The work of artists and creative activists can help to create a cultural democracy that prizes diversity, practices equity, and brings a deep respect for human rights to every aspect of civil society.
Therefore, the people-powered U.S. Department of Arts and Culture calls on all artists and creative activists to join in the movement to demilitarize the police and bring justice to victims of publicly funded racism.
For the past two years, I’ve been working with other volunteers to build and launch the USDAC, “the nation’s newest people-powered department, founded on the truth that art and culture are our most powerful and under-tapped resources for social change. Radically inclusive, useful and sustainable, and vibrantly playful, the USDAC aims to spark a grassroots, creative change movement, engaging millions in performing and creating a world rooted in empathy, equity, and social imagination.” (We need volunteers, so please help if you can!)
This week, appalled by the deluge of racism and violence flooding the news, we issued the USDAC Call: Creativity for Equity and Justice. Recognizing that racism, the denial of human rights, and official violence are all cultural issues, an amazing group of artists and activists (just click the link to see names like Judy Baca, Lucy Lippard, Gloria Steinem, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Peter Coyote, Brett Cook, Lily Yeh, and dozens of others) called on all of us to
Join together in affirming to all public officials and policymakers that a culture of punishment cannot stand. We join together in applying our gifts to the public gatherings, organizing campaigns, and policy proposals that will support positive change. We stand together with generations of creative activists in communities across the nation who have been envisioning and working toward a world of equity and safety for all.
Please read the Call, click on the links you’ll find there to connect with organizations and arts projects working on these crucial issues. Send me information about other arts projects and organizations, and I’ll make sure it’s posted there. Please use the share links to help this go viral, mobilizing the full force of our creativity.
I love the idea of the USDAC, because it links the local and national in a way that seems essential to positive change. This summer during our pilot phase, volunteer “Cultural Agents” of the USDAC mounted art-infused dialogues called “Imaginings” across the country. There’ll be more soon. As these roll out, we are crowd-sourcing a vision of the U.S. in twenty years if the transformative power of art and culture infuses all public and private systems. We’ll soon be appointing a National Cabinet (that’s my bailiwick as “Chief Policy Wonk”) to help translate these visions into concrete proposals for how they can be made real. And we’ll work to spread those, enlisting policymakers at all levels in adopting targets for cultural democracy.
While you’re at the site reading the Call, please also read the USDAC’s values and declare yourself a Citizen Artist. It’s free, easy, and definitely worthwhile. It will take all of us to shift to creativity, equity, and justice.
For me, the last couple of weeks have been a heart- and head-wrenching time. Enough people have told me that I’m an optimist that I’ve had to surrender—if optimism means that I see human potential undimmed by human actuality. And I still do, despite the headlines, which is why the Call matters so much to me.
But when it comes to racism and official violence, the vast gap between potential and actuality weighs me down. Let me tell you a story.
One night when I was a teenager, my grandmother (who was by that time deeply deranged) got to be too much for me. I decided to leave the house and walk to a friend’s home, but my grandmother followed me down the street, yelling. A couple of blocks away, we reached the local police station and an officer came out. Now, this was a working-class suburb—a large development of little tract homes financed on the GI Bill—and this very tall (at least in my memory) policeman read us as a family squabble, which was more or less correct. No weapons were drawn. But the second we saw him, we both lapsed into compliant silence, pasted smiles on our faces, and quietly turned to walk home.
You see, my grandmother’s father was killed by Cossacks during a pogrom, and quite a few of my other forbears were murdered, forced out, or otherwise oppressed by men in official uniforms. Fearing the police was something we absorbed from infancy. I’ve filed a police report that the insurance company required when my apartment was ransacked by intruders, and I’ve gotten a traffic ticket. But that’s as close as I’ve come. I’ve participated in many demonstrations and public gatherings that caught the attention of the police, but despite my friends’ brave civil disobedience, I’ve never been arrested. When someone close to me mentioned that he’d recently called the police to intervene when a man seemed to be harrassing others in a public park, I was reminded that not everyone has this policy of steering clear. But I have it, and I’m sure I always will.
The thing is, my complexion gives me the choice. If my heritage were African, that privilege would be denied me. There’ve been a raft or articles lately about the hostile environment for black people, mostly around Ferguson and St. Louis, but that doesn’t mean the same pieces couldn’t be written in many other places. When a light shines, it illuminates only so much. Here’s a very small selection describing ordinary, daily racism:
- Traffic stops driven by racial profiling lead to incarceration of innocent people, via the New York Times.
- And the disproportionate impact of traffic stops, courtesy of the Washington Post.
- Seventeen while people and 253 black people were cited in Shreveport, LA, last year for—get this—“walking in the street,” courtesy of The Shreveport Times.
- Hollywood producer Charles’ Belk’s account of “fitting the profile” when he was arrested by Beverly Hills cops, courtesy of HuffPo.
- And finally, Alternet on the numbers of black men gunned down by police.
Right after the murder of Michael Brown, the Pew Research Center released a poll on whether the shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed”:
By about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
As a culture of punishment? Or a culture that values every human life, promoting true public safety grounded in justice and love?
We call on all to break the silence that permits injustice, recalling the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
J Cole, “Be Free,” a tribute to Michael Brown.
All we want to do is take these chains off
All we want to do is break the chains off
All we want to do is be free
All we want to do is be free