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The Peace Ball, the progressive alternative to the Trump inauguration

“We need to look for moments of joy in order for us to continue to do the work we do.”

Last minute preparation are made for today’s dedication ceremony at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, where the Peace Ball will also be held over Inauguration Weekend. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Last minute preparation are made for today’s dedication ceremony at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, where the Peace Ball will also be held over Inauguration Weekend. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

For Washingtonians who feel wrecked by Donald Trump’s victory, Inauguration Weekend looms ahead like the wedding of a couple you hate, and also who you think is doomed to divorce. Trump’s swearing-in will be celebrated with black tie galas the District over. But there are those who ordinarily would be angling hard for a ticket to these events who instead feel awfully uncomfortable at the prospect of attending them — who, much like a number of vocal Rockettes, are loathe to be associated with a celebration of Trump. What is a conscientious objector to the new administration to do?

They could turn to a few “alternative” inauguration events, formal gatherings that aren’t associated with Trump or the Republican party in any way. At these parties, a panicked progressive could sidle up to an open bar and drink away the fear that the rising tides will drown us all faster than you can say “I’m pretty sure a Muslim registry is unconstitutional.”

The biggest of these is Busboys and Poets’ Peace Ball, which will be held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on January 19, and which is billed not as an anti-Trump party but as “a gathering to celebrate the accomplishments and successes of the past four years and the vow to continue to be the change we want to see in the world.” Among the notable attendees: Solange, Alice Walker, Danny Glover, Angela Davis, Cheryl Strayed, Esperanza Spalding, and Eve Ensler.

Is it more important than ever to find ways to be joyful in the wake of what was, for so many, a devastating election result that kicked off an era of great anxiety and uncertainty? Do parties like the Peace Ball attract guests in droves because even people who are horrified at the prospect of Trump’s inaugural don’t want to totally miss out on one of the biggest get-dressed-up weekends in D.C.? Maybe yes and yes. Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal spoke with ThinkProgress about the planning of the Peace Ball, how the election is galvanizing artists and activists, and hope.

What’s the backstory of the Peace Ball?

We actually have done this before. We did an inaugural ball in 2009 and in 2013. When President Obama first got elected, we were quite excited because we were very involved in the campaign. And when he won, we were moved by that whole time period and we wanted to do something very special to commemorate it. I’m not a ball person; it’s not something I do during inaugurations. But this was a moment that I think many people felt was significant enough to warrant a big celebration. So we started going down the road of planning this ball, which we’d never done before. We reserved the Smithsonian Postal Museum and the capacity was 1100–1200 and we thought, how will we ever sell it? And we sold out in a matter of days. It was a very exciting time and lots of great people came to the stage, celebrities and activists and so on.

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Because of that, and because of the goodwill that created, people really felt the need to come together to celebrate — there’s always a reason to have joy and celebration. So we decided to do it again in 2013.

I take that to mean you planned this year’s event before the election. So even before you knew the outcome, you knew the location would be the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

With this one, we knew the election may go one way or another — many of us thought it would go a different way — but we were looking to transcend the election itself and look for an opportunity to bring artists and progressives together to celebrate, celebrate accomplishments that have been done over the years and more activism and work ahead of us. So we planned it before the election. We knew we’d have an event before the election, and we’d talked to the NMAAHC back in August or September, making sure we were able to secure the venue, and we secured it sometime in October.

So how did you recalibrate after the election turned out this way? Did it influence your plans at all?

Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of recalibration, because this is not about a single moment or a single person. This is really about the people that had been doing the work on the road, in the street, the activists and artists and celebrities in this kind of work. It’s not about the election. The contributions that activists, artists, and progressives contribute or bring forward are very significant and I think, need to be celebrated.

“This is not about a single moment or a single person.”

And even during the Obama years, this event was called a Peace Ball?

They’ve always been called a Peace Ball. The second one was at Arena Stage, which held 2,500 people or so, and we had 2,700 or 2,800.

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Given what you’ve said about the thinking behind the Peace Ball, how do you feel about being categorized, as you likely will be, as holding an “anti-Trump” event, or an “alternative” inaugural ball?

An alternative always puts you against something, and this is not what this is about. I think this is really a celebration of some of the great milestones that have taken place in the past few years — look at marriage equality, criminal justice reform, climate change, successes over the Dakota pipeline, look at Black Lives Matter. All of these things are moments that we sometimes forget when something happens that we are not happy about. But still, I think we really do need to pause sometimes and appreciate the work and the efforts that have taken place over time by the folks that are doing this work. Because to be hopeful, you have to look at those things. It’s not just a foolish thing. It’s really about looking at what has happened in the past and the successes that have happened.

“I have very little patience for sadness. I think we need to look for moments of joy in order for us to continue to do the work we do.”

Hope is not just some elixir that gets you past bad times, how you fool yourself into believing. It’s really based on true accomplishments by human beings that have changed the world for the better.

Not that you could have known in advance, but it does seem like it is all the more meaningful now to hold this event at the NMAAHC, after Trump has spoken so violently about people and communities of color?

Absolutely, I think the location has taken on a different significance due to the outcome of the election. We’re keenly aware of the significance of the space that we’re in. And the type of programming and event that we’re putting together speaks to that.

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How do you reckon with both the impulse that you’re talking about — to celebrate what has been accomplished — with the very legitimate fear and sadness that a lot of progressives are feeling over the outcome of the election?

