Q&A: Liberty Parade organizer Chris Pennington

On Sunday afternoon, Nicollet Mall will be flooded with people of every political stripe in a one-of-a-kind celebration of liberty. "Forget the partisan posturing," declares their website. "Let's get together, as Americans of all walks, all dispositions, all shapes, sizes and configurations, and walk, ride, crawl, limp, skip or float down Nicollet Mall."

After the parade, folks will gather in Loring Park for a concert featuring Dillinger Four, Retribution Gospel Choir, Happy Apple, Vampire Hands, STNNNG, and more. All of the festivities are free and open to the public.

Prior to Sunday's festivities, we took a moment to ask Liberty Parade organizer Chris Pennington a few questions about his unique approach to interacting with the RNC.

City Pages: Your event is non-political, correct?

Chris Pennington: Well, not non-political, but staying non-partisan.

City Pages: What's your main goal for the parade and the concert?

Chris Pennington: The idea is to go on the topic of liberty -- that's a neutral topic that liberals embrace, conservatives embrace it; everyone likes that term. It's one of the few words that Americans can bond around. Everyone shows what their take on liberty is -- it's a really spicy word, so hopefully we'll get a lot of different takes on it. Then we roll that all the way down the street and we dump into Loring Park, which is going to be this concert thing... music and a speaker series going on, and with booths set up around the perimeter. And a beer garden. We're trying to set the stage for good times. There's going to be a lot of disparate groups there. But we're not there to sell anyone on a party platform or anything, it's just to get discussion going. It's kind of like making a big old petri dish. It's kind of like party/intellectual conversation rather than partisan stuff. It's supposed to be a beautiful concept.

City Pages: Do you think it will play out in reality?

Chris Pennington: I think it will. Just the groups that have already -- there are some really political people coming in, because they want to get their ideas out. We have a lot of just crazy art kids coming in, and then we also have the partiers that want to come for D4 and beer. I think it's going to be a good thing. The hardest thing about this sucker has been the fact that we have been nonpartisan, and it's a really hard concept to wrap your head around. People want to know, "Are you a protest group?" That's the first question. And we go, "No! We're not a protest group, it's like a big party." And they go, "Well, do you support Republicans then?" And we have to go, "No, we don't support Republicans. It's about liberty." And then they want to know, "Well, who's funding you? Who's really behind this?" No one believes that it's an altruistic thing. It's a really hard idea for a lot of people to grasp. It's such a politically-charged environment, everyone has some kind of thing they're trying to push. So it's really been hard to get people to just relax a little bit and be like, no you can say what you feel. We're not here to yell you down.

City Pages: What do you think it's going to be like during the RNC?

Chris Pennington: I think things will start getting weird around the 29th or 30th. In the arts community, it is amazing how much stuff has popped up. There's so much stuff going on that you can't even really comprehend it. And in so many different places. Then once you hit the 1st, I mean, wow. I'm really trying to figure out if I'm going to go to St. Paul or not. Just to -- I think it's going to be an all-day, all-night event if you want to go to St. Paul, because it's going to be a clusterfuck.

City Pages: Just the idea of transporting people around seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

Chris Pennington: And there's a lot of restrictions on transportation downtown, and the punk rock kids have got a lot of ideas about what to do about roads.

City Pages: I read on your blog that you have received guidance from the police department to help you get organized. What was that like?

Chris Pennington: That was really weird. I got this call on Monday, and it was the police calling me, asking, "Do you want to be part of this training class?" I was like, oh, ok. Then they called to check up and make sure I was going, then called another time to make sure I was going, and we get there and it was basically a lot of cops and us. I think it they were kind of smelling us out to see what we were about. They had some good information. The power point was from the Department of Justice, and there was some good information about how to have good communication, and how you need to have water at the beginning, and how you should have an ambulance somewhere around. But there was also a lot of emphasis about mass arrest. I'm not trying to do this as a mass arrest type thing. I'm doing this as the opposite of that. Where people can -- instead of protest, they can celebrate. They can get their voice out in a celebratory way, in a positive way, in a way that will attract press, in a way to get your point across.

We started this thing on the idea of -- what is going to be protest 2.0? Basically, protest has not changed very much. The '60s thing, which is even older than that, the whole shake your fist, walk down the street -- now you have free speech zones, and you have police corralling you and mass arresting you, it's almost like we need to think of a different way to go about free speech. People are scared of free speech, or threatened by it now. And it's bad. It's not what America should be.

City Pages: I've noticed that there are a ton of anti-RNC concerts happening, and pro-Obama events happening. Do you have an opinion about why there are so many voices rising up against the RNC and so few people coming out to support it?

Chris Pennington: I think a lot of the art kids feel that the RNC landing here is invasive. They feel like they didn't really have a choice in the matter. And they have to deal with it. So they're frustrated, angry, they want to do something about it. But it's also interesting -- someone brought that up the other day, how come there is so much liberal and democratic-based art? Where's all the Republican art?

City Pages: Exactly.

Chris Pennington: That's really weird. That's actually why, with the Unconvention, we've had representatives try to make inroads into the RNC convention people, because we have been talking to some of those people, and we said, hey, do you guys have any artists that want to participate in all these events? And we haven't heard anything back. I don't know. Maybe it's, I guess art has always loved suffering.

City Pages: Do you think artists are more inclined toward liberal ideas?

Chris Pennington: Yeah, I think so, generally. But you'd think the art would just encapsulate all sorts of weirdos. Where are the big Republican artists? Who's that "Painter of Light" guy? He's probably the only one.

City Pages: Anything else we should know about your event?

Chris Pennington: I'd like people to participate -- I want people to understand that it's a participation-based, weird event. The tools of the Liberty Parade are a bicycle or vehicle of choice, and cardboard and duct tape. Those are our tools of choice. Guerilla-based. This is a participatory democracy, to us. This is a way of flinging your big weird self out there and seeing what you feel.

City Pages: And everything is free?

Chris Pennington: Everything is free, man. We accept donations, though.

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