The Black Lives Movement erupted in 2014 following the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. Demonstrations continued throughout the country into 2016 over the continued killings of numerous black Americans by the police and due to the epidemic of racist violence and discrimination against black men and women in the United States. In 2020, following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the movement erupted again all over the United States amid the global Coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the demonstrations, autonomous zones popped up in Seattle and New York City.
I began photographing the Black Lives Matter movement in New York City after the police killing of Eric Garner. The movement inspired me to start a new interview project that amplified the voices of people affected by systems of oppression. I called this project Elements of Oppression. I started by documenting the voices of people from the Black Lives Matter movement, and it went on to include the voices of people from the Free Palestine movement, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline protests and others. Below is a selection of voices from the 2014-2016 Black Lives Matter movement in New York City.
“The number one thing that we need throughout this whole conversation that we’re having is love. They asked Che Guevara, “You’re doing all this stuff, what do you need?” He said, “Love.” You gonna be revolutionary, you gotta love each other. You’re doing this because you’re fighting for people you don’t even know. I didn’t know Akai Gurley, but I put so much energy into it. I didn’t know Eric Garner, but it mattered because even though I didn’t know him, that’s my brother. There’s a love there because your life is my life.”
“I remember in psychology that there is this pyramid where at the top is self-actualization, and at the bottom is your basic needs—your food, your water and your shelter. As you meet the basic needs—you got your food, your water, your shelter figured out—now you might need some social interactions. Okay, now you’ve got enough social stuff going on, now you might need to work and create things as you move towards your self-actualization of things you really want deep down in you. But there are so many people stuck at the bottom of the pyramid just trying to get food and water and shelter…If everyone were able to breathe, we could all look around and find ways to improve society. When you find a way to improve something for yourself, you find a way to improve something for everybody else.”
“I’m optimistic because the human spirit is a very powerful element. When we come together as a collective, and when we move forward in a common interest, a common struggle, there is nothing in this world that can stop that.”
“I don’t want the world to look any way. I want the world to reflect whatever better people look like. I want the world to reflect the better angels of everyone, however that looks. I want the world to be parti-colored. It would be oppressive for me to say I want the world to look a certain way. That’s me imposing my image, my idea of the world as grand narrative, as dominant narrative, as master narrative upon the Universe. My master narrative may not be the master narrative that other people benefit mostly from. I do want it to reflect something. The things that I want it to reflect are the better principles that are found in the human heart and the human ability to dislodge hatreds and sufferings and strifes and venture forward towards something that’s far better, far greater, something that’s close to God, Her or Himself. That is this element of us that says to both that which lives inside of us and that which persists beyond us—that we are human, remarkably made, and that we deserve to be loved. And we deserve to create opportunities for that love to be expressed in powerful, beautiful and elegantly human ways.”
“It would look like people actually have more claim of public spaces and public art. I can tell how people feel and that people are unhappy because there’s no art and color in the streets. I would like to just see everybody be their fullest, weirdest, most eccentric, individual selves, unabashed, without this pressure of having to conform to stereotypes, to marketing, to monoculture…Things like that, just where everything that was automatically associated as bad is just given a second look…And everything that’s associated as good. Everything is just up for re-evaluation, everything.”
“We could be much more deeply connected with our planet and working with it as opposed to against it, so that our species can actually have longevity. I think that we can begin to evolve. I think that we can begin to understand what it means to be human when we’re not defining humanity on a scale based on physical characteristics, what it means to be conscious, what it means to exist, the deep intrinsic problem that we have the moment we are born—why am I here? What am I? Who am I? What does it mean to be human? We have to move past these issues to ever be able to answer those questions, particularly this issue of racism and inferiority in order to even get closer to that definition. I think we can evolve as a species. I would love to see what that looks like.”
“It’s literally an undiscovered country of things that we could do once we get to that point. The art will be better. The food will taste better. We’ll have a greater amount of time to pay attention to personal accountability because when all these things and different layers are removed, you’ll have to do the scariest thing ever, which is look at yourself—come to grips with who you are. Once you do that, you really can do anything.”
