City Paper is not for tourists
Adrian Parsons spent New Year’s Day at the mayor’s house—but not with the mayor.
Parsons, 29, had asked Vince Gray for an audience several times over the previous few weeks. The closest he got was the promise of a Dec. 30 meeting with a mayoral assistant. But Parsons, who’d been on a hunger strike since Dec. 8 on behalf of D.C. voting rights—an issue near to Gray’s heart—was running out of time. So, along with girlfriend Meg Walsh and fellow hunger striker Sam Jewler, he piled into Walsh’s Hyundai and drove to Gray’s Hillcrest home.
The trio of freedom fighters hadn’t anticipated that the mayor might not be waiting around for them on New Year’s Day. There were a lot of things they hadn’t anticipated.
And so it was that Parsons, who was down to 125 pounds over his six-foot frame, came to break his fast by sipping from a coconut water container while wrapped in a space blanket on a curb outside Gray’s house. His only other witnesses were some fellow activists from Occupy D.C.’s McPherson Square encampment who dialed in remotely. Parsons summoned one of them on his ever-present iPad.
By the time the company decided to leave, Walsh’s car’s battery had died. They huddled in the car waiting for AAA as Jewler, who’d broken his own fast two weeks earlier, discussed the difficulties of coming off a hunger strike. “It was probably the strangest shit I’ve ever taken,” he said of his first post-strike bowel movement. Eventually, a police officer stopped to give the Hyundai a jump-start. The irony wasn’t lost on Parsons, who’d been arrested twice in his previous two months of protesting. “If Vincent Gray were here, he’d think we were retarded,” Parsons said.
He wouldn’t have been the only one with a low estimate of the group’s savvy. When Parsons and an initial cohort of three other Occupy D.C. regulars branched out from protesting economic inequality to hunger striking in the name of local self-government early last month, they hadn’t considered that Congress was about to go on a holiday recess. The House wasn’t scheduled to convene again until Jan. 17, meaning the group had signed themselves up for 40 days without food before the deliberative body that could meet their demands would even be back in town. In the meantime, they needed to find someplace to stay, since wintertime camping and hunger striking make for a bad combination. They wound up in Luther Place Memorial Church on 14th Street NW.
The other strikers stopped their fasts after 10 to 11 days. Parsons kept going. He maintained his strike far longer than anybody—his girlfriend; his family; even Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who visited him at the church and urged him to give it up—wanted him to.
After more than three weeks of fasting, Parsons had turned himself into something of an icon—which isn’t to say he’d become any more of an expert on the logistics of exactly how Washington’s awkward constitutional situation would end. Take that meeting with Gray, for instance: The mayor, after all, has no vote when it comes to whether or not Washingtonians get one. Why pressure him for a meeting? If the group had wanted to use the strike to demonstrate that the occupiers’ embrace of local issues is more than a half-cocked gesture, it didn’t do the trick. By the time the ailing Parsons gave up his fast, it still wasn’t clear how much D.C. would benefit from having as its champion an emaciated artist best known for having once publicly circumcised himself as part of a performance.
Not that that mattered on New Year’s Day. “I cannot believe that is what coconut water tastes like,” Parsons said, hiccupping through his return to sustenance. “My mind must have hallucinated it.”
Parsons is easy to pick out of a crowd, even the leaderless one at McPherson Square. His lanky frame and stringy, carrot-colored hair were clearly identifiable from a distance when protesters erected a temporary barn at the encampment. He was the one singing the refrain to Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” as National Park Police shone floodlights and carted off protesters who refused to leave the illegal structure. There were people being arrested. Where else would Parsons be?
Parsons grew up in Fairfax and Annandale. He studied studio art at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Like many D.C. artists, he supported himself after school by working at the Phillips Collection as a security guard and at the Bethesda Apple Store as a genius. Though he still makes some art using prints and media, much of Parsons’ career has involved performance art and getting into trouble.
Parsons’ initial claim to fame came on April 28, 2007, when he circumcised himself with a pocket knife in front of about 20 people at an exhibition opening at the Warehouse art gallery. During the show, he’d already pulled out bits of his own beard with a pair of pliers, mashing the hair into a hole in the wall. I was in the crowd. Thanks to a dull knife, the final snip seemed to take all night; the crowd cried out as he sawed at his penis.
Before he plugged the wad of bloody foreskin into wall, Parsons explained to his audience that he intended the piece—titled “shrapnel”—to convey something about suicide bombers, whose attacks leave fragments of themselves and their victims embedded in the walls.
Afterwards, two friends transported Parsons in yet another Hyundai to George Washington University Hospital, where they were asked to attest that he was in control of his mental faculties. “I hobbled into the ER with a blood-red jacket around my waist, holding my dick like a preschooler waiting to pee,” Parsons says.
The friends agreed that Parsons was sane. His art, like his activism, has always involved a degree of danger. Before Occupy, in fact, much of that activism was about art. When the Smithsonian Institution in 2010 censored part of an LGBT show at the National Portrait Gallery, Parsons volunteered to man a temporary “Museum of Censored Art” trailer that was stationed outside the museum for several unheated winter weeks. The protest won an award from the American Library Association for intellectual freedom. “It was probably pretty near a full-time job for him,” co-organizer Michael Dax Iacovone says.
Parsons’ propensity for getting in artistic trouble also explains why he was even in D.C. when the Smithsonian scandal broke. He was supposed to be at the annual Art Basel Miami Beach festival. The plan had been to bike there as part of a work he titled “Drone II.” Parsons was to ride more than 1,100 miles while composing 14 songs about a “post-apocalyptic alternate vision of Art Basel Miami Beach” on a keyboard. Alas, he says he was arrested just north of Richmond for riding his bicycle on an interstate highway and that he spent 10 hours in Pamunkey Regional Jail.
