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Decades Before Pussy Riot, U.S. Group Protested Catholic Church -- With Results

Protesters gather outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on December 10, 1989.
Protesters gather outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on December 10, 1989.

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Gay-rights activist Michael Petrelis was 30 years old when Act Up staged its historic protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral in December 1989. Petrelis, who played a prominent role in the demonstration, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar about the event and offered advice for Pussy Riot and the new generation of Russian activists.
By Daisy Sindelar
Nearly a quarter-century before Pussy Riot staged its now-notorious protest in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, a similar demonstration was brewing in New York City.

It was there, on December 10, 1989, that thousands of activists gathered outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, the most powerful Roman Catholic church in the United States.

If Pussy Riot's aim was to creatively call on God to "cast out" a resurgent Vladimir Putin, the New York demonstrators had a different goal in mind: to protest the Catholic Church's stand on AIDS and abortion rights.

Outside St. Patrick's, a carnival atmosphere reigned, with many of the protesters dressed as clowns, Catholic bishops, and even Jesus Christ.

But their message was deadly serious: at a time when more than 40,000 Americans had already died of the disease, the Catholic Church's opposition to condoms and AIDS education was condemning tens of thousands more to the same fate.

Among the protesters was Jim Hubbard, a filmmaker and member of Act Up, an advocacy group of gays, lesbians, and women's rights activists that had organized the demonstration.

"It was an extremely cold day. But there were still 7,000 people outside demonstrating against the church's policies," Hubbard recalls. "So it was an exciting day, and it had this feeling of real importance, that we were trying to change the political response to the AIDS crisis in New York."

Confronting The Church

Act Up had only been formed two years earlier, as panic mounted over government indifference to the AIDS epidemic.

Already, the group had proved effective at unnerving key targets, staging bold, colorful protests against Wall Street, New York hospitals, and the federal drug administration for blocking widespread, affordable access to AIDS treatment.

But the St. Patrick's demonstration was its biggest protest yet, and came at a time when the Catholic Church was seen as wielding massive control over public policy.

Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor, the most powerful Catholic authority in the United States at the time, had outraged feminists and gay-rights activists by condemning the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission and attacking legalized abortion.

WATCH: Footage of the St. Patrick's protest in 1989


The protest began as Cardinal O'Connor was holding Sunday-morning Mass. Edward Koch, then the mayor of New York, was among the worshippers, sitting in a front-row pew. Teams of police officers were there as well, having been warned about the demonstration.

Only a few dozen of the Act Up protesters entered the cathedral. But their impact was dramatic. Several stood, chanting a statement of complaint against the Catholic Church. Others lay down in the aisles, chaining themselves to pews.

The parishioners began to recite a prayer of their own, hoping to drown out the protesters. What ensued was chaos.

"You have people from Act Up and the feminist groups standing up trying to read statements of complaint, you have parishioners reciting a prayer, you have other protesters lying down in the aisles, you have assisting priests distributing a written statement [supporting the church], and then you have me, standing up on a pew," says participant Michael Petrelis. "I first started blowing a whistle."

Read Michael Petrelis's full account of the event here

New York police arrest one of several dozen demonstrators who blocked streets by city hall to protest Mayor Ed Koch's AIDS policies on March 28, 1989.New York police arrest one of several dozen demonstrators who blocked streets by city hall to protest Mayor Ed Koch's AIDS policies on March 28, 1989.
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New York police arrest one of several dozen demonstrators who blocked streets by city hall to protest Mayor Ed Koch's AIDS policies on March 28, 1989.
New York police arrest one of several dozen demonstrators who blocked streets by city hall to protest Mayor Ed Koch's AIDS policies on March 28, 1989.
A policeman approached Petrelis, asking him politely to sit down. But as soon as he stepped away, Petrelis returned to his perch on the pew near the front of the church and began to shout at the archbishop, repeating the phrase "Stop killing us" over and over.

Video footage from the event shows parishioners looking bewildered and Cardinal O'Connor sitting with a weary expression, a hand to his head. 

Police Move In

Police quickly moved in, arresting the Act Up demonstrators and using medical stretchers to carry out the protesters who were lying on the floor. One protester being carried out of the cathedral shouted, "We're fighting for your rights too," before being drowned out by a church organ.

Police arrested a total of 111 demonstrators both inside and outside the church. All faced minor charges and were quickly released without trial and sentenced to community service.

A handful of protesters were eventually tried for refusing their community service, but no jail time was ever served.

Petrelis, the whistle-blower who was among those arrested, said he was disturbed by the fact that the police had been equipped with special gloves to deal with the Act Up protesters, out of a misguided fear that AIDS could be contracted through casual contact. But otherwise, he said, the police behaved professionally.

