Protesters’ puppets act out a no-nukes message
Year of the Sidewalk
The city wants to lift Knoxvillians above the curb
George Aros’ smoke-colored beard and gray T-shirt complement the tree that overlooks his progress on a large face made from pieces of an appliance box. Its exaggerated features, molded from additional cardboard cutouts, give it a cartoonish expression of surprise or innocence. Aros, of Louisville, Ky., is a member of the Puppetista Collective, a group that travels across the country teaching workshops on creating large-scale puppets and skits specifically for protests. Their efforts will culminate in the Aug. 6 demonstration at Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
“Puppets can comment in a fashion that is not negatively received, like jesters,” says Aros, a veteran of the Air Force who has participated in protests of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the inauguration of President Bush and School of the Americas. “Throughout the ages, it’s been the role of the jester to point out the idiocy of situations. Jesters have nothing to gain. Puppets don’t either. Puppets attract attention and can raise issues. Puppets don’t get angry—don’t yell and scream or rant and rave—and so they can present a message.”
At Saturday’s event, protest participants will give the puppets life in a skit portraying an assemblage of characters: a student whose education would improve if funds spent on weapons were used in schools; a general whose advice could change the direction of the country’s military; a corporate businessman whose complicity in the nation’s actions enhances the dollar signs glued to his cardboard eyeballs.
Lissa McLeod scrunches a comma-shaped piece of cardboard into an eyebrow the size of a squash. Until two years ago, she lived in Anderson County, and she has been involved with the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance for about seven years, nearly as long as the organization has held the protests on the bombing’s anniversary.
“We all have a global responsibility to resist these weapons, but those of us who live right here beside Oak Ridge have a special responsibility,” she says. With a laugh, she acknowledges the apparent contradiction that the Hiroshima Day activities are a fun time.
“They’re great,” she says. “We work really hard to not only say that these weapons are about death and destruction, but also to say life is possible. That if we use this money for health care, for food, for all these other needs, that the world would be a better place. There’s always been a real festive atmosphere. We have a sno-cone machine. My kids love to go; they look forward to it.”
Aros’ philosophy holds that a celebratory protest redefines the terms of communication between activists and their audience. A carnival-like scene—with puppets, a samba band, speakers, and street theater—presents an alternative way of expressing political views and offers a means to shift people’s experience of the world via community involvement. Instead of “cringing in your little house with duct tape and plastic sheeting, watching CNN…believing that whoever looks like they might be from a different country is a threat to you,” Aros says people should dance and play music “with people who don’t look like you but can dance better, and realize that they’re people too.”
McLeod is unsure what role she’ll fill during the demonstration. She will likely help people who are arrested that day for trespassing on federal property or blocking the entrance to the plant, or operate a puppet during the skit that, once complete, will present a transformation fable involving a nine-headed hydra, the earth and a peace crane.
“It’s not just the people who work at Y-12 who benefit from this plant and have some responsibility toward stopping it,” McLeod says. “So we have this hydra—the military industrial complex—and we’re saying that there are a lot of different parts of society that help hold this up and help feed this.” She pauses, her voice taking on a pensive tone.
“Our hope is that this whole message is empowering people, and empowering more people to come join us and to question.”
Though the City has ponied up $62,000 toward sidewalk improvements on the 100 block of Gay Street, it’s focusing more on refreshing the sidewalks and general appearance of two deteriorated, historic Knoxville neighborhoods.
Lonsdale, a West Knoxville neighborhood that dates back to 1890, is due for some improvement. The neighborhood, which contains both the Western Heights and Lonsdale Homes low-income housing subdivisions, got $200,000 in this year’s budget to complement Knoxville Community Development Corporation’s ongoing efforts there.
“With Lonsdale, we wanted to do it in concert with some KCDC renovation there,” says Haslam, referring to the improvement of both the interior and exterior of Western Heights and the 50-year-old Lonsdale Homes. “We’re adding onto [Lonsdale] Park and improving it [at a price of $400,000]. It’s an area that hasn’t had nearly enough attention placed towards it in the last 20 years.”
Because Lonsdale is located inside the Knoxville Empowerment Zone, a 16-square-mile radius of mostly moderate to low-income housing, the federally-funded Community Development Block Grant also provided $200,000 toward Lonsdale improvements, says Community Development administrator Diana Lobertini.
The nebulously boundaried Burlington neighborhood, just east of Chilhowee Park, has been allotted $150,000 in city monies for sidewalk and lighting improvements. Though it’s just out of the Empowerment Zone, Lobertini says Burlington may see some of the CDBG grant coffers as well.
Haslam acknowledges that the Burlington area’s been “underserved” over the years. “Burlington is sitting there ripe for improvement and redevelopment,” he says. “It has some pretty good assets there that we can build around, so it feels like the next natural place to step out to.”
Other historic neighborhoods, like Five Points and Mechanicsville, have gotten their due attention in the last few years, and Haslam says it’s time to focus on Lonsdale and Burlington, though he admits both neighborhoods require long-term care. “It’ll be awhile till we come up with a plan that has enough longer-term implications to make big differences,” he says. “...It’s going to be a long process, so we have to prioritize.”
Sidewalks are a fine way to spruce up a neighborhood and unite a community, Haslam says, but they won’t come cheap. He estimates that a mile’s worth of sidewalk costs roughly $700,000.
“It doesn’t go very far,” concedes David Harrell, the City’s chief civil engineer. Harrell says that uprooting an old sidewalk and replacing it with a new one costs $6 to $7 a square foot.
Most sidewalk construction should begin this fall, once the City finalizes its plans and commences the bidding process, Harrell says. Some of the sidewalk work will be done by the City’s in-house service department, though much of it will be hired out to contractors.
SEVEN DAYS IN JULY - AUGUST
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