New York Times, featured profile: Props and Agit-Prop
As onlookers, media types and a phalanx of police officers watched protesters gather across from Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan on Wednesday, they suddenly took notice as a woman in a skimpy police uniform stomped onto the scene in a pair of high-heel boots.
The woman, Marni Halasa, 48, set up mock prison bars and proceeded to lock up a blow-up doll in the likeness of Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs. Like the demonstrators, she was there to protest the World Business Forum being held inside. But her style differed from the traditional chants, speeches and banners. She held a sign — “Banking Needs a Spanking” — and fondled a boa made of fake $100 bills. She began smacking the doll with her plastic nightstick, struck some flamboyant poses and then, after a comically seductive dance, conducted a mock striptease of the doll, so he could be jailed for financial crimes. Many passers-by ignored the signs and speeches of the larger protest, but flocked to the sexy cop and the scrum of photographers around her. “People are instantly attracted, they want to see what’s going on,” explained Ms. Halasa, a self-described exhibitionist who dresses in elaborate costumes to participate in Occupy Wall Street-style protests. Ms. Halasa is a professional protester, or at least aspires to be; she hopes to parlay her style of protesting against the lords of big banking into a profitable business. Over the past three years, she said, she has appeared at roughly 100 protests, and has marched alongside thousands of Occupy protesters as well as stood alone outside the Park Avenue apartment building where Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan Chase, lives. For Mr. Dimon, she dressed as the Ethical Fiscal Fairy, wearing wings, a tutu and in-line skates, and told his neighbors that he should be punished along with other finance chiefs for ruthlessly profiting off working-class consumers. Ms. Halasa, who said she has law and journalism degrees and now teaches figure skating, started a company called Revolution Is Sexy, which she hopes to develop into a one-stop shopping outlet for effective demonstrating. Services range from recruiting protesters to working with the media. She said she hoped to build the company and hire other protest performers, “so I can have an army of me.” In her view, her “lively spectacle” is often better received by the public than the angry demonstrators are. At Wednesday’s protest, speakers railed against the banking elite while Ms. Halasa provided the visuals, cheerfully posing for a seemingly endless string of photographs, often taken by police officers and businessmen. “I don’t have the usual look of the angry protester,” she said, adding that her strategy helps facilitate discussions and the dissemination of pamphlets about issues like alternative banking and raising workers’ wages. “It’s really the same kind of outrage, but just packaged in a more engaging way,” said Ms. Halasa, who attends weekly meetings of the Alternative Banking Group, an Occupy offshoot, at Columbia University. And as far as disseminating the message: “The outfits help get it out there,” she said. Ms. Halasa said she grew up in Akron, Ohio, a studious child who learned dancing and figure skating and was steered by her immigrant parents — a Jordanian father, and Filipino mother — toward a career as “a doctor or lawyer or scientist.” Instead, she worked as a journalist until becoming “more interested in the power of performance,” she said, and began supporting herself by teaching skating at Chelsea Piers. She said she began to adopt a political message after attending Occupy Wall Street rallies in Zuccotti Park in 2011 and realizing, “I really need to be part of this.” Ms. Halasa, who coaches the Reach for the Sky Rink All Stars, a skating team at Chelsea Piers, said she occasionally arrives at practice still in her demonstration costume, which can provoke interesting discussions with her skaters’ parents, some of whom work on Wall Street. “In private, many of them tell me they agree with me,” said Ms. Halasa, who tries to come up with a new character for each demonstration, and names each one. She took part in the recent People’s Climate March as the Angry Mermaid for Climate Change. She attended Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inauguration in her Money Bunny jumpsuit. The female officer on Wednesday was Babs the Bankster Buster. Her prop man is her husband, Peter Cecere, 58, an entrepreneur who Ms. Halasa jokes “was part of the one percent” until bad investments deflated his portfolio.