It was Wednesday morning and I was composing a piece about peace and harmony. I was behind schedule and it was due Friday. Even so, I couldn’t concentrate. Jamar Clark was on my mind. Just days before, this young black man was shot by police. Black Lives Matter protesters had been occupying the 4th Precinct in North Minneapolis since Sunday. Ferguson was my backyard.
The piece I was working on is about a dream in which people all over the world are dancing in the street. Mamas and daddies, sisters and brothers, from Indonesia to Kenya, from Peru to Japan, all holding hands. But the dreamer wakes up, and realizing it is just a dream, goes out into the street and holds their hand out to a stranger. Then two were dancing, then four, then more….
I couldn’t focus. I checked the Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (BLM) Facebook page. BLM is all about inconveniencing people, while shopping, or driving, or just going about their lives. I had this nagging feeling that I needed to be inconvenienced, even if it meant staying up late to finish the piece in time.
I needed to walk the talk. How could I write about peace and equality and not work directly towards it? Black people in America are inconvenienced daily in ways I will never fully understand. I checked in with my fear and watched as my mind generated a list of all the reasons I should stay home.
I checked the BLM Facebook page again. The police had just moved in to evict the protestors. I watched the video of the police with riot gear. Something clicked. I grabbed the minimum in case I was arrested, my coat, my drivers license, and a $20 bill.
I stayed there until almost midnight on one the most volatile nights of the protest. I stayed because I wanted to be a witness. I stayed because I felt a deep connection with all the people standing around me. I stayed because I believe in their movement. I believe in their legacy. Deep down, because I was human, their fight is my fight.
The next day around noon, there were just a few of us. We sang songs and listened to stories around the fire. One of the women, a North Minneapolis resident told us we were “knocking down the temples of oppression.” A bus pulled up and several people got out to deliver boxes of food. Tents were filled with hot food and beverages. After that, I returned almost daily to hang out around the fires, to eat, to drink coffee, to listen to stories, to support, and to learn.
One day, I watched in horror the video of two men, brandishing a gun and saying they were on their way to the protest site to do some “reverse cultural enrichment.” They ended the video with “Stay White.” I cried the morning I heard of the shootings of five protestors by suspected white supremacists. I felt guilty for not being down there that night. My heart was in North Minneapolis even when I could not be. I met a family with small children that had spent the night, twice, in the cold Minnesota temperatures. They told me their story of their oldest daughter, their reason for being there. My heart has been, and remains, opened wide by the protesters and their strength.
In between visits, I finished my piece and began a new commission that I had sketched out prior to the protests. But the new piece had been transformed. It was now more harmonically complicated, more dissonant, more unsure. I was changed: my art was changed.
After 18 days, the police moved in again, this time to take down the occupation. It had been a place of home and a community for many, including me. It was a place of healing and a place of hope. But the fight continues. I gathered recently with other protestors to occupy Minneapolis City Hall. I called a local radio station, questioning their reporting. I attended, and spoke at, a Minneapolis City Council meeting. And I will march again for justice.
One night, after I had spent a few hours hanging around the fires with friends, I went directly to a rehearsal for one of my pieces, still in my Sorels and long underwear and smelling of smoke. I wanted these young women to know that music is not separate from life and that life feeds art. I told them that I am careful with how I choose to spend my time, because it all finds it’s way into my music. We had a wonderful time talking about their thoughts and their hopes and dreams for the future. And when they sang, it was clear that the music came from a place deep within.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains." - Assata Shakur