Scenes From the Pussy Riot Protests

New Yorkers gathered on Friday to stand with the Russian punk band convicted of "hooliganism"

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(Chauncey Hollingsworth)

Protesters took to the streets of New York yesterday to decry the two year prison sentence given by a Russian court to three members of the Russian punk/activist collective Pussy Riot on charges of "hooliganism." Starting at the Russian Consulate on the Upper East Side, protesters - many of them wearing homemade brightly colored balaclava-style masks that are a signature of Pussy Riot's look - chanted, marched, and, yes, got arrested.

Some background: Six months ago, five members of the punk/activist collective Pussy Riot stormed an altar at the Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow to perform an anti-Putin protest song. Wearing heavy boots, colorful dresses and dayglo ski masks, they were removed by security almost immediately but a video quickly surfaced on YouTube of the protest spliced with audio of their "punk prayer." Belted in frantic Russian, its chorus goes, "St. Maria, Virgin, drive away Putin!" Three members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were arrested and charged with "hooliganism," a crime carrying a penalty of up to seven years in jail. The Russian Orthodox Church has condemned them repeatedly, and though Putin himself said that they "should [not] be judged so harshly for this," the group's supporters and many commentators think that the trial is yet another example of Putin stamping out political opposition. Details of the women's lengthy pre-trial incarceration have bolstered worldwide sympathy for them, including claims that they're sleep-deprived and poorly fed, and the fact that two of them have children whom they've been unable to see since their arrests.

Pussy Riot's cause -- an ongoing, loosely articulated protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin's leadership and the Russian Orthodox Church's support of it -- is the least fascinating thing about them. Rather, it's their mixture of intelligent defiance in the face of overwhelming power, their dynamic energy and reimagined riot grrl style that have ignited a ferocious love for them in the West. They're unashamed and vigorous and cool. No wonder the last generation's stars - Madonna, Peter Gabriel, Björk - have gone to such lengths to support them. Their explosive potency could only be ignited in a place like Russia, where Putin's autocratic style has carried into a third presidential term (Russia's constitution prohibits more than two consecutive terms) and rampant state corruption, crooked billionaire oligarchs and the short lifespans of inquisitive reporters have earned the country a reputation as a mafiocracy. Pussy Riot injects new life into punk rock, making it seem real again. When was the last time a Rage Against the Machine song sounded relevant?

Speaking in Times Square where the protest migrated after mid-day, Thadaus Umpster, a member of the anarchist group In Our Hearts, described six people arrested earlier, including two men carrying a banner in the street in front of the consulate, a third who stopped his bicycle in the bike lane, and three women wearing masks.

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Chauncey Hollingsworth has written for Playboy, Rolling Stone, Chicago magazine, and a variety of other publications.

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