There’s a central tension in Parsons’ recent turn in the spotlight. He insists that his activism is really about the cause, and not a piece of performance art. But as he generates news, his arts background gets more and more attention.
“I think that [Parsons’s] activist agenda is really well articulated, but there’s a performative element to it as well, using his body to enact a dissent and documenting it,” says Laura McGough, an instructor at the Corcoran Gallery of Art whose scholarship focuses on the intersection of activism and art.
McGough has appealed to George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media to include materials from Parsons’ protest in its archive of Occupy-related digital content. Of particular interest, she says, is Parsons’ live-stream footage. Protesters at various Occupy camps have used a free video streaming service to sidestep traditional news media. Parsons used it for transparency, he says, so that people could confirm he wasn’t eating.
McGough, one of Parsons’ two dozen or so regular watchers, says there are other reasons to view the feed. “The images of Adrian and his girlfriend lying in bed, not moving, I found really powerful,” she says, sounding more like a critic than a newswatcher. “I found it problematic how the video stream aestheticized his starving body...When he was in the middle of it [the strike], it was too early to analyze his actions for their performativity. That would be a little creepy.”
Parsons’ friends within the Balkanized local art world also saw the strike as an opportunity to make something. Kool Raunch staged a performance at Dupont Circle’s Hillyer Art Space to correspond with the protest: As Parsons’s livestream was projected over him, one member binged on Cool Ranch Doritos in front of the crowd, according to Parsons.
But, for better or worse, Parsons’ performativity seems to inspire at least the members of his own art tribe.
On day 15 of his hunger strike, friends visit Parsons. “I feel like we’re at an intervention,” Parsons says.
“You have to cut your hair,” responds Andrew Bucket, editor of The Folly, a literary magazine whose Tumblr proclaims it “the [D]istrict’s print only journal.” (It has put out one issue).
Sitting in Parsons’ wheelchair while Parsons lay on a cot, Bucket then suggests a way to extend the protests: 51 days of solidarity strikes, one for each state that ought to be in the union.
Parsons likes the idea. He registers his enthusiasm quietly, lying shirtless under some Christmas lights. His friends may be shocked by the exhausted look of a hunger striker, but Parsons’ flesh can’t be a surprise to them. Long before he joined the Occupy cause, people learned that when Parsons takes to the spotlight, he has no problem taking it off. The spring/summer 2010 issue of the short-lived scenester fashion magazine Worn featured Parsons sporting pink trousers, smoking a cigarette, and walking barefoot and shirtless across a snowy D.C. street.
Four days after Parsons breaks his fast, he joins two other former strikers at an informational session for Occupy the Vote D.C. at the Chevy Chase Community Center. It’s not a neighborhood known for its bohemian tendencies. But the 35 or so people who’ve come out for the event treat the group like allied ambassadors.
“I think he’s gutsy and he’s smart,” Jeremiah Cohen, a local who’s shown up with his daughter, says of Parsons. “He connected with my 16-year-old.”
“I think he’s doing amazing things,” agrees Rosie Cohen, a student at nearby Wilson High School. “He’s a hero in my eyes.” She said she first learned about Parsons while watching a livestream of the barn fracas. She now follows Parsons on Twitter, too.
Along with Jewler and fellow striker Joe Gray, Parsons was in Ward 3 to explain in surprisingly crisp detail the three-fold purpose for their fast: to earn legislative authority, budget autonomy, and congressional representation for D.C. About half the audience appeared to be over age 45; for many, the meeting served as a first introduction to all things Occupy. Which meant that, inevitably, the conversation went off the rails as attendees debated the relative merits of things like retrocession versus statehood.
“It’s not that I think they’re effective,” says Ward 3 resident Elaine Pirozzi of the hunger strikers, just after she slipped out of the meeting with her daughters, ages 6 and 10. “It’s that I appreciate people who make a stand when most of us do nothing.”
Though the encampments downtown are still going, the evening’s conversation seems to be preparing for a next stage, one that will start after the tents come down. Is Parsons the right sort of leader for such a phase? Jeremiah Cohen, for instance, suggests Washingtonians might stage a federal tax strike to secure their rights. Suffice it to say that the irregularly employed Parsons might not be the best face for such a protest. Or perhaps he would. “It can’t be me,” Cohen says. “I have too much at stake.”
At any rate, the next stop for Parsons isn’t Form 1040. Instead, he’s gone to New Hampshire.
Gray and a passel of D.C. councilmembers had been slated to testify before the Granite State’s legislature on behalf of a non-binding resolution endorsing D.C. voting rights. They were supposed to fly up last Thursday. Parsons, who’d kept on bugging the mayor’s office for a meeting even after his strike ended, decided to go, too. He says one of the mayor’s aides, Stephen Glaude, suggested he go and even game him some money for the trip. Glaude declined to say how much. (Parsons still hasn’t had that meeting with Gray.)
Of course, Parsons didn’t buy airline tickets like the politicians. He drove, stopping along the way with Occupy allies. Which meant he was on I-93, about an hour from Concord, when the legislative session was canceled due to snow. The D.C. pols stayed here.
Parsons’ group made the most of the snow day, dropping in for a two-hour meeting at the home of Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, the Democratic New Hampshire state representative who introduced the statehood-support bill. And while they couldn’t get face time with Rep. Al Baldasaro, the Republican who chairs the committee that will take up the bill, they did get a conference call with him.
By contrast, Lovell, of D.C. for Democracy, says his organization had only learned about the trip several days earlier and was unable to send someone. “This janky, shoestring-budget road trip turned out to be a good thing,” Jewler says. It’s a good bet that when the city’s well-groomed political leadership finally reschedule their trip, they won’t be making any house calls.