People react to crises in different ways. Saturday evening’s rally for Trayvon Martin, which turned into a familiar, predictable, and unfortunate opportunity for destruction-minded anarchists to break windows and spray-paint graffiti on local businesses downtown, was one such reaction. But on Sunday, even as one group of protesters stood in the center of the intersection of 14th and Broadway and burned an American flag, members of Oakland’s arts and culture community had different reactions, which involved making space for healing, creating art, and finding inspiration out of tragedy.
Anyka Barber opened up the Betti Ono Gallery for drop-ins, so that members of the African-American community, and anyone else feeling the emotional weight of the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial, could have a safe place to vent, console, empathize, or express their thoughts. At the same time, Jeff Perlstein opened up his spot, Solespace, for an “Art 4 Justice” workshop. At both locations, the windows became message boards for folks to share their feelings about what was going on.
“We opened up the space to the entire community,” Barber explains. “The whole point was just to hold a space of peace and love and solidarity, but also find ways to take action and reflect.”
Barber said the response has been “amazing,” adding, “it’s been a beautiful experience.” In addition to messages people placed in the gallery’s windows, Barber said there were “impromptu healing sessions, there’s tears, folks who don’t know each other are hugging one another and supporting one another, [and] people are coming together to find ways to plan other engagements” to address the issues raised by the Zimmerman verdict.
One of the basic issues raised, is what parents of black children tell their kids. “When something like this happens, you have to have a conversation with your children that you feel you should never have to have,” Barber relates. “I tell my son the truth: he’s a young black male growing up in a society that has a history of violence towards black men, and people of color in general.”
Barber says she shows her son examples of how that’s played out from history, and relates those examples back to the current situation. “I tell him that he has to be a light. In any way possible. But also, no matter what good you bring, there may be times when you are forced to deal with very tragic issues that are out of your control. Stay strong.”
What came out of holding space, Barber says, were discussions with community leaders and organizers, which have led to plans for an upcoming exhibition “related to the conversation around being a black male in this country.” The exhibit debuts in August, alongside Sidney Kane’s show, “Cosmograms and Black Matter,” at a second gallery space which, Barber says, “is specifically dedicated to identity, the idea of being human, and what does it mean to be black, but in a very powerful and uplifting way.”
One of the people hanging out at Betti Ono was Jennifer Johns, a singer and Oakland native. Asked her thoughts on the Zimmerman verdict, she stated bluntly, “Fu*ked up.”
Johns related that historical precedents, from Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 to the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, were on her mind. “We keep on being shocked, and even if we’re not shocked by this, we’re numb. I’m beyond uncomfortable… I’ve never felt like this before.”
Johns said she cried at least 10 times on Sunday. “The only thing that makes me feel good is, I’m going to be able to get with my sisters and do something for my brothers.”
Johns relates that the pain she feels is magnified because of the degree of separation between black men and women. And, like Elijah Muhammad, she has a message to the black man: “Systematically, we’ve been pulled apart, so there’s a level of distrust. That never gets talked about, but it is epic… As a black woman, who has to watch you handcuffed and put in the back of a car on a regular basis, or dead, on the side of a road, on a regular basis, or in the news on a regular basis, there’s a particular pain that we have that we process in our way. But when this moment happens, we want to show up and stand, and hold you, the pain of us just looking at each other… looking at my brothers today has been some of the most tender moments. I’m just gonna stand here and be here, and hope that that’s enough, but you and I both know it’s not.”
As an artist, Johns says, she feels a need to be pro-active about the situation – she’s already started writing a song. “Kev [Choice] and I will have something by Friday,” she promises. “I am really beyond angry, so a song doesn’t feel like enough… I know that creative people are supposed to write stuff, and that ultimately it lives beyond [the time it was made], but right now, I’m just really fu*king mad.”
A few blocks away, at Solespace, chalk graffitos on the sidewalk quoted Assata Shakur and Grace Lee Boggs. Blue duct tape on the window spelled out the words, “Make Art 4 Trayvon.” The store’s windows were covered with Magic Markered- and-crayoned signs reading “black lives matter,” “hoodies up for Trayvon,” and “not one more.” Inside the store, about 30-40 people had gathered to create art, as a response to what they were feeling. Parents and kids sat together and drew, as Melanie Cervantes, Jesus Barraza, and members of the Taller Tupac Amaru Collective printed up stacks of posters with the words, “I am Trayvon Martin and my life matters,” framing Martin’s smiling face. The event went on until midnight, and reportedly included a screening of documentary films, including “Black Power Mixtape.”
Perlstein explained that holding space for social justice and activism was part of Solespace’s DNA from the onset. However, he noted, the store usually isn’t open on Sundays. But after having a conversation with neighboring business owners about whether to board up the windows, he says, “we decided that we should just take a totally different approach. Instead of shutting down and hiding, we should really activate the space and create a space for people to tell their stories and tell that story of Oakland that the world needs to hear.”
One of those stories was a portrait of Trayvon, drawn by Oakland graphic designer Luz Ortiz. She drew the image, she says, “because Trayvon needs to be remembered so things can actually change. Everyone’s feeling so strongly about it. I think there’s some momentum for things to change right now. [Trayvon’s] face, to me, he’s definitely the poster child for it.”
Ortiz sees the creation of art as a viable alternative to engaging in destructive acts. “It’s definitely a good feeling to let this energy out through art, because for a lot of us, there’s a lot of anger, regarding it. Making things, and really thinking about why we’re doing it is much better than going out and trying to slap someone, or destroy something because of what we go through every day. I feel like this case is kind of yelling in our face about all the injustice that goes on daily. We’re only so enraged because we try to ignore it on the daily, [but] yesterday and today, it’s just so obvious and so loud. We have to deal with our emotions productively, and making art is definitely a way to do it.”
This week’s picks:
Assata Shakur Birthday Concert Roots Musik Showcase, 7/16, 7:30pm, $7-$10, La Pena, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
SOUL Summer Film Series: Palante Siempre Palante, 7/17, 8pm, suggested donation $5, Solespace, 1714 Teelgraph
Malo, La Gente, 7/19, 9pm, $20-$25, the New Parish, 579 18th St.
Radio Blue, Spendthrift, 7/19, 7pm, $5 door, $5 soul food, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, 410 14th.
A Celebration of Fela Kuti featuring Tony Allen, Najite & the Olokun Prophecy, Lagos Roots Ensemble, Afrolicious, DJs Rich Medina, Damon bell, King Most, Leydis, Izzy Wise, 7/19, $20, 1015, 1015 Folsom, San Francisco