“I think the only way we overcome them is if we are willing to look inside of ourselves. I think that’s where the power lies in each of us, but we often are looking out because it’s so much easier. The reason I say that is because systems of oppression exist because we believe in them…We play a role with systems of oppression…if we could stop believing in it, it stops existing…They’re just like any other system, any bureaucracy, anything we create. We create it. We believe in it. We help other people believe in it. We put rhetoric in place to support the life of it, and yet…if we stop believing, it stops existing. So the question is, “How do we get people there?” How do we get people to use their imagination and realize you actually do have the power to undo this system.”
The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) (also known as Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) or Free Capitol Hill) in Seattle, Washington began on June 8th, 2020 during the national Black Lives Matter protests. It followed a week of tense confrontations with the Seattle Police Department where the protestors were faced with aggressive use of force, including the use of tear gas and stun grenades. There was a public outcry over the response to the protests by the police. The police vacated the East Precinct on June 8th in order to de-escalate the situation.
After their departure, protestors occupied the space around the East Precinct, five and a half surrounding city blocks and Cal Anderson Park. The space erupted with mutual aid stations, including free first aid, food, clothing, hygiene, mental health care and a large people’s garden. It was also a space where conversations and teach-ins happened around combating racism and white supremacy. Street art was used in the Autonomous Zone and surrounding area in order to communicate grievances, to highlight the importance and value of black bodies and to express solidarity.
I traveled to Seattle on June 14th to photograph and document the occupation. Below is a selection of voices from the Autonomous Zone. Full interviews and audio compilations will be published over time.
“One where people actually get along. I was just down by Cal Anderson Park, and people are just handing things back and forth, exchanging smiles, still keeping their social distancing, were respectful of each other. We want to help each other. We want to see each other smile. We don’t want to be oppressed. We don’t want to see others oppressed. We just all want to live in fucking harmony. That would be amazing.”
“I can’t even imagine what it would look like. I guess a society where everyone has their basic needs met, and not just their basic needs but where they are given the tools to thrive. Humans, we’re a pretty cool fuckin’ species. We’ve got such a capacity for hatred and atrocity, but we also have the capacity for creation. Just imagine what we can do when we are unhindered by things that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Imagine if we we’re given the tools that we need for success. That would be a pretty fuckin’ cool world.”
“I just want people to leave me alone. That’s kind of why I’m doing all of this. We’re doing this not so we can come together and be peaceful all the sudden. We’re doing this so people can leave us alone and let us do what we want. I think the word is liberation. I think that’s the name of the game. I don’t want to do this, so I can eventually end up in a world where I have to get along with white people. I want to live in a world where I interact with the people I want to regardless of their race. That is the world that people who are too afraid to talk about racism or approach systemic problems imagine that we exist in and actually don’t. They say we live in a post racial world, but they are just ignorant to the fact that there is structural racism. I would like to see the structure taken down, the one that appoints leaders to speak for people. No structures. No gods. No leaders. No gods. No masters. If left to their own devices and provided the community resources required, humans will do the good thing by default. We’ve seen it. That’s why getting rid of cops and capitalism always turns into hippie communes. That is why that always happens.”
“I want a world where race is no longer a thing…I think as long as we find ourselves to be separate from each other, separate from this planet, we’re going to continue harming ourselves, and we will be unable to find the peace in trauma. Hopefully, as human beings, we escape this ego that we have. If we can get to a world where we can all live without ego, I think we all will finally find some peace and connection to our greater purpose in this world…I think there is no limit to what humanity and what this planet as a whole can do. As far as we know, life is a pretty rare occurrence, and I think we should all enjoy this opportunity to play and to be fed and to create art. I think those are the things that humanity gets a lot of purpose from and drive. I think we are capable of so much.”
“I think we’re capable of much more fantastic things. I think we’re capable of having stronger communities with more well educated people and more emotionally well taken care of human beings that don’t negate and marginalize one another, that don’t feel negated or marginalized. I think once we get rid of racism, we’ll figure out deep space travel and hyperspace and time travel and all that stuff. That’s one of the things that’s really holding us back as a community and culture.” That’s why I’m not scared of aliens. “Right. If they come, they’ve gotten it. They’ll be like, “Hey, we’ve made it here. None of y’all are special because we are flying through space, and y’all are down here arguing about who’s too brown. They’re still arguing about whose too brown! Let’s keep going, and we’ll come back in a millennium.”
