Police Violence and the Art of Organizing

ArtsEverywhere is working with Families United 4 Justice and the Forced Trajectory Project to co-produce a series of personal narratives by family members, in a small effort to create counter-narratives to those established by the media in collusion with law enforcement, and to encourage greater system transparency and accountability. Through the art of the written word and video, these families are rewriting the narratives of their loved ones, facilitating a broader exchange, educating a wider base, and connecting thought to action.

I don’t care if people know my name. I want them to know my daughter’s name.
—Yolanda McNair,[1] mother of Adaisha Miller, who was killed by off-duty Detroit police officer Isaac Lee Parrish III, on July 8, 2012, one day before her 25th birthday.

In 2017, police in the United States fatally shot 987 people.[2]

Over 100 families impacted by police homicide and corruption convened in Oakland, CA, for the 2nd Annual Families United 4 Justice National Network Gathering, June 29-July 1. Merritt College, Oakland, CA, June 29th, 2018. Photo by Jordan O’Brien, Forced Trajectory Project.

It was fitting that day one of the Families United 4 Justice (FU4J) gathering took place at Merritt College. It was here that Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Soul Students Advisory Council, the first black student organization, which they envisioned as a democratic group meant to educate, develop leadership, and serve the black community in a revolutionary way, turning ideas into concrete action. Fed up with the unwavering systematic oppression, racism, police violence, and injustice in Oakland and across the United States, they identified the need to organize within the black community. They wanted a platform for the people to express their desires and their needs at the same time. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was born here, a self-determined movement that would support the community in every way possible; it would defend their bodies and fight for their rights.

Photography attributed to Blair Stapp, composition by Eldridge Cleaver. Huey Newton seated in wicker chair, 1967. Lithograph on paper. Collection of Merrill C. Berman.

Nearly fifty years later, this struggle for freedom and safety from systemic violence, determination to create revolutionary change, and commitment to community continues, carried onward by grieving families and those who support them. From June 28-July 1, 2018, a network of more than a hundred family members, advocates, and supporters gathered in Oakland, California for the second annual meeting of the Families United 4 Justice Network,[3] a growing, nationwide collective of families impacted by police violence. Their vision is “a world where no one has the right to take the life of another and be protected/insulated from the consequences of doing so by a system of structural racism, obfuscation, and propaganda.” The gathering was a true testament to the disturbing number of families continually impacted by police violence, as well as the collective power and healing that can take place in unity. Through the network, these families have an essential support system—one they did not know they would ever need to be a part of. One that has become their lifeblood.

Photo from the Families United 4 Justice 2nd Annual Meeting.

This space carried the weight and knowledge of what happened fifty years ago into a gathering addressing so many of the same issues that continue to plague communities of color. Keynote speaker Elaine Brown,[4] former Minister of Information and Chairman of the Black Panther Party (BPP), knows this fight all too well. She asked the group to consider what justice means for black people and urged that oppression will persist if we don’t continually seek to understand its nature and manifestations. As she put it: “the agenda of Trump is as old as [Thomas] Jefferson.” Just as the BPP emphasized education that was holistic (contextualizing history through practical application, building skills around service and leadership, and emphasizing political and self-awareness and care), at the core of this network exists a dual desire to raise political awareness and to raise consciousness around individual and collective health and healing.

Families impacted by police homicide gather at Merritt College for the first day of the 2nd Annual Families United 4 Justice, June 29-July 1. A large red banner was hung along the window where families taped photos of their loved ones for everyone to see. Oakland, CA, June 29, 2018. Photo by Nissa Tzun, Forced Trajectory Project.

The mental and physical anguish these families are experiencing is real, as are the resultant strains on finances, marriages, children/siblings, and the list goes on. Trauma’s negative effects on the brain were illuminated at the gathering by Dr. Tony Jackson,[5] who challenged the notion of post-traumatic stress disorder, who proposes replacing it with “persistent traumatic stress disorder,” which refers to the daily weight of systematic oppression that creates a baseline of innate trauma. With the loss of their children, their peers, and their parents comes a loss of hope for the future. Indeed, a persistent threat of imminent harm (from those who are meant to protect and serve), the compounded effects of violence, and the toil of persistent activism are taking a toll on the physical, mental, and social health of families and communities of color as powerfully now as they did fifty years ago.

Equally important to a heightened political awareness is for families and caregivers to have an awareness about these health effects (which they all experience to some degree) and access to proper care. Watching the families move together, access services such as massage and acupuncture, and collectively brainstorm around music’s healing power provides hope that this increased access, shared understanding and support, and opportunities to preserve their own health and the health of their communities can in fact be healing.

Dr. Tony Jackson of the Association of Black Psychologists gives a workshop on how trauma effects the brain to families impacted by police homicide at the 2nd Annual Families United 4 Justice, Oakland, CA, June 29, 2018. Photo by Nissa Tzun, Forced Trajectory Project.

