This traumatic election year has brought America’s long-standing violence toward black people to the fore. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s explicit racism—and the thousands of people who want to give him the highest seat in the land—boldly underscores America’s investment in white supremacy and oppression.
Things could get worse. But I also have to hope that they will get better. So I asked myself: How can we creatively challenge the racism that infests every corner of our lives?
Before I co-founded Black Lives Matter three years ago, I was an artist who was also an organizer. Creativity and community are important tools for liberation—and my passion for and commitment to both have brought me to Seattle as part of the national tour of Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied.
I've been in Seattle for the last two weeks. And what's most apparent in this beautiful city—in addition to its gorgeous landscape and slow pace—is the sheer number of white people who inhabit it. I've only been able to augment the whiteness by creating intentional black spaces, which is something that black people have become experts at doing. Power is designed to ask the audience to bear witness to this dangerous American duality—the space of black brilliance in our words, music and visual culture, and the pervasive criminalization of that same blackness.
It is asking audiences to bear witness to the systemic violence that makes simple things like going place to place on foot or by car potentially fatal activities.
A recent federal lawsuit found the Seattle Police Department used disproportionate force against people of color. Organizers have actively sought to stop a proposed $140 million police bunker, often under the aegis of Black Lives Matter. In 2012 the Department of Education issued a letter of concern to Seattle Public Schools about the over-disciplining of black students.
While I have been here in Seattle, I have watched organizers from the #BlackLivesMatteratSchool campaign bring together teachers, students and families. They have pointed out that “over 50 percent of the Seattle Public Schools’ student population are nonwhite students” and that “by all measures, African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos are treated unequally by our society 50 years after the passage of major civil rights laws.”
Despite Seattle being one of the whitest cities in America, I see the ways in which thousands of black people and allies who are committed to racial justice are standing up. So many conscious and loving community members have galvanized around the #BlackLivesMatter call to action using social media, traditional protests, and art and culture to make change. Their analyses and responsiveness have kept, and will keep, Seattle from hitting the brink as has been the case in Ferguson, Mo., Milwaukee and other cities where racism scars life. Seattle is a city with deep and abiding activist and artistic traditions.
Black liberation is alive and well here.
Power’s venue is the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, a black cultural center in a Seattle community called the Central District. The Central District was once where black people were forced to live because racist housing covenants in Seattle once restricted where black people could live. Black people have largely been gentrified out of the Central District, and community leaders like Vivian Phillips and Steve Sneed have spearheaded a cultural district to maintain a black foothold in a city that is becoming increasingly unaffordable.
Within this context—where people of color are over-policed, where parents are sending their children to schools with limited equity and where black communities are under economic fire—Power creates space where black people can be real about the racism that still exists in a predominantly white city that often sees itself as being progressive.
Each of the nine stories in Power trains its lens on the different aspects of state violence—from being profiled by the Transportation Security Administration to being abused after a 911 phone call. The life experiences that cast members share in Power echo Seattle’s social-justice protests. A 13-year-old cast member talks about being neglected at school, and her mother shares her traumatizing experiences trying to keep her child safe; another young person in the cast is a 16-year-old black boy who details the experience of being criminalized from the age of 12.
Even for the older cast members, their experiences with racism started very young. One cast member, K.T., is an activist and artist in Seattle. She is also a survivor of the school-to-prison pipeline and has been incarcerated in the Washington Corrections Center for Women six times. She went in for her first stint when she was 16 years old and wasn’t released until she was 21 years old.
“I've been out for 12 years,” K.T. says in Power. “Still oppressed. Still black. Still poor.”
Marcel Baugh is an Atlanta native who recently finished his master's degree in Seattle. He was brutalized by SPD officers for walking while black on MLK Day 2015.
“To me, power is the freedom to be human; it is sovereignty over my body, ideas and future," he says.
As Power goes to cities around the country, one of its aims is for audiences of all races to stand up and demand that law enforcement stop denying black people’s basic human rights. How can schools be places of learning and wonder again, not dangerous holding cells that too often lead to prison for too many students of color?
Self-determination—the ability to make decisions for ourselves and our communities—is power.
Power lives and grows within our collective well-being and an end to state violence. Black Lives Matter has succeeded as a decentralized movement because black people have always been talented artists and organizers. We have used our imaginations over and over again to design a clear organizing strategy that puts black people at the center.
And by relaying the human capacity to heal from past harms and envision a new future together, Power does the same. In much the same way as Ava Duvernay’s 13th, it looks back and recontextualizes American history in hopes that the pathways to liberation become clearer.
Theater-based storytelling has a unique power that can move the national conversation on state violence against black communities forward and into action. It is a space of sharing, healing and progress, a place where imagination is unharnessed and we have the power to create the world in which we want to live.
In many ways, Power is the awareness that freedom in a white supremacist, violent system will not be given; it must be created. It is moving and breathing and living and building—and my hope is that power will manifest in each and every person who leaves the theater.
Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied, directed by Patrisse Cullors, runs Oct. 20-22. Tickets are available here.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Patrisse Cullors is an artist, organizer and freedom fighter living and working in Los Angeles. Co-founder of Black Lives Matter, she is also a performance artist, Fulbright scholar, a popular public speaker and an NAACP History Maker. Follow her on Twitter.