrative and Joseph Campbell and all those other good things – we need different stories. We need storytellers who are telling uncomfortable truths. And that sometimes makes people really uncomfortable. I haven’t been heckled yet in the twelve times I’ve done the Empire play, but I expect that’ll be a matter of time. In the 200 times we did the clown play between 1997-2005 we never had hecklers. So there is something about, if you can find the right words you can do it. I don’t have another answer [other] than that. I know there’s some really capable writers and playwrights and performers in the Occupy movement who can make these stories work and can tell these narratives. The Civilians project is one of them, but everybody’s going to have to find a way to retell stories.