Well, I have very little patience for sadness. I think we need to look for moments of joy in order for us to continue to do the work we do. It’s not the time to hide in the corner and sit in the fetal position and sulk. This is the moment to raise your voice, be louder, be bold, and recognize that you’re not alone. That is the key behind this event. There are lots of people who feel that we can do better, that the world can be better, that we cannot continue to settle for fear and for marginalization and hate and all of that. So I think it’s important for us to recognize that.

“Hope is not just some elixir that gets you past bad times, how you fool yourself into believing.”

It’s also important to remind each other that things have changed, the world is changing, sometimes in very dramatic ways. I was talking with someone recently who was — they probably voted for Trump, and they said, “Trump got elected, nothing happened, it’s not like the world ended.” And I said, “That is an incredible sense of privilege one would have to say that. If you are black, Latino, gay, Muslim, brown, an immigrant — the world has changed dramatically for you.”

Being president is not just about throwing our flip tweets; it does have an impact. And the impact can be very dramatic on certain groups of people. So I think we have to not diminish the significance of some of the things that have been said. For instance, registering Muslims or putting them in internment camps, you can’t just ignore that and say, “He didn’t really mean it.” you have to say, “You’re not just a reality TV show host; you’re really our president. Everything you say impacts, in very significant ways, the folks that you’re leading. Sometimes we forget that. We think, it’s a silly moment, we’ve all been punked and can move on. It’s not a reality TV show.

Are you concerned at all with people conflating a party on Inauguration Weekend with a celebration of the incoming president and what he stands for?

This is not just a party. This is really a gathering of artists and activists. When you have speakers like Ben Jealous and Van Jones and Angela Davis and Eve Ensler, this is not just a party. This is more than that. So this is an exciting moment, I think, for people to come together and hear from some of the leadership in the progressive and activist community. If we were just to have a band and music, that would be something else, maybe. But we are very clear about the vision behind this kind of an event.

Howard Zinn was the first honorary host of our event in the past, when we did it in 2009. He was the first person that I called after the election. I asked him if he would be the honorary host, he said absolutely, after a little convincing. And we’ve always used his quote. I’ve asked him, how do you stay so hopeful and happy as an individual? This is his very beautiful quote:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

How do you sense this event is shaping up differently than it would be if Hillary had won the election?

We’ve had certainly a lot more interest in coming together, this time, even than in the past. I think the first election with Obama was an obvious reason for people to come out and celebrate for many progressives and activists. This time, I think, we’re seeing a lot more intensity and interest in wanting to be together and wanting to support each other and wanting to gather. That’s more significant now than it would be if Hillary had won. There is this need to say, “We need to really rise and speak up.”

How are ticket sales?

It’s sold out completely, and it’s over 3,000 people. We have a waitlist of at least 400 at this point.

After you pay for the expense of the event, where do the rest of the proceeds go?

There is no rest. We’re going to be in the hole — only because, the expense for an event like this is quite dramatic, especially because you’re doing a one day event and everything has to be mobilized, it’s really good food and open bar and musicians, sound, lights, staging, and it’s very, very expensive. So every penny of this event will go directly to make sure that the event comes out right. No profit is being made from this event whatsoever. And of course we pay the museum.

Are there any speakers or guests in particular you’re really excited about?

The first person that I called for this event was Angela Davis. She’s prominently present in the museum, so I thought it would be a very significant thing for her to be one of the honorary hosts for the event. So I think someone like her, many of the activists have been involved — Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Van Jones who has been very outspoken around issues around this election, Melissa Harris-Perry, Amy Goodman with Democracy Now, Eve Ensler who has been very outspoken around issues about women, and some of the language that’s been coming out from this president-elect. I think all of those folks will have something to contribute. And we wanted a very conscious artist, so we have Esperanza Spalding, and Solange, who with her new album speaks about issues of inequality.

It’s also interesting to think about how much the Obamas love the arts, and celebrate them, and how radically that could change under this administration.

And we’re seeing it, just in this inaugural, there’s very, very little of that taking place. A lot of it because lots of artists don’t want to have to be associated with some of the things that have been said by this administration. The xenophobia, the homophobia, the misogyny, all those things alarm people and no one wants to be associated with that.

Or think about events like the Obamas inviting the cast of Hamilton to the White House. What would be the Trump equivalent of that?

We saw a little preview of that when Mike Pence went to see the show! I think it’s — it sort of speaks to what happened when Laura Bush was first lady, before the first Obama term, she was going to do a poetry event at the White House, and then wind came about that some of the artists and poets may use that platform to voice their concern about the war and other things, and they ended up canceling the event, and really started a movement called Poets Against the War, that became a national movement. It’s very interesting how artists obviously just by their very nature speak to human values of peace and justice and harmony, and I think would have a hard The time triangulating their voices into this administration.

A lot of journalists talked about that Pence incident being a distraction from “more important” news, like the Trump University settlement, but I totally disagree. I think the way Trump responded proves that he knows, on some level, that art is not a distraction, and in fact that while he publicly has disdain for art, he gets how powerful it is, or he wouldn’t bother trying to undermine it.

Yeah, he completely understands culture in a very, very significant way. That’s why, I think, I find it ironic — he did Miss America, he does stuff like that, he’s always on TV — he should understand the significance of culture and the arts on how people think.