Police brutality against unarmed black men is reaching a boiling point with recent events in North Carolina and . Possibly the largest prison strike in U.S. history is taking place in Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio, Virginia and elsewhere. Clearly we are in dire need of conversations that bridge the “us” vs. “them” construct. Acting as a conduit for such civic dialogue, the performing arts is melding the worlds of theater and racial justice in Boston this month. What is the intersection of these subjects? Where do we all stand in this intersection? Why does it matter?
On September 16th in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Officer Betty Shelby, a white police officer, shot Terrence Crutcher, an unarmed 40-year-old Black man, whose SUV had broken down. Allegedly, Crutcher was refusing to follow Shelby’s orders to stop walking and to kneel. A video of the incident shows Crutcher with his hands in the air moments before Shelby fired.
On September 20th in Tulsa, NC, Officer Brentley Vinson, a 26 year-old Black police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, 43 and also Black. Regardless of Scott using marijuana and whether or not he possessed a gun at the time, analysis of the incident, which was caught on video by his wife, indicates that he was neither aggressive nor threatening violence prior to the officer’s gunshots.
Zoom out from the lens of these individual stories: thirty-seven percent of unarmed people killed by police were black in 2015 despite black people being only 13 percent of the U.S. population. The fight for racial justice is reaching prisons as well. More than 24,000 prisoners reportedly took part in the September 9th prison strikes in 12 states across the U.S.
On Saturday September 24th, prison guards in Alabama joined in protesting with prisoners, an unprecedented action in the Alabama prison system. Protestors are demanding basic rights such as adequate medical care and reasonable wages. Building upon other recent acts of protest and taking place on the anniversary of the appallingly mishandled 1971 Attica Uprising, this strike calls into question the continued dehumanization tolerated within prisons. The carceral state and forced servitude, or slavery, clearly targets people of color and the poor. According to Prison Policy, “the young, the male, the Black and the Latino are disproportionately incarcerated…almost 9% of Black men in their late 20s [are] behind bars” in the United States.
“Prison or death. There’s really no other opportunities for boys and men of color,” says Mayoral candidate Michael Tubbs of Stockton, CA, a jurisdiction in which a classroom of 6-year-olds is already all too familiar with this reality in their community. The voice of Tubbs is one of many brought to the stage by author, creator, and performer Anna Deavere Smith in her play Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education which made its New England debut this month in Boston. Grounded in real-life interviews, Anna Deavere Smith’s portrait performances did not only insert the contemporary U.S. civil rights crisis into the lives of roughly 16,000 audience members during the play’s run. Notes from the Field also breaks down the fourth wall by inviting audience members to locate their voices in the tapestry of the United States’ legacy of racial injustice, therein breaking ground for the type of civic dialogue so clearly and urgently needed. Act II developed anew each night as audience members gathered in small groups led by facilitators, of whom I was one. There, we raised questions while voicing, hearing, and realizing our own locations relative to the play’s themes.
For some theatergoers, Act I was the tipping point whereby the veracity of racial injustice and education inequality pierced their reality for the first time. For others, the play affirmed their commitment to subvert injustice and oppression, and more significantly, reaffirmed that they are not alone in their resolve to act. In Act I, the audience meets Niya Kenny who was arrested during Math class in South Carolina while standing up against the palpable injustice of her classmate’s violent removal by white police officer Ben Fields. Kevin Moore, the man who documented Freddie Gray’s fatal mishandling by police in Baltimore last year, highlights the following motivation behind the racially-charged injustices he’s known: “Just a glance. That’s all it takes in Baltimore is just a glance.”
Though not actively addressed in the play, these portraits also beg for critical gender and class analysis, specifically in relation to white, working-class masculinity, a theme systemically underlying racial injustice. Consider that policing in the US has its roots in controlling minorities and maintaining slavery, especially via pitting the white working class against people of color in order to maintain class hierarchy. Does making eye contact with a white male police officer, as a person of color, translate as a threat to institutions of race- and gender-based entitlement? What about when an officer is a woman or a person of color?
How does the intersection of class weigh in on the conversation? Consider that “police officers typically come from a similar class as many of their victims: the working class.” Have we unconsciously (or consciously) internalized that eye contact, a gesture of human agency, destabilizes deeply entrenched notions of power, thereby somehow legitimizing incarceration, brutalization, and dehumanization? Was it likewise a destabilization of power when Crutcher did not heed Shelby’s orders, orders which by their very recognition peg Crutcher as a criminal? Was it a disruption of power when Scott was seen rolling a joint in his car (criminal in NC, yes, but far from warranting capital punishment) and was thought to possess a gun (in an open carry state)? Did Kenny destabilize power when she stood up against police brutality as punishment in school? Does it dismantle systems of power whenprison activists demand basic human rights? Questions like these arose in Act II and are apt to arise in participants’ minds upon leaving the theater with a sharpened, more critical lens of injustice.
At this critical moment in U.S. history we are locating something of value at the intersection of prison strikes, police brutality against Black men, and civic dialogue within (or outside) the Arts: a platform for human connection, a point of departure from which to launch the social transformations that are so urgently needed. Civic dialogue, or brave and vulnerable conversations in public spaces that address the politics of injustice, will not take the form of Art in the classical sense for all. For me, and for many of those who participated in Notes from the Field, that dialogue began, continued, restarted, or gained traction in Act II. Where is civic dialogue about racial injustice happening for you? Why? What can you do to catalyze or amplify that dialogue?