“I want a world where everyone can be what they need to be in life because that’s really all everyone wants is just that freedom. I can be who I want to be and not have to deal with extra oppressiveness for no reason. Life could be so simple. I want to see a world where everyone could do their own thing and really strive to be great. I think Elon Musk will get to mars if we have people encouraging black kids to be physicists and astrology majors just as much as they’re pushing them to go to college or go to jail. I think in a world where the potential of everyone is embraced and pushed forward, we can do anything.”
“Earlier I told you I know a lot, but there is a whole bunch more that I don’t know. I couldn’t even fathom what we are capable of. For myself as an example, when I came home from prison, my mind was so uplifted and understanding and wanting to do so much love that what I thought I wanted, I surpassed that by a million times because I kept just introducing more love, and it kept taking me to places that I didn’t have a clue I could get to…It opens up your mind and elevates you to places you haven’t been. Love, love does that. I’m sorry, I know I’m not giving you a black and white answer, but love creates the doorway. It opens up more doors for opportunities that we don’t know. That’s the problem. We think we know it all. This is the best it can get. No, we don’t. We never know. We just keep pouring more love, and we keep getting to higher places.”
“I think we are capable of things that I could never even comprehend. I know that there are things that we can all do that come from a place in our hearts, and we should all be focusing on bringing that place here today. That’s the only thing we’re here to do—bring the place that we operate from at the core of our being here. That’s how we do something right. You don’t make rash decisions based off of being hurt. I need to make sure that I’m doing something right for my family and doing something right for my extended family. I understand that a lot of people do not know how to use their body, that they don’t know how to control themselves. I’m trying to get there. I want people to just stop being impulsive in how they think and just take a second to build some positive momentum, so that you’re not just sitting here being afraid of everything and just making bad judgement calls. That’s what makes the human being better.”
“I believe a fair society can exist, where if you have your basic needs met, you can still reach success, and that’s what I want to see. I want to see a world where people aren’t struggling to eat, aren’t struggling to find a place to live. It’s not that hard to see the future because it exists. If you look at a suburb, that’s the society I want, where everything is funded, where I don’t have to worry about where my meals are coming from…That’s the kind of life I want people to have, not the life that I had where eviction was around every corner, where you’re living paycheck to paycheck. That’s terrible. It’s not unrealistic because it exists, and we have examples everywhere of it, and it’s really white suburbia…Honestly, the world can support billions of people, but it cannot support billionaires. It can’t. The whole point of billionaires is to be hoarders of resources. In a thriving system, something that hoards a resource is a sickness, and that virus needs to be cut out. Billionaires shouldn’t exist. I feel like that’s one of the solutions. Take their money and give it to the people that deserve it. Reinvigorate the world.”
City Hall Autonomous Zone (also known as Occupy City Hall or Abolition Park) in New York City began on June 23, 2020. Influenced by the Autonomous Zone in Seattle, protestors created a no-cop zone where they were demanding the city cut 1 billion from the NYPD budget that was in the process of being finalized. Like the Autonomous Zone in Seattle, the occupation was a space for conversation, resistance and mutual aid. They had a free library, multiple food stations, first aid, a tiny garden and a free bodega. Street art was also used at Occupy City Hall and throughout the city to communicate grievances, highlight the importance and value of black bodies and to express solidarity.
I traveled to NYC on June 29th to photograph and document the occupation. Below is a selection of voices from Abolition Park and the NYC 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. Full interviews and audio compilations will be published over time.
“It’s just birthing a whole new world, creating a whole new idea, a whole new reality. The reality is that I love all humans. All of us are from the same source. However, I know that everybody is not going to make it because, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, some people are just stuck and think this system is the only way, and they will defend it with their life…I want to be free, and they are trying to keep me in this structure. I don’t want to be in this structure anymore. I don’t want my children in this structure… We should be free. These systems are crazy. The people who create these systems are crazy.”
