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HB 2 Has One Silver Lining: Activism 

The Air Horn Orchestra outside the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh

Photo by Ben McKeown

The Air Horn Orchestra outside the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh

The permit arrived just in time.

For forty-eight hours, my wife, Tina, and I had exchanged fevered emails about the speaking schedule of Governor Pat McCrory with Logan Smith, a zealous staffer at the equality-advocating nonprofit Progress NC. Days earlier, Logan and the rest of Progress NC caught wind of our plan to launch a weekly "Air Horn Orchestra" outside McCrory's executive mansion; essentially, Tina and I had vowed to stand outside of the governor's state-supplied residence on Blount Street with the sort of air horns you'd tote on a boating trip as a safety measure. We'd blow them until their piercing screech faded into silence, a process we estimated would last three minutes. It was a tossed-off, harebrained idea, but we lived just three blocks away from the dude's doorstep: Why not irritate the dolt who had so quickly signed House Bill 2?

The invitation to the first performance—"There will be no rehearsal. And you must bring your own instrument."—spread further than we ever expected. Friends and strangers wanted to enlist. Amazon boxes full of air horns and earplugs began arriving on our porch within days of the earliest mention. Journalists from The News & Observer and The New York Times started asking us questions before the first horn had even been honked. People we'd never met wanted to give us money to raise this horrible racket. And Progress NC—an organization I'd always considered far too big and esteemed to be aware of our social justice shenanigans—wanted to know how it could help.

At first, the group's participation was minimal, maybe even a little hesitant. Logan arrived on that first Wednesday with some horns from a big-box store and some blue signs with mantras of equality he'd printed. Progress NC had worried we'd get arrested, or, worse yet, the stunt simply wouldn't work.

But it did. The first performance was righteously loud and totally fun, with smiles stretching across the faces of the hundred or so people who aimed their ire across Blount Street. It became the lead story on the nightly news, and it served as the kicker in a long piece about changing mores in the South in that Saturday's Times. The police, appearing puzzled but amused, filmed the whole thing, seemingly in order to show their friends and peers just what they had witnessed rather than for surveillance purposes. When it was all over, Progress NC had one question: How could they help us maintain the momentum and media interest?

The perfect opportunity arrived on the first Monday of May, two days ahead of Air Horn Orchestra No. 4. Despite frequent slips into the shadows to avoid tough questions, McCrory had agreed to speak at the Government Affairs Conference of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which had avoided taking a stand on HB 2. News anchor Tim Boyum would interview McCrory onstage at the North Carolina Museum of History around 6:30 p.m.—the same time we had started the first three Air Horn Orchestra sets, mere blocks away.

Logan delivered the news and asked if we wanted to change locations, to call an audible that could lead to a tactical touchdown. After our own giddy, breathless yes, he put in the request for a permit that would allow our ragtag band of air horns, drums, trumpets, tubas, and actual bells and whistles to stand just outside of the auditorium's exit. We worried we'd never get permission in time, and we even heard whispers that the governor would shift his schedule to maneuver around the permit, should we actually obtain it.

But the slip arrived at 2:51 p.m., in a simple email from the Raleigh Police Department. The thrill felt illicit, as if we'd been let in on a state secret by the state itself. Several folks had sworn they'd seen the governor spy on us from a mansion window during the first performance, but here was our chance to get within actual earshot, while people watched and cameras rolled. The Justice Department's order earlier in the day that North Carolina not enforce HB 2 only raised the stakes for his appearances—and our chances of musically grating some very raw gubernatorial nerves.

And my, how it worked. Not long after the goofball began answering questions that were likely tougher than he'd anticipated, we began roaring. If you listen to WRAL's tape of McCrory's interview, we are the locust-like buzz coming through his microphone, his momentary and very personal plague. Inside the hall, we have been told, it was a maddening din, like nails on a chalkboard for nearly half an hour. The police extended our permit so that we could stop only when he stopped. He referenced the sound twice during his speech, accusing of us cussing and swearing. When it was over, we all felt victorious, like we'd dealt the enemy a direct hit in plain view of the world.

We haven't been alone in that success. The sole silver lining of HB 2 may well be that people are mobilizing across so many special progressive political interests right now, united to make sure that signing HB 2 proves to be the mistake that gets McCrory—and, with luck and money, some of his pals—ousted in November. It often feels to me that progressives lose elections because we bicker too much rather than cry out in unison; the charged political atmosphere of the current moment gives me hope that, this time, I'm wrong.

