The Activists Who Are Staging Acts of Protest Inside Trump Tower
While entering the marble lobby of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, on a recent Friday afternoon, visitors walked past helmeted police officers holding rifles, uniformed Secret Service agents checking bags, and gleaming gold elevator doors. They also walked past a less expected fixture: an art dealer from Tarrytown, named Jeff Bergman, who since Donald J. Trump’s Inauguration, in January, has held weekly teach-ins there to explore issues of power, justice, and political struggle.
As people paused inside the lobby to snap selfies next to a shiny plaque announcing “The Ultimate Residential Building Worldwide,” or to look at a display of Ivanka Trump’s jewelry, Bergman, who works a block from the tower, read from Gil Scott-Heron’s work “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” from 1970: “There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news and no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose,” Bergman said, as eight or nine listeners stood nearby and others walking through the lobby gazed at him curiously. “The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.”
Trump Tower no longer attracts the thousands of protesters who gathered on Fifth Avenue in the days after the election, but Bergman is one of several people who have continued to use the building as a setting for quieter forms of protest. Another is Kyle Depew, who, drawing inspiration from the tactics of Occupy Wall Street, is encouraging readings, theatre performances, yoga sessions, and other in-situ events that will reflect on Trump’s Presidency as it unfolds. Most of those events will take place on an outdoor fifth-floor terrace, which is one of several privately owned public spaces—or pops—within the building. Those spaces, like Zuccotti Park, where Occupy participants camped for two months in 2011, are required by law to remain accessible to the public because they were created in exchange for concessions that allowed developers to exceed zoning regulations. (An audit of pops issued in April, by Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, reported that Trump Tower was not in full compliance with its agreement with the city.)
Depew told me that there are no plans to stay the night inside Trump Tower or to put up tents or tarps there. But establishing a presence inside the tower sends a message to the President. “When we realized we could school him inside of his own home, it seemed like an opportunity that was too good to pass up,” Depew said. In the past few weeks, he and two other activists have created a Web site, #TakeTrumpTower, which promotes a series of direct actions “that utilize the skyscraper as a living lab for creative demonstration, teaching, and more,” and invites groups to submit events to include on a calendar. Listed so far are the weekly resistance readings run by Bergman’s group, called Learn as Protest; Resistance and Restoration yoga sessions, meant to help prevent burnout for those participating in long-term political activism; and a multipart performance, scheduled to coincide with Trump’s birthday, today, to call attention to his plans to slash federal funding for the arts. A rally and a teach-in are also being organized for the Fourth of July, by the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The Trump birthday event began at noon, with a roster that included a public-art-performance group called Brick x Brick, whose members wore clothing emblazoned with what the group describes as Trump’s “statements of misogynistic violence.” Kyle Dacuyan, a poet who works with pen America, showed up to read a letter titled “This Nail Will Not Bend,” by the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is imprisoned in Russia. A performance artist named Reverend Billy, accompanied by the Stop Shopping Choir, delivered an invocation, and Lucy Sexton, a member of a performance duo called Dancenoise, hosted. “It’s a response to what has been since Day One with Trump an attack on the diverse exchange of ideas,” Sexton told me, during preparations for the event.
There have been signs that Trump Tower may not always welcome such visitors. A yoga teacher said that a session last week was thwarted when the terrace was closed earlier than it should have been. The teacher, Emma Conroy, said that a Trump Tower security guard ejected her and then locked the door. Sam Cohen, a lawyer who has been advising the organizers, said that he would lodge a formal complaint with the city. The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
On Friday, after reading Scott-Herron’s “Revolution” and a selection from the poet Claudia Rankine, Bergman handed the floor over to others. Jeremy Dine, who manages the studio of his father, the artist Jim Dine, read excerpts from the previous day’s testimony by James Comey in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. John Post Lee, of BravinLee programs, a gallery in Chelsea, read Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary of Richard Nixon. When the hour-long teach-in was finished, Bergman sat on a metal bench in the lobby and explained that he had begun the readings inside the tower partly because of its symbolism. “Being here feels like you are standing within a sanctuary Trump built through graft and backroom dealing,” he said. To convert the tower into a site of protest, he added, is, “in my mind, the same as standing on the steps of the Capitol.”