It’s not clear from Parsons’ description exactly how this aborted concept album was supposed to relate to an annual event that is as concentrated a gathering of the one percent as you’ll find anywhere in the art world, a commodities convention that happens to trade in visual art. Still, it’s clear it was project borne of some frustration.
Along with members of his Kool Raunch Collective, Parsons hit the same themes last September. Concerned that the first (e)merge Art Fair was too Miami and too upscale for the District, a group of local artists organized a counter-fair. Kool Raunch’s performance plans, though, proved too much for the counter-fair’s organizers. So Parsons arranged FairFairFair, a counter-counter-fair at a new art space at 1337 H Street NE. Kool Raunch staged a show in which ensemble members dressed in togas, threw red paint, and wrestled in the ensuing mess; skinned calves’ heads were also involved. A result of the chaos: Ally Behnke, the 1337 resident who invited Parsons (though she says she never agreed to hosting the performance) got evicted.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten in a car with a drunk driver, but that’s the way it feels,” Behnke said of Parsons immediately after the incident.
Though Occupy came to town without any arts-related agenda, it’s no surprise that Parsons joined up, spending several nights a week at McPherson Square and getting arrested twice for his trouble. Wheatpaste depictions of his Dec. 16 arrest for blocking an intersection quickly appeared on U Street NW and in Columbia Heights.
But Parsons’ history may explain why the local arts community often seemed less than impressed with his subsequent fast. “I really hate him and hope he starves to death, seriously,” wrote one active member of the D.C. art community who knows Parsons socially, following Parsons’ decision to stage the hunger strike. “His need to feel important will finally be the end of him.”
Parsons’ embrace of the D.C. cause came at a time when the Occupy movement, having started out protesting a big, national issue—income inequality—started to focus on more parochial matters. Occupiers have recently begun asking questions about local housing policy, weighing in on, for example, a Foggy Bottom zoning dispute in which a developer wants a low-income housing requirement waived.
Like any activists with a broad ideological cause, it’s understandable that Occupy types would look around for specific examples. And locally, the District’s colonial status in the constitution is the most basic of justice issues. So it was perhaps inevitable that Occupy activists, particularly actual area natives like Parsons, embraced the statehood cause. But would the statehood advocacy community—which for years has sought to brand theirs as a mainstream, all-American cause involving nothing more radical than the notion of no taxation without representation—embrace a guy who mutilated his genitals in the hope of somehow slowing violence in the Middle East?
“Quite frankly, I was surprised that they were even aware of the issue. It doesn’t have a national constituency,” says Mark Plotkin, political analyst for WTOP and a statehood absolutist. Plotkin, though, won’t label Parsons a dilettante or a danger to the cause: Any effort that turns attention to District disenfranchisement, he says, is worthwhile. That said, a hunger strike might not be Plotkin’s preferred tactic. He’d like to see, perhaps, a Democratic candidate oppose President Obama on the voting rights issue in the D.C. primary.
“Everything helps,” Plotkin says. “I’m not going to criticize them. I think it’s courageous. Whatever they do, short of violence to themselves, to get attention—it’s a given that it’s welcome.”
Jesse Lovell, communications director for D.C. for Democracy, says he visited Occupy D.C. to talk up statehood early on. But, even after Parsons’ hunger strike, Lovell says he doesn’t know whether the occupiers specifically support—or know about—H.R. 265, Norton’s “New Columbia Admission Act” legislation, which is the focus of his group. “I would want them to know what these bills are about, so we’re not talking in generalities,” he says. “That’s a much better way to get people motivated.”
The most prominent D.C. voting rights organization, D.C. Vote, issued tentative statements of support for Parsons and company during the strike. But Executive Director Ilir Zherka couldn’t resist some quibbling over methods and tactics. “My immediate response was, one, Congress is leaving in a week, and two, what’s the end game?” says Zherka. “A hunger strike can end because you achieve the goal, or it ends because a person dies. It was unclear to us here what could be accomplished in a short period of time, especially over the holiday season.”
Still, attention is attention—and Parsons got more of it than Zherka’s group ever had. With the end of his fast in sight, Parsons and the former strikers held a press conference on Dec. 30 to announce three new D.C.-related initiatives. They did so in a fashion more in keeping with Occupy D.C. than with D.C. Vote: The protesters introduced their manifesto of demands using the call-and-response human mic check.
“We pride ourselves on trying to work with and coordinate with all elements of the movement,” says Zherka. “As of now—as long as they’re organized and working—they’re part of that movement.”
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.
These days, Parsons is looking at least a bit better than at the end of his strike. The color has come back to his face. He’s still a waif, but he’s a more energetic waif.
Parsons tells me he’s eager to get back to making art and music. He says he won’t be living in McPherson Square anymore; he and his girlfriend, with whom he crashes, have been looking at places together. He has plans for an art project based on messages sent from midnight to midnight on Sept. 11, 2001, as compiled by Wikileaks. He says he’s reached out to Hillyer Art Space about arranging a potential show. The whole thing sounds kind of…tame.
As far as activism goes, Parsons says that D.C. voting rights now comes first on his agenda. He’s planning to return to New Hampshire for the rescheduled hearing on Jan. 27th.
So does that mean that Parsons has graduated from Occupy D.C., abandoning theatrical protests of systemic injustice in favor of an effort to legislatively remedy a locally important constitutional loophole? It could be. On the other hand, when the Occupy encampments inevitably have their final confrontation with law enforcement, the scene will be full of cameras and drama and opportunities to perform. Could Parsons possibly stay away?
“Absolutely, I’d be there, because that’s where it started,” Parsons says. “But you need to look at the camp as a jumping-off point. Is Occupy just tents in McPherson Square? No, it’s much more than that now.”