Story last updated at 7/26/2016 - 2:01 pm
Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Emmett Till.
When Skylar Wright, a recent graduate of Pacific High School in Sitka, was thinking of black people who died violent deaths in America, “I couldn’t use one name… there are so many people. It’s always happening, and it’s continuing to happen. It’s a giant cluster of systematic abuse,” she said.
Those thoughts inspired “How Black Women Taught Me to Love,” a poem Wright wrote a year ago for her father and performed July 24 at “Racial Justice and Anti-Violence: A Creative Conversation.” The event was organized and facilitated by friends Christy NaMee Eriksen and Melissa Garcia Johnson.
“There has always been such a brevity in living an ebony life,” Wright read. “All my life I’ll write love letters to all the dead black boys I’ve never met but have somehow always known. And black women taught me how to love like this…”
The arts-based conversation on violence and racial justice brought together more than 100 people from a variety of backgrounds, races, experiences and ages.
At one point, every participant publicly shared their predominant feeling about the violence. Some said sadness; some said confusion; some said anger; some said fear; some said “broken-hearted;” some said hope created by the conversation itself. One white woman said the reason she was there was because of a difference in language. She can use the word “sad,” she said, because the color of her skin means she has the privilege of not being scared.
One black woman said she’s fearful of what a misunderstanding with her son, who is autistic, might lead to, but she also wants to trust the police and recognizes that “we rely on them.”
Juneau police chief Bryce Johnson attended with lieutenants Kris Sell and David Campbell. Johnson said he came to listen.
“No matter how you look at it, it’s important that we talk about this stuff,” he said. “Look at it from any angle you want — officer safety. If people don’t know how to talk to each other and get along, it makes my officers’ jobs more dangerous. You talk about community safety. If the community doesn’t trust the police, then their interactions with their fellow citizens can become more dangerous, because they’re not going to report things because they’re afraid of the officers. So it’s a matter of what angle you want to look at it — it’s incredibly important people come together and talk about what’s been going on.”
The Juneau Police Department July 20 hosted a barbecue, both to foster connections between police and community members and to celebrate diversity.
Sol Neely, assistant professor of English and philosophy at the University of Alaska Southeast and founder of the Flying University, which offers classes to inmates at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, said “We need to foster a solidarity with each other… predicated not just on collapsing the differences between us, but really celebrating them. Art is a good way to focus that, because art works at something other than just rationality.”
Just as the history of violence towards black people in America is long-standing, so is the art reacting to and against that violence.
“There is a great, sad, but glorious history of these playwrights putting these issues onstage, onscreen,” said Julie Coppens, who introduced Juneau actor Lance Mitchell.
Mitchell read “#Royce,” a work in progress by Darren Canady about a black man reacting to recent killings of black people. He’s overwhelmed and finds solace on the dance floor. “I will sweat the rage into every beat until there’s none of it left,” Mitchell read.
Eriksen read “Wishbone,” a poem she wrote about love, referencing the killing of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. “Are you afraid of love? I know I am,” she wrote. “Love is love is love but it is also terror… Love is ruthless. It is a nightmare. It is a lifetime of self-defense training… Listen, I want to love you.”
Toward the end of the event, people divided themselves into smaller groups for conversations about the cause of the violence. Some of the causes people mentioned go far back — colonization, slavery, the Homestead Act, and wealth accumulated by taking something (freedom, land, life) from others. Others mentioned racism, the need for “deep listening,” an unwillingness to accept others’ experiences; fear of change; and a reliance on retaliation rather than “processing and figuring out how to move forward.”
Not everyone might agree with all the causes; that, Eriksen said, was OK.
At the end of the event, people finished by committing to two actions they chose, one soon and one at any point in time. Some people committed to fostering connections between different communities, one to spreading awareness of the problems discussed through social media. One woman, a member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, committed to bringing cookies to the Juneau Police Department.
Participant Sarita Knull said her family is “a crossroads” of different races and experiences, and the event helped shake her out of a sense of paralysis about what she can do to move forward.
This conversation is one step, Eriksen said — not the first, and not the last. Eriksen and Garcia Johnson plan other, similar events and hope to help others if they can.
Garcia Johnson said she was “in awe” of the turnout.
“I feel like this speaks to the need for continued dialogue and continued discussion within our community about these issues,” she said. “I was inspired by the commitments that people are making and have made.”
“I’m feeling full of hope and strength,” Eriksen said. “It’s easy to get bogged down by the weight of those problems… Systems are born out of institutions; institutions are run by people… We’ll start to move those mountains that we think are just so static, so large, so difficult to solve. I feel moved, literally moved right now, knowing that some of those relationships have been built today.”
• Contact Capital City Weekly editor Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read an article about the JPD event here: http://juneauempire.com/local/2016-07-20/juneau-police-seek-strengthen-community-ties.
Read an article about the Flying University here: http://www.capitalcityweekly.com/stories/120413/ae_1184397538.shtml.