"For all of the craziness and anger that was coming from the protesters inside the church, the police force was well trained to stay calm, to arrest people, to get them out of the church, get them into the police wagons and into the police station to be processed," Petrelis says. "I believe many of us were charged with trespassing misdemeanor charges. We were all out of jail before the evening was over."

Fine Line Of Protest Vs. Hatred

The protest made international headlines, and was widely condemned by U.S. government officials including then-President George H.W. Bush, as well as newspaper editorialists, and Catholic faithful for its brazen attack on a place of worship.

Even among Act Up's own members, there was discord about whether the group had crossed the line between protest and religious hatred -- particularly after it was revealed that one of the St. Patrick's protesters had crushed a communion wafer in his hands and tossed the crumbs to the floor in front of the archbishop.

Jeff Stone, a gay Catholic who was among the protesters outside the church, says many demonstrators felt uncomfortable about the audacious confrontation with Cardinal O'Connor despite their anger over his stance on AIDS and abortion. O'Connor, he says, remained "very, very disturbed" by the event even years later.

Stone, who now serves as spokesman for the Catholic gay-rights advocacy group Dignity, says his organization had tried quietly for years to persuade the church to soften its stance on homosexuality. But it wasn't until the daring, over-the-top Act Up protest that the Church, and the American public, began to sit up and take notice.

"By the laws of this country, of course, religious services are protected against disruption, and I think everyone agrees that's a good thing," Stone says. "So the question becomes: How do you protest against the action of a church while respecting worshippers and respecting the right of religious leaders to have an opinion on these issues?"

Seminal Moment

Act Up's gamble paid off. By the early 1990s, Americans with HIV and AIDS had been granted federal protection from discrimination, the U.S. government had created an office on AIDS policy, and millions of dollars were being poured into drugs research.

Act Up demonstrators protest in front of city hall in New York in March 1989.Act Up demonstrators protest in front of city hall in New York in March 1989.
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Act Up demonstrators protest in front of city hall in New York in March 1989.
Act Up demonstrators protest in front of city hall in New York in March 1989.
Cardinal O'Connor, who died in 2000, remained staunchly opposed to Act Up's agenda. But the powerful archbishop paid personal visits to AIDS patients in New York, and the city's Catholic hospitals have been credited with playing a leading role in providing AIDS care.

Act Up activists now say the St. Patrick's protest changed the way many Americans viewed the Catholic Church. It was no longer untouchable, and its policies -- on everything from condoms and abortion to gay marriage and women priests -- were no longer sacrosanct.

With three members of Pussy Riot facing seven-year sentences on charges of hooliganism and being accused of "open disrespect" of Christianity, the power of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia for now appears undiminished. 

But that may not always be the case. Filmmaker Hubbard, who this year released "United in Anger," a documentary that looks at Act Up 25 years after its formation, says he initially had doubts about the provocative decision to enter St. Patrick's.

But now he believes the group made history when it decided to stand up to the church at a time when it seemed beyond reproach.

"I wasn't clear about what going inside the church would add at the time. But now I think that the shock of going inside and confronting the cardinal really worked," Hubbard says. "It helped bring Act Up to mainstream attention. It brought the crisis to a point where the government and the mainstream media really had to start dealing with it."

Daisy Sindelar

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Pussy Riot
August 06, 2012 13:09
Online broadcasting from a court hearing the case of #PussyRiot in Moscow. English version - https://twitter.com/Eng_Pussy_Riot

by: john from: canada
August 06, 2012 18:38
One might think that this RFERL story by Daisy Sindalar is just another American "we did it first" claim, but really its a strategic response to the inevitable tribalistic cult elements in Putinist Russia whose favourite debate tactic is left-over Soviet "whataboutism": Americans criticize something about Soviet Union, Russia finds fault with something in America...

A key point of Sindalar's story is that NO jail time was ever served!

Pussy Riot women have been rotting in jail for 6 months - and may get a lot more months after the corrupt Russian court finds a reason to keep them in jail.

LIKE Pussy Riot on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PutOutPutin


by: Mark Sleboda from: Moscow
August 08, 2012 21:31
One could equally conclude from the article -

(1) That the US government, media,and international community widely condemned the action as a Hate Crime
(2) That even many particpants were deeply disturbed by what was done by those who actually entered and desecrated the Church - and admitted that that felt that that crossed the line from protest to Hate Crime.
(3) Conclude that this was a failure of the US Justice System to properly recognise and redress the severity of the crime before Hate Crime legislation was fully enshrined in US law, as it is today (for example by President Obama's recent banning of protests at cemetaries over the Westboro Baptist Church's Hate Crimes, by Executive Order) and that such an abuse of the freedom to religious expression within the grounds of a house of worship or other sacred space without fear of abuse and persecution could never occur in today's more englightened judicial and poltiical climate in the US.

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