Nikkita Oliver keynotes international day of peace
What: Bellingham’s International Day of Peace
Where: The Majestic, 1027 N. Forest
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Artist and teacher Nikkita Oliver is part of a network of community organizers in Seattle taking on over-policing, gentrification, and the trauma of constantly facing hostility as people of color. At the root of their struggle is systemic racism—policies and practices carried out by social institutions that have the impact of disadvantaging and excluding people of color.
Neah Monteiro: In August, 400 people packed City Hall during a Seattle City Council meeting about building the most expensive police precinct in the country. Why were you there?
Nikkita Oliver: When the youth ask me to be there, I’m going to be there. The young organizers who have been grinding day in and day out to contextualize the city’s plan to spend $160 million on a police bunker and $210 million on a juvenile jail—I was there to undergird and have their backs. Even though I’m 30, I’m building the practice of being there for and with youth organizers. I don’t always see that from my elders. That means being there when I can, and even when I can’t—just making it happen.
As a legal professional, I was there because it’s important for me to acknowledge how my profession is built on the over-policing of communities I come from—communities of color, those that are economically marginalized. It’s one thing to voice opposition to over-policing in community meetings or in schools; it’s another thing to do it in the city’s records—to say why we oppose it. It’s another thing for me to organize among other legal professionals, to ask people whose profession benefits from over-policing to be purposefully transforming our city and the way we spend our financial resources to be more just and equitable.
And I was there as a human, a person, a woman, a queer person. I have the flexibility in my life to be present. My comrades were there. It’s important to exercise our voices together. I don’t necessarily believe bureaucracy will hear our voices, but it’s a part of a multifaceted approach.
NM: You were in law school when the Black Lives Matter movement was started in July 2013. As someone working for black liberation, what was that period like for you?
NO: I was in New York City when the acquittal of George Zimmerman came down, working with the Center for Constitutional Rights for the summer. I went to a protest at Washington Square that ended in Harlem—we walked all over the city. There was something really powerful about being in New York City, marching in the streets with thousands of black and brown people.
I also saw a different side of police terrorism that summer. I was working on a stop and frisk case; my colleagues were working with Muslim communities in New Jersey and New York—clients imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, on no-fly lists. As Black Lives Matter was starting to become part of public discourse, I was working on these tough legal issues.
NM: And then you went back to Seattle to continue law school.
NO: Law school was hard; I was in classrooms as the only black person. I was realizing how light-skinned I was—privilege that had moved me toward law school. Realizing how many voices were missing from conversations about race, dynamics around race, socio-economics, gender. My classmates couldn’t have those conversations in a way that honored the humanity of people.
Law school played a role in how I became radicalized. To see the injustice, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson [who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson], happening while being in an institution telling me that “law is just,” that “this is how we make change.” I realized the system wasn’t holding up to the ideals my professors were teaching.
It became a task for me to gain what knowledge I could in that space, and make it usable with other organizers. The redistribution of knowledge is essential. You can see that now, with the Dakota Access Pipeline and our protectors there—there are over 500 treaties that should be getting honored, and are not. The U.S. isn’t willing to be accountable to its own treaties. It’s hard to believe in the legal system.
NM: Bellingham and Seattle are both predominantly white cities—85 percent here, 69 percent there. The ways that communities of color experience systemic racism and colonialism are often not visible or understood. Here, for example, people are quick to deny racial profiling, even in the face of firsthand testimony. What harm can come from this disconnect?
NO: Part of whiteness and white privilege is that you can deny colonial forces, the impact of capitalism; you can deny racialized experiences even when black and brown people are telling you they’re happening.
Bellingham gets a reputation of being progressive because there’s a few progressive things that have happened. That’s not radical. Radical means “to get to the roots.” When we have this notion of being progressive, but still deny what black and brown folks are telling us, we allow racist practices to become normative, entrenched in our institutions. It makes it even harder to transform institutions then, to have equitable spaces and systems. Black and brown folks become more brutalized, the wall around things we need access to becomes even harder to get through, and then often we leave our homes and cities. We become very transient. We lose even more.
White folks down for racial equity have to be willing to risk and sacrifice. If you believe white supremacy and settler colonialism are problems, put your body and your resources on the line, the same way black and brown people have to do every day just to walk on the street and be outside. Believe the stories you’re told… be willing to get in the way to see equity become realized. Don’t just think about it, actually be about it.
NM: What do you want for black and brown people in Seattle?
NO: It sounds so basic, but I just want to be able to live. When I say live, I mean not have to constantly be worrying about our safety… So much of our life is dictated by challenging the system that doesn’t want us to live. It would be cool to walk into a classroom and just get to be creative with young people and think about the world they should get to live in, have it be free of the constant trauma they face in everyday life.
NM: You teach poetry at Garfield High School and others, and with the organization Creative Justice, working with court-involved young people. How does art fit in with struggles against over-policing and incarceration?
NO: I once was told by an artist/mentor that if you want to get rid of a people, the first thing to get rid of is the artists—poets, cultural workers, storytellers.
Creative Justice uses art partly to have discussions about realities that young people face, but also because art allows you to make mistakes and figure out what mistake is worth keeping. Art has been a big part of figuring out how to use my voice, and in how I see the world and interact with other people.
Around the bunker and the youth jail, art has played a role in us being able to reclaim and claim space, in a way that is nonthreatening, that changes people’s hearts. When you look at the very end of “heart,” there is “art.” You can tell someone about racism, but as soon as you write it into a poem, and tell that story, do it performatively, some transformation happens between performer and audience. Telling stories of how things like the juvenile justice system has impacted them, and paint the story of what else it could look like.
I hope more artists bring their work and posters, and perform poems during public comment at City Council meetings. Saying a hard thing in a way people’s hearts can actually hear—that really transforms a space.
NM: What gives you hope and motivation?
NO: Being around young people is my life source. This is why I teach. Young folks have the ability to see the roses in the cracks in the concrete when everyone else is blind. The ability to grow roses in the cracks.
Youth face so much brutality and terrorism globally, and what we see is young people rising up at the forefront. At Standing Rock, it was young people who started the camp, who could hear the voice of their ancestors telling them to be present and stand for what’s right and honor our mother. Their sight and ability to hear and see things that those of us who have been in the system don’t see anymore, can’t hear anymore, keeps me inspired.
Neah Monteiro is executive director of the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center. A Fulbright Fellow and graduate of Temple University, in 2016 she was a recipient of the Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism award.