(Telling our stories, then telling them back to each other, at the #FergusonMoment Artists Gathering, Regional Arts Commission St. Louis, August 24)
(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MO. This series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia Alick, Mica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
This is the second of two installments. To see the first installment, click here.
In August of 2014, a group of theatre artists came together under the heading of “The Ferguson Moment” to discuss what we could do as a national theatre community to respond to the shooting of Mike Brown, the protests in Ferguson, and the national conversation around these events, and how we could mobilize to amplify the voices of artists in the St. Louis area doing the same. In the course of one morning, I found myself booking a flight and a rental car, and finding a host on couchsurfing.com. Before I knew it I was in St. Louis, the first one on the scene, soon to be joined by a small group of others who came to bear witness, show solidarity, forge artistic relationships, and start a conversation about how we as artists could and should respond. I was there from August 20-25, and to document my time there, I posted a journal entry of sorts on facebook each night. Here they are, combined, with very minimal editing, in two installments.
Day 5 in St. Louis
Today was the day of our #FergusonMoment Artist Gathering, which we have been planning and organizing for all week. Earlier in the day went to “Peacefest” at Forest Park, then to the Progressive AME Zion Church for a discussion about documenting stories to present to the US Human Rights Network in Geneva, getting African-American freedom fighters recognized as political prisoners and demanding a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then headed to the Regional Arts Commission for the Gathering. A great group of people showed up, some of whom we’d met earlier in the week, some we didn’t know, and we sang and played and spoke together. Myself and other theatre artists, from Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Sojourn Theatre, and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, led some exercises that involved participants telling stories of injustice they’d experienced recently and then staging them. The stories were about racial profiling, police brutality, union intimidation, mass arrests, first amendment violations… The work that came out was some amazing, deep, funnycauseitstrue, heartbreakingcauseitstrue stuff. It seemed like there was some healing going on. We had a discussion about how to continue the conversation and collaboration. We collected ideas for artistic projects on a national scale. Folks went around the room and shared one thing they want to say to artists around the country. Some gems:
“Art is one of the greatest expressions of freedom. Be nothing less than free.”
“Recognize the power of your art and your voice.”
“Chart a new path of seeking human harmony. Take bold steps. Don’t hesitate.”
“The duty of those with money, power, and access is to make sure the stories of those without money, power, and access are told and amplified to the world.”
“Don’t let the narrative control you.”
“Learn the difference between safety and comfort, and lean into your discomfort so that we can have safety.”
“When we work together, we’ll work forever, and there will be no starving artists.”
“The Artist is a World Changer. The Artist’s weapon is Art. Pick it up, be proud of it, use it, and watch the world change.”
“Do no harm but take no shit.”
An older woman stood up at the very end and read a quote from Chinua Achebe: “It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have – otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.”
(Katy invites the spect-actors to step in and change the story, at the #FergusonMoment Artists Gathering, Regional Arts Commission St. Louis, August 24)
Later in the night I went back to Ferguson, this time bringing some of my fellow artists with me. When we arrived it was almost midnight and no one was protesting. We spoke with some police and Claudia Alick managed to get them to contribute to a poem she was writing by collecting a line from each person she met. They were friendly enough when we were just listening to them complain about their long shifts, but when Katy and I started to ask more questions, they gave us the cold shoulder and moved out. We decided to leave but then found a group of people in an “Approved Assembly Area” under some tents. We decided to bring them some fruit that we had left over from the Gathering and wound up talking for a long time. They said the Brown family had requested that tonight and tomorrow be a quiet time and that’s why people weren’t protesting late at night. I listened to one man talk about his involvement with the protests. He said the first day of looting was necessary because that’s what got everyone’s attention. After that he and others blocked people from entering and looting the stores. He said the police and media claimed protestors burned down the QuikTrip convenience store because that’s where Mike Brown allegedly shoplifted from before being shot and people were mad at the store, but the real reason was that the police had taken it over as a substation. (Side note: Lawyers for the QuikTrip say store employees never called the police about a shoplifting and don’t believe Mike Brown was the man in the surveillance video, not that it has anything to do with anything anyway.) He said one night he was driving around picking people up in his pickup truck who were stuck in a dangerous area, and trying to get them out, and that the police flagged him down, arrested everyone in the truck including him, planted a Molotov cocktail and marijuana in the truck, and then destroyed video evidence of the incident. I said that’s the sort of story that sounds so weird and crazy that when I tell it to other white people they won’t believe it because they have not experienced that kind of behavior from police and so can’t imagine it. Everyone agreed. (Do you believe it?)
He said a lot of things, but the thing that stuck with me the most is that he was just trying to create a better world for his grandchildren. That things might change a little in his lifetime, but really what he’s looking forward to is his grandchildren not having to deal with the same struggles he’s had. That sounds like something people of color would have said 40, 50, 60 years ago. It’s 2014 and he’s 34 years old. I thought back to earlier in the day at the church when the Reverend was remarking how he’d been interviewed by some Danish journalists who asked him if things had changed for Black people in the States since the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, he said. They’ve gotten worse. (Do you believe it?)
