Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Marie Cullors wears many hats: activist, author, abolitionist, white supremacy slayer. But one role many may not know of Cullors is that of “artist.”
Cullors, currently a 2019 MFA candidate at the University of Southern California, has been flexing her creative muscles since before she came to international prominence as the co-creator of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Yet her art and her work are inextricably intertwined. In fact, her most recent documentary performance piece, Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied, which Cullors directed and produced, was conceived after the 2014 police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
With that heavy on her mind, as an artist-in-residence at the Arcus Center for Social Justice and Leadership at Kalamazoo College, Cullors says she wanted to do something on (and for) survivors of state savagery.
“You know my work has always been around police violence, and law enforcement accountability and ending mass incarceration,” Cullors explains to The Root. “But when I got to Kalamazoo, I was really thinking about just what it means to live through a police encounter.”
Power focuses on the unseen and unheard experiences of those in the black community facing criminalization and state violence on an everyday basis.
“There are so many of us who have survived, that didn’t become hashtags,” she muses. “So I wanted to do an experimental piece that looked at the survivor stories of state violence while also looking at the 1955 Civil Rights Congress, ‘We Charge Genocide’ document. I wanted to do a performance piece that looked at these two issues—this recharged genocide document from four decades ago, and then this modern day issue of police violence.”
So far, Power has been performed in five cities: Kalamazoo, Mich.; Los Angeles; Dennison, Ohio; Seattle; and most recently, New York City. Power uses real survivors of police encounters who simply tell their stories in their own words. The New York City performance was an abridged version starring Thandiwe Abdullah, Marcel Baugh, and Donnay Edmund and included a multigenerational after-talk with actress Yara Shahidi and freedom fighter Angela Davis.
For New York’s performance (each city features different stories from different survivors, many local), the two women and man recounted harrowing, mundane, everyday violence that each had experienced, through sometimes poetic, sometimes hard-to-hear words. Edmund’s story was especially difficult as she spoke of a SWAT team coming into her home to look for drugs allegedly in possession of her brother, and police put her cancer-stricken grandmother in cuffs as she, her mother, and her pregnant sister-in-law looked on, helpless.
Cullors says she realized that many survivors minimized the impact state violence had on our communities, and on themselves; in fact, for most, it was the first time they’d told their story publicly.
“For a lot of performers, this is the first time they’ve shared their story, it was the first time they’ve identified [what happened to them] as state violence,” says Cullors, who also notes that many survivors carry a lot of shame about what happened to them, as if it were somehow their fault.
Cullors also found a thread of resilience in survivors, and a necessity to tell these stories because “there is a concerted effort by the state and also by our own communities to not tell our stories.”
In choosing the various performers, Cullors said she wanted to be conscious of how state violence lay at the intersections of identities.
“In the past, the performances have been something as subtle as the microaggressions when you’re going through TSA as a black, hijab-wearing Muslim woman, to being pepper sprayed, choked and being put into the back of a police car,” says Cullors. “I wanted people to see the nuances of state violence and what it looks like, how it lands on black women, and how it lands on black men, and people of different genders, and you get to see that nuance.”
Those who experienced the very heavy New York performance were also treated to an amazing conversation immediately after—three black women, three generations of freedom fighters: Cullors, Angela Davis and actress Yara Shahidi.
“Obviously, Angela is a living legend and she’s an icon at this point … but she really has set a tone about what’s possible around fighting, and the longevity of being an organizer and activist. So we get to hear from a woman who’s been in this for several decades and has had her own experiences with state violence and survived it,” says Cullors.
She continues: “We obviously get to hear from me, someone who has started Black Lives Matter, a new generation human rights movement and black power movement. I really see our movement as part of a legacy of what Angela and her generation created. And then we get to see Yara who’s—yes, she is a celebrity—but Yara from jump has been clear about her politics. From where she stands on Palestine to where she stands on state violence and black women. She’s such an example for young black people and black women on how to show up for people.”
With a new presidential election looming, I ask Cullors how she’s feeling about this political season.
“I feel curious,” she confirms. “I’m definitely in the place where I’m not supporting anybody in this moment, I’m doing a lot of reading and research. I have a lot of curiosity. BLM shaped the conversation in some pretty strong ways in 2016. I’m excited to do the same thing in this upcoming election season. And it’s important. I think it’s an important moment in history.”
Watch the entire New York City production of Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied below.