As an Indigenous artist and activist trainer who is well versed in large scale direct action art spectacles, I was brought in to help develop and a create an installation in Seattle by white organizations in solidarity with the #NativeLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter movements. The following is an excerpt of events that transpired that day and and a bit of what lead up to it all.
It was a bustling Seattle afternoon in mid-August of 2015 that a city square and park was presented an actual elephant in the room in which the pachyderm was labeled with the words, “RACISM”. Much to the dismay of Republicans, which the message directly applies along with Democrats and any other colonial governmental structures, the city was invited into a living room scene to have some direct and honest conversations about oppression.
Many of the white organizations and local supporters that participated had different roles in engaging the city, which in some cases included wearing “White Privilege” blinders. It was also important to note that this art installation was deployed specifically where #BlackLivesMatter took the stage to confront Bernie Sanders and were met with protests from his supporters. Leading up to the deployment of these art installations, white people listened to the requests of people of color which started out by bringing Indigenous people like myself to help guide and navigate a multi-layered, hair pin trigger of an action where the potential for things going wrong is very high in regards to the subject matter, racists and white supremacists. Whenever possible we continually reenforced that WYPIPO step up to take up the labor from POC to educate their communities to confront racism and white supremacy whenever it arises.
The result of the week-long various direct action trainings resulted in a culmination of commotion that was irresistible to the downtown Seattle traffic. The demonstration comprised of a living room scene complete with a 17 foot elephant, a memorial to the victims of police killings, a Cantastoria and had numerous short, factual based, educational presentations. The participants invited passersby to watch and listen to different elements of this multi-layered action including the Cantastoria presentation, which was a series of flipping banners complete with messaging and visuals. What was told on the banners was the story of police brutality, the poisoning of communities of people of color, and the school to prison pipeline. Throughout these different events within this direct action the public was invited to have conversations about white privilege and racism in the living room that was set up in the middle of the city.
A critical component of this action was the memorial for the people who had been murdered since January of 2015, which was 736 up until August. The flags of the victims and their names were held along the sidewalk next to the massive exhibit. The public who tried to avoid the installation were forced unwillingly engage in an overtaken sidewalk lined on both sides with a names of the murdered which averages around 1,000 people a year and only started to be documented within the last few years. The victims were represented by a black and white chalk stenciled outline of their body and had broken heart with their name written on below.
The discomfort in these conversations and the stress of confronting racism as white people, is trivial in comparison to the continual violence experienced by POC. White folks have a responsibility to at least educate themselves and learn how to ACT as an accomplice in tearing down oppression alongside people of color.
The public was encouraged to take a picture holding an oversize speech bubble in which they wrote their commitment towards collective liberation. Another key element of this event included the 500 fliers that were dispersed which detailed the commitments that white people can make to work towards racial justice. In addition to the television stations showing up, the social media efforts reached a half a million people and was seen of two million times.
Participation in these types of actions is not a merit badge or a title to be earned, it’s a lifelong commitment to education to act in solidarity tearing down systems of oppression. Many folks are inspired by the work of people of color, but don’t know how engage effectively especially in terms of lived experiences. What is detrimental in some cases is that many white people usually become defensive to the type of tone or tactics of POC actions which has historically divided social movements by policing them.
This action sought to both educate and drive white people to commit to take action against racism by at the bare minimum, have necessary conversations at home, around the dinner table and in their living rooms to address and end the looming elephant in the room that divides us all.