Tomorrow is Michael Brown’s funeral. I feel very lucky to be able to be here and attend. My heart and mind are so full of stories, of pain, of human ugliness, of human beauty, and of the potential for human harmony.
Day 6 in St. Louis
The funeral broke me. I’d been keeping it together this whole week but this morning I just lost it.
There were thousands of people, outside the church the street was swarming with police, fire trucks, media. I got there about 40 minutes early and was seated in an overflow room. There was a beautiful gospel choir. I talked a little with some women sitting near me. One wanted to know if Boston was still reeling from the Marathon bombing or if we were okay now. Lots of very moving speeches, and lots of rhetoric I felt very conflicted about. The family talked a lot about how sweet and peaceful Michael was and how spiritual he was becoming. One family member said in the last conversation he’d had with him, Michael had said he wished everyone could “just chill out and love each other.” Benjamin Crump, the attorney for the Brown family as well as Trayvon Martin’s, spoke about the Dred Scott decision, made over 160 years ago by the Missouri Supreme Court about ten miles from the church where we were gathered, which said that persons of African descent cannot be US citizens. This then served as precedent for the 1787 Three Fifths Compromise, which said that African-Americans were to be considered only 3/5 of a man. He went on to say “But as we pay our final respects to Michael Brown, Jr., we declare today that he was not 3/5’s of a Citizen… and we will not accept 3/5’s justice.” Rev. Al Sharpton gave the eulogy. I am not happy with a lot of what he has said and how he has interacted with, and talked about, the people of Ferguson and their response to their oppression. I don’t buy the “bad apples” argument, which he likes to argue a lot. The problem with the police is not a few bad apples. The whole system is rotten. A new friend of mine in St. Louis reports that at the Town Hall meeting at the Missouri History Museum yesterday, one of the young men at the forefront of the movement in Ferguson said, “When Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the other national leaders came to town, they didn’t talk WITH us. They didn’t even talk TO us. They just talked ABOUT us!” But Sharpton did say some things that moved me. He said, “Some of us are so heavenly bound that we’re no earthly good. We sit like we have no requirements. But all of us must solve this.” He said, “To have that boy laying in the street like his life didn’t matter… how do we look to the world? How do we look to the world when you can’t come up with a police report but you can find a video? When young people march non-violently to ask for freedom and you put snipers on the roof how do we look?” He said, “Michael Brown must be remembered for more than disturbances. He must be remembered for when people started to change things.” I left moved and shaken. And then headed straight to the airport to catch my flight home.
Tonight I will be standing in solidarity here in Boston at the Federal District Court House. There are similar events around the country and the world. There will be more to come. If you care about human beings, if you consider yourself to be against racism, if you think you would have marched during the Civil Rights Movement if you had been alive then… you’re alive now. This is the moment. Your beliefs are not enough. We need you in the street. Please join us.
(#HandsUpDontShoot photo inside the overflow room before the start of the service, at Michael Brown’s Funeral August 25)
Late one night, I don’t remember which, I wrote this poem:
There is so much pain here
you can feel it in the air between
people like humidity.
Pain lifts conversation into poetry.
Pain humbles my whiteness.
Pain grabs me by the collar when I thought I was doing something else,
and points at me with its hot finger,
and stares at me with its hot eyes, until
my breath catches and I’m crying.
Pain follows me into the convenience store.
Pain follows me down the highway.
Pain keeps me up exhausted at 3am.
My empathy is inadequate but it’s all I’ve got. I’m not
a superhero and there are no superheroes and we don’t need superheroes we need love we need justice. We need all the not-superheroes to step up to the goddamn plate.
These people are tired of waiting.
These people are tired of asking.
These people are tired of crying.
These people are tired of teaching their kids how not to get killed and they get killed anyway. These people are tired
of being blamed for their own death.
I am tired of this mountain of misunderstanding.
I am tired of every impossible conversation.
I am tired of whiteness, and money, and Whole Foods, and CNN.
There’s a lot of tired going around.
There’s a lot of fire going around.
There’s a lot of liars running this town.
I’m going down
to every suburban stretch of sidewalk
laying my body down
and outlining it with chalk, so when you
walk by you know it’s your problem too.
And if you don’t feel the pain
there’s something wrong with you.
Danny Bryck is a theatre artist and activist based in New York and Boston. He is the creator of No Room for Wishing, a one-man documentary play based on interviews with people involved in Occupy Boston, and The River and the Sea, based on interviews from Israel/Palestine. As an actor he has worked in Boston with the Huntington Theatre Company, American Repertory Theater, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, New Repertory Theatre, Underground Railway Theater, the Publick Theatre, and Stoneham Theatre, among others, and in New York with The Civilians, New Perspectives Theatre Company, and on the daytime drama As the World Turns. He was an artistic associate with Whistler in the Dark Theatre in Boston for three years. He also works as a dialect and accent modification coach and theatre educator. Danny has been nominated for four IRNE awards, including Best Actor in a Musical, Best Solo Performance, and Best New Play, and received the David Wheeler Award for emerging talent in the Boston theatre scene. He holds a BFA from Boston University’s School of Theatre and studied at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, and is a member of Actors’ Equity Association. www.dannybryck.com