“When I was part of Occupy Wall Street, I was very young. I was twenty-one or twenty-two. It was such an experience. I didn’t really have a voice, but I had ears, and I got to learn and experience so much…As I grew older, I thought I never would experience that again. I really wanted just to experience it again. When I saw this occupation, now that I’m twenty-nine, I wanted to come here and experience it. What brought me out here was to remember and experience how Occupy Wall Street changed my life. Since Occupy Wall Street, I created a collective called Help Ourselves. I took the fundamentals I learned at Occupy and took it into the inner cities. With our shows, different workshops from health to art to music, it’s all done with bartering. I curate a lot of spaces in NYC, so I was able to barter with a lot of artists instead of charging them. I’m able to provide a space for them to show and able to bring them in and provide for them. The energy is the main thing I say about Occupy. It’s an energy. It’s a different way of life where we take care of people who are hungry or who need clothes. There’s no judgement because everyone is doing it. We all become on the same level of being human.”
“I’d like to see lot more of this where people are just willing to help. Nobody is getting paid over there to do any of this. People are just doing it because they truly want community. Basic human rights should be met. We shouldn’t have people struggling and living inhumane lifestyles without food or homes. Once we have less of a vibration of suppression and all of these dense emotions, we’ll be able to vibrate as a society on a higher octave. People will be able to create more. We do need more art in the world. It’s a little bland. We need more color. I think that will livin’ it up. I love, love, love the artwork and graffiti. It really helps the whole community experience. What is life without art? We can’t expect change if we are doing the same thing. The more we create a different reality, the easier it will be to discover a new way of experiencing humanity.”
“I want a world where we can joyfully live our self-determined lives without limitations or barriers. It’s as simple as that. It’s about self-determination. We’re getting to a place with automation where there should be an accumulation of wealth that could be spread around, but because we have capitalism, where winner takes all, that wealth is being consolidated amongst a small group of people that are building spaceships to Mars. They’re trying to leave us on this burning planet, so I think the rest of us should decide what world we want to live in and how we want to redistribute wealth, so we are not all just alienated by our labor, so we can increase and uplift the material conditions of people’s lives, so that all of us, not just some of us, can live beautiful, self-determined lives.”
“We can overcome oppression by uniting together. I’m Cherokee, and I’m Mexicana, and I believe that we are all one tribe. Maybe alone we are not strong, but together, we are. I want a free world, one that will give old people and people who need help the security that they need. Everyone should have a home. I’ve been homeless three times in my life. This is the third time. I don’t think people realize what that can do to a person, how it can break them. People don’t talk about the education crisis that’s going on or the healthcare crisis. We need a voice. We need to talk about these things. We need to educate one another. It’s okay to change your opinion once you learn new information…I have a very simple message, which is basic human rights for everyone. You are human. You are deserving of respect. You’re deserving of love. We need to learn how to live and love and not fear. We’ve been living in fear for thousands of years.“
“I would love the world to look like a place where you can love whoever you want, wear whatever you want, exist as whoever you want, and you won’t be harassed for it. You won’t be hated for it. You won’t be discriminated against systematically for it…I would love to see a world that’s essentially what is going on at Occupy City Hall—more understanding, more empowerment, more mental health services and ways to make sure everybody is housed, clothed and fed. There are simple answers to our problems. The problem of homelessness should have been resolved a while ago. If somebody doesn’t have a house, you give them a home, so that they can rehabilitate themselves. If someone doesn’t have food, give them food. Society is not designed to help people get back on their feet. It’s designed to put even more obstacles, so the only solution left is to do something shady, or to do something that compromises other people. I would love to see a world that doesn’t force its people to rob because they don’t want to give them any opportunity”
“I think the world needs to be globally interconnected. We need to find a balance between local solutions and global solutions because we can’t operate as different countries anymore. Our economy is too globally interconnected, and this pandemic has shown us that borders don’t mean nothing. In my ideal world, all the countries would work together as one. We would promote alliances and diplomacy over warfare and genocide. We have enough resources on this planet to provide everyone their basic needs.“