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Life Arts    H3'ed 11/11/11

Chicago Comedian and Political Cartoonist: Their Take on Occupy Movement

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My guests today are comedian Aaron Freeman and political cartoonist Sharon Rosenzweig. Welcome to OpEdNews!  You two are also activists who have been involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, I understand. Tell me what you've been up to.

Challah for Recent OccupyShabbat, LaSalle and Jackson (Chicago) 

SHARON: Hi. I've been hanging out at Occupy Chicago as an investigative cartoonist, exploring the questions: who are these people and what do they want. I bring a sketchbook and a camera, and I ask people if they want to participate in my project. Mostly they do. We talk and I draw, and I invite them to provide a speech balloon. If they allow it, I photograph them too. Then I go home and make cartoons based on these folks. I post them on Facebook and Twitter and on the Comic Torah website.

The wide variety of the people fascinates me. I try to choose the participants carefully to document this. It is quite different from what is suggested in most of the coverage-- the protesters are not all young hippies. Actually, I think any hippies would be more MY age. There are Jews and Muslims, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians. There are many young people, but also Vietnam veterans, retired people, Loop workers on break, suburbanites, and people who drive in from small towns and other states.

Because the Occupy movement has spread now to over 1500 cities around the world, I decided to get some help with the portraits. Partnering with the New York artist, Andrea Kantrowitz, we started a blog, , to gather drawings from artists covering the protests everywhere. So far, we have contributors from New York, Chicago, Oakland and Seattle, and we are looking for more.

I have been following the movement avidly, and I'm hoping to go to New York soon to document the mother-ship at Occupy Wall Street.

I'm glad to hear you speak to the diversity of the crowds because much of the coverage would have you think otherwise. So, the movement has its own cartoonists.That blog is a great idea, Sharon.  How has been received? This is the first I'm hearing of it. How do you get the word out about it?

SHARON: So far, the blog has been flying under the radar, and you're scooping the mainstream media, but people in the know think it's a great idea. We've been Googling and Twittering and Facebooking, looking for people who are already drawing, and trying to encourage artists we know to participate. Life drawing is somewhat out of fashion at the art schools, but there is a resurgence of interest in certain segments. Molly Crabapple, one of the New York artists on the blog, is a great example of a young artist making drawing hip, as the founder of Dr. Sketchy's Anti Art School, for instance.

AARON: I am the self-appointed grand, imperial pooba of intergalactic media strategies for OccupyChicago.  Getting the word out about  is one of my jobs.  So far my greatest success has been get Sharon an interview with the country's hottest progressive news site,  

Why, thank you!

AARON: I have done a number of videos trying to give a sense of what's it's like to be there and an interview with legendary Chicago activist/organizer, Heather Booth.  I am working on doing more reports and I also talk about the movement on whatever news outlets will have me.

Now of course, as the movement tries to grow up we are both focusing on trying to get beyond the "Oh wow, isn't this cool" phase and report more specifically on the substance of the movement and its message.  I am today going down to check out the OccupyChi general assembly.  The general assemblies were developed, I think, in Spain as part of there ongoing 15-M (May 15) occupation or "indignato" movement.  The GAs are totally democratic exercises, anyone can talk, there are no hierarchies so it's very cumbersome and time-consuming but are an example of what "horizontal" political processes can look like.

Among the great contributions of the Occupy Movement, besides inserting into the debate the distribution of wealth in the country, is its infusion of optimism.  Many of us think Obama with his endless wars, etc., is the best we can do.  Many of us have given up on a better, less violent world and are ready to settle for whatever moral crumbs the system will drop from its table.  But the Occupy movement says, "no, we can do better, a lot better than that."  They believe in an American future that is less violent, more democratic, youth-focused, globally harmonized and not dominated by corporate greed and they are bout the business of modeling that world in Zuccati Park in New York, LaSalle and Jackson in Chicago and hundreds of cities around the world.

I understand that in Albany, yesterday, NY state troopers and local police refused to arrest the OWS demonstrators while my very own mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is busy authorizing the arrest of peaceful occupiers. How do you explain the difference from place to place?

SHARON: If Mayor Emanuel would come down to LaSalle and Jackson and let me draw him, he'd relax, we'd talk, and we would come to a consensus on this issue. His speech balloon would read, "I agree with Sharon on just about everything."  If they had artists in those other places, there'd be less violence too.

