“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
“Music is the universal language…it brings people closer together.”
In the months following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others in the Black and African American Community who have been killed at the hands of police brutality, there have been protests across the United States and the world. Marches, protests, and sign-wavings—in big cities to small towns—have been largely peaceful while others have experienced looting, rioting, and violence from other groups that were not only harmful but damaging to the true mission of the protests.
A new group, called Artists in Activism, has an idea of a new kind of protest: one in which artists can come together to peacefully protest using their creative mediums. On Saturday, September 26, 2020 from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m., Artists in Activism gathered for its 17th week on the rooftop of Audio Lab in Marysville, Washington, and on the corner of State Avenue and Grove Street.
Atop the roof of Audio Lab, a canopy was set up over an assembly of drums and speakers where music was echoing out over the busy intersection. Down at the corner, protestors waved their signs as passersby could be heard honking, cheering out of their windows, and holding up closed fists in solidarity as they passed. After asking many of the sign-wavers on the street how long they have been attending, many said they were new and “saw the other protestors and wanted to join the cause.”
Among the protestors was Sara Lacy, wife of Cecil Lacy Jr., a Tulalip Tribes member who was killed in 2015 after struggling with a Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy. Much in the same manner that George Floyd died, Mr. Lacy was heard saying, “I can’t breathe” before his death. A recent July 16, 2020 article by The Seattle Times can be found in the Citations section of this article for more information and updates on this story. To date, no charges have been filed against Snohomish County officers involved in the incident.
A feeling among many is that there is too much focus on the looting, rioting, and violence that has given the wrong connotation to what it means to protest and even the label of ‘protestor’. Oftentimes, it is not the protestors causing the looting, rioting, and violence but rather, external forces that wish only to sabotage the mission of a peaceful protest for their own agendas. Artists in Activism wants to help change that and foster unity through the arts, creative expression, and the joy in simply being human together—regardless of our outward appearances—in what has become a harshly divided nation of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
Artists in Activism sees and understands the division we’re facing and seeks to encourage unity and dialogue through a more neutral and inviting environment—with music. One gentleman named Chris, who donned a red cap that said, ‘MADE YA LOOK; BLACK LIVES MATTER’, was playing the drums and deejaying music for the event. An affable gentleman with a passion for music, he seemed to be the soul of the event as he played sets on his drums, occasionally adjusted his amplifier, and set tracks on his laptop to play out into the streets when he took breaks. Music—something everyone can relate to and bond over—set the mood for the event; it was a soundtrack to the peaceful sign-waving from the rooftop and the street that made it a different kind of protest and one that felt more unifying with nothing but good vibes.
After months of gathering, Artists in Activism hasn’t always had the most positive responses. In Marysville, where there is a sense of an existing “underbelly of racism” similar to what has been felt in neighbouring towns like Snohomish and Granite Falls, reported reactions have included drive-by slurs, waving of middle fingers, and unwelcome presence in the alley behind the Audio Lab where the stairwell to the rooftop can be found. Most of the reaction to the protestors has been positive, but there has also been enough negative reaction for Artists in Activism to designate their own security. There is a watch over the alley and block from the rooftop where block-circling drivers or alley pedestrians are carefully surveyed for the possibility of a threat.
Even though there was a smaller turnout than previous weeks before the recent rain and smoke in the region, there was roughly 20 to 30 people—a mix of Black and white adults and a child—on the rooftop and waving signs down on State Avenue. When a little girl arrived with her parents, one Black gentleman exclaimed, “You know, I feel safe when children are present.” Somehow, both children and music seem to offer a neutralising element to protest that might otherwise attract resistance without them.
Small groups on the rooftop gathered for engaging conversation. Of the conversations had with others and those witnessed, here are some of the themes and observations:
- There is a continued and urgent need for open dialogue, especially the uncomfortable conversations. Unlike other marches and protests, the novelty of this Artists in Activism event was that it felt more like a block party with a mission. You can come join the sign-wavers on the streets or come for meaningful dialogue while listening to music. It’s peaceful invitation for change while creating an environment anyone can bond over. There’s opportunity for you to find what’s comfortable for you, and everyone makes you feel welcome. While the uncomfortable conversations must be had with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours, it’s also important to meet others in your community to exchange ideas, experiences, and stories that may affect, empower, and enlighten your views.
- Be inclusive, whenever and wherever possible. The diverse gathering—people of different skin colours, ages, and talents—was an embodiment of this statement. Dissolving the voids between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is crucial in a heavily divided nation.
- The presence of universal mediums like music helps create more inviting safe spaces for people to protest and engage in conversations. Music helped set the tone. After attending more formal marches in neighbourhoods and city streets, it was a pleasant change to attend a different kind of demonstration that was conducive to a flow of conversation and networking.
- Negative reactions to protestors can give us a sense of the work still to do and that protests must continue until all can enjoy equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal treatment. Protests may not always sway everyone to think on the right side of history, but their ongoing presence demonstrates that intolerance and hate will be met with resistance. Equality for all is always worth fighting for. Contrary to other beliefs, peaceful protesting is patriotism because it is an effort to seek change in a society until everyone can enjoy a life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- New interpretations of Old Glory: Given the American flag has become a vehicle for individual expression, it can be seen in a range of different colours. We’ve seen the ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag representing law enforcement and as being associated with the Blue Lives Matter countermovement. There is also the rainbow American flag flown in advocacy of LGBTQ rights. Within the context of being flown at a BLM event, the black and white American flag can be interpreted as drawing attention and pride to the Black lives of our nation. Similarly, the red-black-green flag, also known as the Pan-African flag, symbolises Black liberation in the United States: red: the blood that unites all people of Black African ancestry, and shed for liberation; black: for the people whose existence as a nation, though not a nation-state, is affirmed by the existence of the flag; green: the abundant and vibrant natural wealth of Africa, the Motherland.
In a more divided nation than ever, with more enabled and outward demonstrations of hate, it’s vital to identify and share our common bonds, engage in respectful dialogue, and create the good that is worth fighting for. Artists in Activism’s mission may not be a new idea, but it seems easier achieve the change we wish to see in the world with music to guide people’s hearts in the right direction.
Citations & Credits:
- “Family of Tulalip man who died struggling with deputy say his last words – ‘I can’t breathe’ – were concealed”, The Seattle Times.
- “Pan-African Flag”, Black Student Center, California State University San Marcos.
- Cash App: $ArtistsinActivism
- Resist PNW/BLM Everett: A safe, private space to organise, discuss and post about current and future BLM events, rallies, and protests; also to network, get to know your fellow community members and build a stronger resistance movement here in Everett. The focus of this group is to coordinate our efforts in the fight for racial justice here in our community. This is a place to plan and post events, discuss tactics, and coordinate for safety during such activities.