More often than not these days, a helicopter seems to be circling the mansion, or security guards are stationed at its front gates and watching as citizens of various stripes raise hell about what's happening in North Carolina. Sometimes it's immigrant families. Sometimes it's schoolteachers. Sometimes it's LGBTQ youth.

"Can you hear us now, Pat?" read the shirts that have become the Air Horn Orchestra's uniforms. The group that defines "us" isn't limited to Wednesday evenings or our band. "Us" seems to grow bigger and more brazen every day.

I've learned a lot during these three months of pneumatic protests. I've made new gay and trans friends. I've made acquaintances and collaborated with unlikely allies, from hardline vegans in Animal Liberation Front T-shirts and Nile Rodgers's personal assistant to high-ranking members of nonprofits and advocacy groups whose work I have admired for years. I learned more about Raleigh's noise ordinances than I ever did in a half-decade running a music festival. I have a vague sense of how a shofar is played, and that putting an air horn in a koozie or sock is a simple, brilliant way to avoid blisters.

But mostly I've learned to believe in the power of protest and the importance of doing it as often as possible, especially as a white, straight, employed, land-owning male. When others don't have rights, I've decided, my kind have the responsibility to help them fight.

The air horns - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • Photo by Ben McKeown
  • The air horns

Around the time of the sixth performance, someone asked Tina if we had considered the privilege involved in the success of our zany brand of public protests. Black Lives Matter protesters pulling a similar stunt in front of McCrory's mansion might not receive the same benefit of the doubt or the same smiles and cooperation from the police. Did we feel guilty, she wanted to know, for being the allies who would likely never get arrested?

It's a valid point, but nothing would make me feel guiltier than sitting on the sidelines when it's largely my ilk—white, straight, middle-class dudes from the country—opting to limit the rights of those whose viewpoint they can't understand, those who they condemn as perverts simply because that's easier than real empathy. Privilege, as I see it, is a powerful weapon that must be wielded for positive change, not hidden away in its sheath. I can use my position of safety to become a loud, obnoxious, unapologetic voice for those people who feel unsafe. Not taking that opportunity is an untenable decision, one that places my own generally protected personal time and comfort above the basic liberties and protections of others. The privilege to sit down while some fight for the very right to stand up is a privilege I no longer want.

A publicist—no doubt accustomed to seeing her press releases and subsequent stories help fill restaurants or bars—once asked if I thought all the attention the Air Horn Orchestra received would actually make a difference. Would the racket, she wondered, lead to change?

At first, I stared at my shoes, a little let down that my answer had to be no. Sure, we'd made McCrory mumble through a few questions, and our performances have, according to a media audit, reached nearly four million people through television news alone. But in these gerrymandered days, all the protesting and yelling and screaming and arrests and signs and chants are likely to have limited legislative results. These people don't need to pay attention to us.

But we must pay attention to one another. Sometimes people refrain from protesting, I fear, because they worry they're simply preaching to the choir. Who cares? Become the choir, recruit new members, and preach the loudest and best sermons possible to yourselves and anyone else within earshot. Feel good in the act of raising your own voice, especially in solidarity.

Old members will remain committed and remember to head to the polls and take friends. Fresh-faced members will serve to boost the signal. And maybe, just maybe, all the hooting and hollering will make some folks reconsider HB 2 or their stance on civil rights at large. Maybe it's one of the cars that zooms by your protest, or even a politician whose vote can help your very cause.

Right before one Air Horn Orchestra performance, I spied Ken Goodman, a Democratic legislator from Rockingham, climbing into his car in front of McCrory's mansion. I confronted him, asking if he cared to tell us why he was one of eleven Democrats who voted for HB 2. He quickly climbed into his car and drove away.

Days later, after he'd agreed to meet with me, I went to his office. He admitted that he'd been wrong to vote for HB 2 in the first place. He'd work to repeal it if given the chance, he assured me. Before a parting handshake, I asked if he'd like to join us for the next Air Horn Orchestra. He laughed nervously and politely declined.

That's OK: I never expected Ken Goodman to join our weird choir, anyway. But I expect that, should he ever break his vow, we'll be there to sing for him.

The Air Horn Orchestra meets every Wednesday at 6 p.m. in front of the Executive Mansion on Blount Street in Raleigh. Everyone is welcome, and extra instruments and earplugs are available. The AHO's recordings are for sale at airhornorchestra.bandcamp.com, with proceeds going toward additional instruments.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A Positive Jam"

  • On the power of protest and the importance of doing it as often as possible


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