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Pussy Riot Pays Tribute To Eric Garner With First English Video, ‘I Can’t Breathe’

CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE/PUSSY RIOT
CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE/PUSSY RIOT

Russian activists and punk rockers Pussy Riot released a new video today for their first English song, “I Can’t Breathe.”

According to the official Pussy Riot description on YouTube, the song “is dedicated to Eric Garner and the words he repeated eleven times before his death. This song is for Eric and for all those from Russia to America and around the globe who suffer from state terror — killed, choked, perished because of war and state sponsored violence of all kinds — for political prisoners and those on the streets fighting for change. We stand in solidarity.”

The two most famous (or, arguably, the only two famous) members of Pussy Riot, Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, are shown being buried alive. The video opens with a shot of a pack of “Russian Spring” cigarettes, which Pussy Riot describes as “a term used by those who are in love with Russia’s aggressive militant actions in Ukraine, and the cigarettes are a real thing.” Alekhina and Tolokonnikova are wearing Russian riot police uniforms.

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The song was recorded in New York last December, in the midst of protests against police brutality that picked up in the wake of a Staten Island grand jury decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the white police officer who held Garner in a chokehold as he died. Pussy Riot produced the song with a fleet of collaborators, both Russian — members of bands Jack Wood and Scofferlane — and American: Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Shazad Ismaily, and real-deal punk legend Richard Hell. It’s Hell’s voice you hear at the end of the song, reading out Garner’s now-famous last words.

That single-take video above was shot in Moscow; a second video, directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin, includes footage from New York protests where members of Garner’s family can be seen grieving and the scene of Garner’s murder in Staten Island.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have become the public face of Pussy Riot, but Pussy Riot didn’t intend to have a public face at all. The anonymous feminist protest-art collective-turned-punk-rock-group wear tights and balaclavas in public in bright, clashing colors, courting attention as a pack but never as individuals. In clashes with the police, the activists refused to give their names.

But that all changed when Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova appeared in court in 2012 with their faces uncovered. The nameless, faceless army got two instantly famous, recognizable faces. (Though six women appeared in the video for “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” and five of those six participated in an anti-Putin protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, only three got caught by the police; Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were the only two to be sent to prison.) They served nearly two years in prison, a time Alyokhina reported was a series of “endless humiliations.” She was subjected to forced gynecological exams almost every day for three weeks straight.

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Anonymity had been the game plan, but celebrity worked for these two. Upon their release, they proved to be incredibly media-savvy, meeting with Hillary Clinton during the “Women in the World” Summit in New York, charming Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, and posing for Vanity Fair in crop tops and tutu-like skirts, revealing so much of their old uniforms used to hide.

MTVNPlayerEdit descriptionmedia.mtvnservices.comThe Colbert Report

Their fame has sparked some backlash from within; some women calling themselves Pussy Riot wrote an open letter insisting that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were no longer part of the band, saying their notoriety was incompatible with the group’s efforts: “The mixing of the rebel feminist punk image with the image of institutionalized defenders of prisoners’ rights is harmful to us as a collective.”

Yet in interviews, the women still refer to themselves as Pussy Riot, perhaps just for the sake of familiarity and shorthand. The new video is up on YouTube on the PussyRiotVideo page and lists Pussy Riot as the artist.

Pussy Riot’s invocation of “I Can’t Breathe” brings to mind the police brutality that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have experienced firsthand. But the fact that it’s become something of a pop cultural catchphrase is a source of some unease.

There’s been substantial criticism around “hashtag activism,” how these rallying cries — #ICantBreathe, #BringBackOurGirls, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown — are lazy self-promotion masquerading as engaged selflessness. These hashtags seem to always be in the first person, putting the person who tweets at the center of the action and, in so doing, displacing the person or people who are actually suffering. This tension is only exacerbated when people who are usually guilty of turning everything into a PR opportunity (e.g. celebrities) get in on the action. Is there something discomforting about the idea of people far from an atrocity employing a statement like that, one that presumes a close, personal understanding? And how effective can these hashtags even be?

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But these kinds of statements can be powerful if seen through a lens not of narcissism but solidarity. The idea, in its best form, isn’t “I can’t breathe because Eric Garner’s death is really about me.” It’s about connecting with a complete stranger because what makes you alike is more powerful than whatever makes you different. It’s about creating closeness where there is some kind of distance: racial, geographic, nationalistic. It’s about shared humanity as a trump card.

That is the sentiment Pussy Riot gets across with this video. They elaborated on that idea in an interview with Pitchfork, describing how, when their time in New York overlapped with protests surrounding Eric Garner’s death, they did not hesitate to join in (emphasis added):

Several problems that have come up in the U.S. government system resemble Russian problems in a very painful way. In particular, the problem of police violence. We are interested in seeing how the American political system, which is in general more open than the Russian one, handles defects like these, and how the media and civil society can help it or force it to fix this situation… So we are prepared to suffer through problems in other countries as if they were our own. That’s why we joined the protests in New York and wrote “I Can’t Breathe.” It truly was inspired by what happened in the U.S., but it has an attitude forged in the Russia we are living in today, in which we are trying so desperately to do something useful… We gave those protests our support, even though we live in Russia, because police violence and death have no nationality.

In that interview, they also describe the artistic thinking behind the way the burial video was shot. “The idea of a single take is important to us. We think that is the most honest way to reduce the distance between the viewers and the people getting buried.”

Moscow is 4,664 miles from New York City. Reducing distance, indeed.