Were  you always political, Sharon? Did you always see your art as a vehicle for change?

SHARON: I grew up in the anti-war movement. My high school art teacher was in Madison in the 60s and coached us in civil disobedience. "If you want to shut down the administration building, put Elmer's glue in the locks." Practical advice like that, the right tool for the job. My paintings and prints were narrative and personal, but when I started collaborating with Aaron and making cartoons and comics, they quickly became political. We did cartoons for Huffington Post for awhile, and one of our entries in the Israeli Anti-Semitic Cartoon Contest ran in Harpers Magazine, in an article by Art Spiegelman on the Mohammed cartoons . Even The Comic Torah has political elements, with Mubarek playing pharaoh, Obama as Joshua, Eliot Spitzer as a penitant, lots more.

Not all of our readers may know that you two are husband and wife. How did you get together?

AARON:  We are Jews so we first met beneath Mount Sinai, but in this life, we were fixed up by Sharon's best friend, Peta, who I was dating at the time but was sick of me... isn't that right, honeypie?

SHARON: Peta was dating TWO guys and I was being a celibate, which offended her sense of propriety. She went on to marry the other one, so at the time she had to get rid of Aaron, and she thought he was too good to throw back into the stew, so she was shopping him around. She tricked me into it, but I liked him right away, and now we're forever in her debt. We try to pay it forward through our hobby of matchmaking at Shabbat dinner.

Aaron, you've been uncharacteristically quiet so far. What would you like to add to the mix?

AARON: As as comedian what really appeals to me about the occupy movement is its optimism.  Many Obama supporters have given up on any hope for a better world.  They believe warrantless wiretaps, harassment of domestic political groups, torture, assassination of Americans and endless wars for oil are just the way it is and what we have to expect.  But the occupations say, "No, we don't have to give up.  We can do better than injustice and murder."  And the wonderful thing is they are walking the walk.  People ask what they/we want.  I say, look at what is being created: a movement that is non-violent, except for the police plants, democratic to a fault, inclusive, tech savvy, youth-focused, non-corporate and global.  What the movement is creating is much closer to the world I think we all know we need.

Yes, the 1% are mind-numbingly powerful and have batted back movements like ours for decades at least.  Look at Egypt now.  But that's where the comedy comes in.  Comedy is not so much about happy or sad endings, comedy is a way of looking at life that makes happy endings seem inevitable.  We just have to not lose hope.  Occupy keeps hope alive.

I like the concept of happy endings. We just seem to have given up on ever having a chance at them anymore. Speaking of comedy, has your involvement in Occupy engendered a lot of material for you?

AARON: Most of the jokes I've written have been stolen by the 1%.  We are planning to stage a counter protest in our "Billionaires for Wealth Care" personas.  In that incarnation, I am Thurston Forcash III, and along with my wife, Sharon Nunovit, we advocate for the ultra rich.  We know not only that corporations are people, but nice people.  And we oppose this environmental nonsense because, after all, how many species do we really need?  

But as the occupy movement spreads, the corporate system will try to co-opt it.  "Got  a hunger for justice?  Then occupy Wendy's!" or, "Wash the stain of exploitation out of your clothes, let new Tide occupy your laundry room!"

Obama, who'll say anything to get votes, will have web ads screaming, "Support my re-election and together we'll send an unmistakable message to "me!"

While jokes are definitely therapeutic, the occupy is deadly serious. In numerous cities, protesters have been greeted with unprovoked police violence and arrest. In Oakland, Iraq war vet Scott Olson suffered a skull fracture while standing peacefully next to a sailor in uniform. Do you want to comment on the real risks of civic participation?

AARON: The Chinese character for "crisis"    
chinese -'crisis -'2.jpg
is a compound of the characters "danger" and "opportunity." The occupation is certainly both.  But personally, professionally and as citizens, both Sharon and I feel drawn to the movement.  Rabbi Hillel asked "If not now, when?"  Besides, they say, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." so... um,  I gotta go! 

Thanks to both of you for talking with me. Let's follow-up on this later. In the meantime, readers can enjoy Sharon's Occupy cartoons here.

Cartoons in this article by Sharon Rosenzweig
You can see Sharon's comics here.
The blog with artists from around the country is here.


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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