According to the Department of Justice, “The shooting of unarmed people who pose no threat is disturbingly common.” Research conducted by the Guardian indicates that young black men were killed by police at a sharply higher rate than other Americans in 2016.[6]

A sense of safety is a cornerstone of what it is to live healthy. Safety, not to be separated from health, is more than the absence of danger (disease). It is the result of the complex interplay of systemic, community, and individual factors that allow a person to feel they have control over their bodies, voices, and lives. In this sense, safety is truly a public health issue.[7] As the BPP stood for self-defense, these families continue to fight for their lives in every way. It is essential for care workers, advocates, and others looking to effect change to understand and be able to effectively support the needs of this growing collective body of pain, considering the whole person, the whole community, and the oppressive political, socioeconomic, and racial contexts within which they live.

This space provided a powerful grounding from which to further understand these contexts and to align with and explore the shared history of these struggles, understanding those who came before and the importance of connecting across lanes of organizing[8] to become more united. The families’ unique power to organize as a whole has created a space of support and a space from which to share their stories.

On Saturday, June 30th, the network gathered for National Remembrance Day, where a public tribute for their loved ones was held. Many of those affected participated in a public open mic, where they shared their anguish, hope, and advocacy efforts. They called out the names of their loved ones, shared their stories openly, and offered guidance, love, and support to one another. Theirs are the voices that need to be heard, again and again, in homes, in communities, behind microphones, at podiums, and on the steps of and inside our institutional seats of power.[9]

Bobby Seale once stated that “We are not the vanguard [of a revolution] because we wanted to be, but because it was given to us through the blood and death of our members…”[10] These families did not ask to be placed in this position. Despite their palpable and unwavering pain, their resolve, strength, and commitment to change is equally unwavering—a commitment to turn thought into concrete and inspired action, as Newton was inspired to do by Frantz Fanon.[11] A commitment demonstrated by the organizing pools and online communities they have formed, but also in their collective support of and for one another. Their perseverance, resolve, and unshakable bond through blood unites and strengthens them to continue this fight for their loved ones who no longer have a voice—their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, friends, and community members.

Their collective power to illuminate those voices and supplant the dominant narrative will increase the opportunity for all those who are oppressed to have their voices heard and listened to, and change systems in the process. These brave, strong families are making the way for ALL families, all people, and all communities to have power over their own bodies and lives, once and for all.

Davina D. Estrella from Awon Ohun Omnira of the Omnira Institute prepares the shrine created for families impacted by police homicide and featuring their loved ones for a spiritual ceremony at Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA, June 30, 2018.

[1] Yolanda is President of Protect Our Stolen Treasures (P.O.S.T.), a non-profit organization that was formed by family members of police murder victims. She is a Planning Committee Member and Regional Manager with Families United 4 Justice. https://www.facebook.com/Justice4Adaisha/

[2] According to an ongoing Washington Post database project that tracks fatal shootings. Since 2015, the Post has logged the details of 2,945 deaths by shooting, culled from local news coverage, public records, and social-media reports. The reporting of these deaths by police departments to the Department of Justice is voluntary.

[3] http://fu4jgroup.website/

[4] Elaine Brown is the Executive Director of the Michael Lewis Legal Defense Committee, supporting the legal appeal of Lewis (“Little B”), who was arrested in 1997 in Atlanta, Georgia at the age of 13 for a murder he did not commit, and was convicted and sentenced as an adult to life in prison, where he remains. She is also CEO of the non-profit organization Oakland & the World Enterprises, Inc., dedicated to launching and sustaining for-profit businesses for cooperative-ownership by formerly incarcerated people and other people facing social barriers to economic survival.

[5] Dr. Jackson offered physical and musical exercises that can begin to counter these effects during the network gathering.

[6] The Guardian has a database similar to that of the Washington Post.

[7] The American Public Health Association has recently set forth a bold policy statement on law enforcement violence as a public health issue. Organizations such as the Do No Harm Coalition, an organization of healers, health workers, and activists “accompanying communities affected by state sanctioned violence in our collective struggle for health, dignity, and sovereignty,” agree that a lack of safety due to state violence is a public health issue. They have committed to better understanding the holistic impacts of this violence on communities via the Justice Study, which seeks to document the mental health and other effects of violent encounters with law enforcement, seeking to dismantle the current myth of safety and changing medical literature to arm policymakers and other elected officials with what they need to advocate for change on the local and national level.

[8] Self-sustaining activist Cat Brooks offered techniques for effective organizing and emphasized the importance of understanding the system we are working within and looking to dismantle. She is Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network and is currently running for mayor of Oakland.

[9] The Forced Trajectory Project, a long-term multimedia project documenting the rippling effects of police violence on communities, is helping to amplify these voices by documenting gatherings like this in great detail, and by providing training, advisement, and encouragement around how media has been and can be used by and with the families to counter the narratives around their loved ones and police violence.

[10] https://www.iep.utm.edu/fanon/

[11] From Bobby Seale’s history of the Black Panther Party, Seize the Time (1970). A full copy can be read here: https://libcom.org/files/STT.pdf

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Nicolle Bennett is an administrator, educator, and artist with over 10 years of experience building capacity with arts, health, and educational organizations and those they serve. She currently lives and works in New York, serving as Program Director for Feel the Music!, a New York City-based organization that connects teaching artists with hospitals, non-profits, and other community-based partners, and consulting with a variety of organizations to build technical and communicative capacity.

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