Justice for Pussy Riot!: An Interview with Shawna Potter of Hollaback! Baltimore and War on Women

Justice for Pussy Riot!: An Interview with Shawna Potter of Hollaback! Baltimore and War on Women

War on Women at Solidarity Concert for Pussy Riot. Photo By: Joe Flood
War on Women at Solidarity Concert for Pussy Riot. Photo By: Joe Flood

On February 21, 2012,  five members of an all female Russian feminist punk rock band called Pussy Riot (Пусси Райот) performed a peaceful but illegal show on the soleas, priests only section, of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Though their performance was later stopped short by officials, they later turned this performance into a music video called: "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!".

Widely known for dressing in brightly colored balaclavas while on stage and using nicknames in interviews, the band seeks to rejoice in punk fun despite living under an oppressive system. Pussy Riot always plays publicly in order to give "voice to basic rights under threat in Russia today, while expressing the values and principles of gender equality, democracy and freedom of expression contained in the Russian constitution and other international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CEDAW Convention." 1

One of the intentions of the February 21st performance was to draw awareness to the lack of separation between church and state within Russia, specifically highlighting President Putin's particular relationship with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Due to this performance, three members of Pussy Riot -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich -- were arrested in March. They were denied bail and held captive until their trial date in July. These women are widely recognized as political prisoners and deemed so by the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners (SPP). On August 17, 2012, they were convicted of "hooliganism", and each was sentenced to two years imprisonment. Since then, Samutsevich has been freed on probation, her sentence suspended after an appeal. The convictions and sentences of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have remained upheld. They have both been sentenced to serve their terms in a remote penal colony. The Free Pussy Riot website states that, "Russian prisons are notorious for squalid conditions and often brutal treatment of inmates by personnel."

Since Pussy Riot's capture, detainment, trial, and sentencing much of the world has risen in uproar. Many have long viewed Russia's treatment of women as brutal and it's outright denial of what many in the West view as basic liberties to be inhumane. This particular case seems to exemplify much of these beliefs.

People everywhere have continued protesting against Russia's treatment of Pussy Riot, as well for Tolokonnikova's and Alyokhina's release despite the innumerable odds.

Earlier this fall, one of Baltimore's own fiercest feminists, Shawna Potter of Hollaback! Baltimore and the punk band War on Women (WoW), performed on the mall of our nation's capital in Washington, DC in a Solidarity Concert for Pussy Riot. In an interview with Potter, Indyreader asked why she participated in this performance and why the fight for what Pussy Riot now stands for is so important.

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Corey Reidy (Indyreader): Last Friday, August 10th, your band War on Women (WoW) participated in a Solidarity Concert for Pussy Riot. Can you describe the concert, please? The motives for having the concert? What happened during the concert? Why did you decide to participate?

Shawna Potter: In a grassy field across from the Russian Embassy, Amnesty International acquired a stage, small PA, and convinced some food trucks to show up (fantastic falafel, for realz). Someone reached out to us from DC asking if we wanted to be involved in a solidarity show for Pussy Riot and the whole band felt honored to take part. There were a lot of people there, but because the media is so interested in this story, it was a little hard to tell who was there to enjoy the show and who was there to document it. But, we showed up, hung out at a fun outdoor punk show, did some interviews (BBC radio wtf!), performed, and had a great time. It was actually a really good way to start our four-show Balti-tour. Very positive vibes, even if the whole thing was run by a non-profit with little 'punk rock cred'. It didn't matter, they put their trust in us and the other bands, that we'd done this before: played, entertained, and caused a little trouble. They were relying on us to make the show a success and regardless of how many people showed up, the fact that the event was picked up by a bunch of news outlets, even streamed live worldwide with some Russian Pussy Riot family members watching, means it was a success.
 
Reidy: Why do you think it's important for activists here in the States, and internationally, to fight for the rights of this Russian punk band?
Potter: It's about privilege, isn't it? I have the privilege to complain about my government or the current state of things in the actual capital city of my country. That's kind of amazing. The more we can bring attention to the stark differences in freedom of expression [and] the separation of church and state (or at least our intention of it) then the more outrageous it looks that Pussy Riot is being forced to work in a labor camp for seven years for a minute of protest.
 
Reidy: Why do you think it's important for other musicians, like yourselves, to stand in solidarity with Pussy Riot?
 
Potter: Art is a confusing thing, in that I think people take it for granted, but also don't fully appreciate how much it helps to shape culture. Society at large does not nurture artists. I'm guilty of it, too. I can't even recall all the times I've asked professional photographer friends to come take pictures of my band - for free! How ridiculous is that? So, playing in a band, especially a political feminist punk rock band like I do, while I can't foresee sustaining a living by doing it, it's important to me to voice my unique take on the world. We need to hear more female voices out there. My point is that these women aren't hooligans. They are looking towards a better, more free Russia, because it is their home and they want to make it a better place. I think it is important that other artists stand with them in this endeavor so we don't lose sight of how important music and art can be. It can change the world, it is changing the world. I'm sure that is why they are so scared of Pussy Riot. But that is exactly why Pussy Riot needs to be protected, to be free to keep doing what they are doing.
 
