Louis Farrakhan did it. So did the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Now, it’s Elmo and the Cookie Monster’s turn to stage a Million Man March. That’s the unlikely sight that jaded Washingtonians were treated to as Big Birds, Ernies and Grovers marched down to the US Capitol on a chilly Saturday afternoon to voice their support for public broadcasting and Sesame Street. Sadly, the rally, which was touted as the Million Puppet March, missed the historic headcount by just 999,000 people.
The march was organised after the now-defeated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in the first presidential debate, announced he would cut funding to PBS, and in particular to Sesame Street.
Romney’s remarks had incensed Sesame Street fans so much that netizens took it upon themselves to protest the budget cut. Soon parody Twitter accounts like @SaveBigBird sprung up and got thousands of followers. It even led to an advertisement by the Obama campaign, saying that Mitt Romney believed that one doesn’t have to worry about Wall Street, just Sesame Street.
All this eventually led to the organisation and execution of the Million Puppet March on November 3 this year. The rally, which was publicised through social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, saw people come down from as far as Los Angeles and even hurricane-hit New York in support of their beloved Muppets.
As the rally made its way to the US Capitol, participants shouted slogans such as “Who loves Big Bird? We love Big Bird!”, “Bow to the Puppets” and “What do we want? Cookies! When do we want them? Now!”
“You can’t take Sesame Street away from the kids,” said Linda Dennis, a resident of Annapolis, Maryland. She added that Sesame Street and public broadcasting was important for people of all ages, and the fact that they are not commercialised was an added plus point.
Rainbow, a member of the puppet group Fuzz and Feathers, had come with members of her puppet company from Los Angeles. “Our philosophy is similar to that of Sesame Street’s in that you can teach by being positive, not by showing conflict.” Despite Hurricane Sandy, two of her group members had also come from New York to participate in the rally.
Laurie Solnik, a volunteer at the march and a retired federal employee from Washington, DC, said that the march proved that the American people believed in public broadcasting. Zoe Homan, an 11-year-old girl from Philadelphia, said she had come for the rally just to support Big Bird.
Kathleen Lothringer, a 22-year-old woman, said she had come down to the US capital from Austin, Texas to show her support for public broadcasting and Sesame Street. “I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for Sesame Street,” adding that public broadcasting was important for education.
The rally culminated in a gathering at the US Capitol’s Reflecting Pool. Before the speeches, the organisers played songs from Sesame Street, and even the theme music for the popular drama series ‘Downton Abbey’, which airs in the US on PBS.
Michael Bellavia, one of the co-organisers, runs an animation company in Los Angeles. Speaking to the participants at the US Capitol, he said that he had a visceral reaction to Governor Romney’s remarks, and decided that they wanted to support public broadcasting and make their voice heard.
He also added that cutting funding to PBS, for example, would also lead to a loss of jobs across the country. Bellavia encouraged participants to donate to their local PBS station as well.
Bellavia said that while they had received donations as well, the organisers would also have to pay for some of the costs of organising the event. Chris Mecham, another organiser of the event, told participants that public broadcasting was important for a democracy, so that people could not just see educational programmes, but also make informed decisions about who to vote for come Election Day.
Mecham also said, “Big Bird is a puppet, not a partisan issue.” The rally ended with shows put up by various puppet companies for the kids (and adults!) in the audience.
Now that Romney has been defeated by incumbent President Barack Obama in the presidential elections, Sesame Street is safe. One might even say that Romney learned a valuable lesson: if you mess with Big Bird, you will get pecked on.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 18th, 2012.