Reidy: What do you think is significant about Pussy Riot being a female band?
 
Potter: Well, what are men who abuse power most afraid of? Not other men, but women.  They dress in colorful outfits, dance around like crazy, and play simple screamy punk. What could be more confusing to men who don't believe in women's equality? I mean, it's why the world cares about this story, too. If it were three men, I'm not sure that it would have gotten as much attention. It seems there is a history of quietly stomping out dissent over there. So, I have mixed feelings about the fact that the world wants to see them as helpless victims. I get that it's a better narrative. But they are actually total badasses for standing up when they knew the risks and they were being pretty media savvy while doing it. But you know what scares me? Is if they're convicted, the sentence won't be the only punishment. I'm predicting some serious sexual assault, which is a valid reason to fight for their release on its own.
 
Reidy: What does activism surrounding this issue currently look like?
 
Potter: Really grassroots, really fun, really colorful. I mean, its perfect for the internet. You put on a colorful dress, put on a ski mask, yell "Free Pussy Riot" or "We Are Pussy Riot" and you're an activist. It actually does remind me of the Hollaback! movement because it is not about a central figure head or leadership, it's all about each individual standing up and being counted, thereby making a bigger impact when you put them all together. Maybe that huge group of people can't all do something as controversial as storm a church, but all those photos and videos put together can make just as big of an impact.
 
Reidy: How would you encourage people to get involved in this issue?
 
Potter: Everything always starts with education. Educate yourself on what is going on and why. Read the articles, read their closing statements, read some back story on Putin. Then, add your picture to all the blogs and pages out there. Amnesty International seems to be the biggest organization working on freeing them, so see if there is something you can do with them. THEN you should absolutely exercise your right to freedom of expression. Start a band, pick up a paint brush or a camera, and start challenging the status quo.
 
Reidy: What does War on Women work for/fight for?'
 
Potter: Here's my light but sincere answer: To show that you can dance to heavy political rock. Yeah, it's serious subject matter, but we're at a show and it's OK to have fun.
 
Now my serious activist answer: I think first and foremost gender equity, but with the understanding that gender is a spectrum.  We want to challenge the stereotypes associated with women and men, allowing everyone to freely express themselves, safely, and with full autonomy. I only know life as a white, hetero- cis- woman, so I'm in a pretty safe place to do all that. But I've been playing in bands since I was fourteen, all over the country, and I can assure you sexism is not dead (just in case any of your readers were wondering, haha). On stage, we want to be seen as people, not a band with a couple "chicks" in it. It's crazy how just knowing how to play guitar competently, playing heavier music, and then me not only looking comfortable on a stage but in charge of it and we're already breaking down people's ideas of what is appropriate or possible for women.
 
A couple more things: I work to inspire at least one girl or woman every show to pick up a guitar or whatever the equivalent in their life might be; to shed the notion that they can't do X because that's only for dudes. Also, I'd be happy knowing, that by the end of the show, every guy in the audience can and will find the clit.
 
Reidy: How does this fight align with your other work?
 
Potter: Well the easy answer is that I write a lot of songs about street harassment! I think about the fact that yes, people are familiar with female musicians and artists, but maybe don't take them as seriously or at least always see them as not-male. That, to me, is similar to people who agree women should be equal but then think they still have the right to comment on a woman's body in public or stare at her. Like, how is that actual equality? So, both War On Women and Hollaback! Baltimore challenge these little normalized remnants of straight up obvious sexism that most people are comfortable enough to assume have completely disappeared; like so why worry about it anymore? I'm perfectly happy to worry about it. I'm a passionate lady. We can always do better.
 
Reidy: What's next for you and WoW?

Potter: We're playing Hampden Fest Sept 8th, touring in October on our way down the the Gainesville Fest in Florida, looking to record another record in the new year, writing more songs about abortion - you know, normal band stuff!

 

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1 http://freepussyriot.org/about

 

 

War on Women are currently on tour. To find out when they're in your neighborhood please visit: http://www.reverbnation.com/waronwomen

Photo of Corey Reidy

Corey Reidy has been an Indyreader collective member since the start of 2009. And.. she adores it with all her heart. When Reidy isn't editing, writing, interviewing, or other Indyreader-centric organizing, she works to do other forms of radical activism -- including, but not limited to, organizing/being a board member of Hollaback! Baltimore. If she's not organizing, Reidy is most likely reading, biking, or practicing/studying yoga (of which she adores and will 100% go to bat to defend and promote).