An exploration of storytelling, by conducting a series of interventions framed towards creative activism, were the body of my graduate thesis. By using non-confrontational interventions as a guiding principle these interventions search for ways to engage with an established institution.
The new North Precinct police station, budgeted at $165M, did not only raise questions within the Seattle City Council but also caused a protest, Block the Bunker. The activists urged the city to not spend the money on the SPD, currently still under purview of the Department of Justice, but to prioritize other needs, like affordable housing to solve the city’s record breaking homeless population.
By using non-confrontational interventions as a guiding principle I searched for ways to engage with an established institution. Based on the framework used in Beautiful Trouble – A Toolbox for Revolution, each intervention is mapped to six modules in which they are analysed and reflected upon.
This exploratory phase, aimed at gaining insights into the problem space, consisted of the attendance of Seattle City Council meetings, committee meetings, and creating a timeline of past events that led up to the point protest.
This thesis started with the City Council raising concerns about the budget for the proposed North Precinct station and ended with the approval for a new police accountability legislation in Seattle.
I initially reached out to the organizations I saw at the city council meetings about the proposed new North Precinct police station. Through interviews and meetings I got introduced to other stakeholders and activists that have been pushing for reform within the SPD. Current suggestions on how to make the police more democratized and increase police accountability are based in existing police force behavior and policy. This excludes the possibilities that could emerge from a utopian view of what a police force should look like. For this reason the interviews conducted focused on envisioning an ideal police force to uncover hidden radical visions and aspirations.
It is extremely hard here in Washington to prosecute a police officer who shot somebody. You have to prove malicious intent and you basically have to be clairvoyant to know what was going on in the mind of the cop in the past, during the incident, to prosecute him. That’s just insanity. So, we have to fix our own insanity as a society, before we can fix the cops.
Our police force is so tied in with masculinity and this ‘tough guy role’ and I think masculinity isn't just oppressive for non-males, it's also harmful for the people themselves who are trapped in that position.
In an ideal future there would still be police but they would be more like the community. People who live there, people that get to know everybody, they would be an integral part of the community. Almost like an uncle or an aunt. And they would see policing as a service to the community.
From what I heard our group kind of calmed the police down [during the WTO protests] when they were getting out of hand. And that is something that seniors could sort of do. Nowadays, I don’t know, they might just run right over us…
You know, I got intrigued by your question of an ideal police force, because for wealthy white people we already have an ideal police force.
The interviews with the activists opposing the new North Precinct police station did not have the outcome I hypothesized ahead of the research. Almost all activists I spoke with were not simply for reform within the police force, but believed in a possible future without police: an aspiration for a future in which the community would police itself.
Where I initially believed I could design a service system for a new form of policing, the unforeseen outcome of the interviews showed me that these beliefs were ill-founded. As a result, the conceptual lens of an ideal police force had to be adjusted. Alternatively, finding ways to bring the unexpected narratives discovered during the interview phase to light, by using non-confrontational interventions as a guiding principle I searched for ways to engage with an established institution. As an exploration of storytelling, I conducted a series of interventions.
Based on the framework used in Beautiful Trouble – A Toolbox for Revolution, each intervention is mapped to six modules in which they are analyzed and reflected upon. The inventive nature of each disruption can be seen as a continuation of the inquiry, and this framework is meant to inspire further interventions.
Tactic: An umbrella approach to a type of intervention which can be applicable to other forms of activism. Examples include a flash mob or an occupation of public space.
Principle: A design principle, a rule to abide while going from tactic to intervention. Examples include “allow anonymity” or “use existing vernacular”.
Intervention: The project, what I do to test my hypothesis. A positive disruption that is making an effort to refocus the mindset of the viewer, by interfering with the status quo.
Hypothesis: what I assume the intervention will do and what the outcome of the intervention will be.
Evaluation: basically, was the intervention successful? Assessing location and time, analyses of what went wrong what went well, what did I learn.
Reflection: How to make it again? What would I do different? How does this inform tactics and principles?
The tactics used are partly culled from Beautiful Trouble, while others were newly generated.
Using everyday objects, Don’t kill the messenger
Quotes from interviews are laser cut on coffee sleeves and distributed at coffee shops in guerrilla-style, without prior authorization of the coffee shops, in order to distribute messages to the police.
Roy Street coffee on Capitol Hill is a coffee shop that is known to have police officers visiting. By replacing the existing coffee sleeves at Roy Street coffee with coffee sleeves that contain quotes from interviews customers, and therefore also police officers visiting the coffee shop, will receive the visions of the activists.
There was one police officer who came in. Sadly this officer got an apple fritter and no coffee. After about an hour, staff of the Roy Street coffee saw a customer sitting at the bar with one of my coffee sleeves. The staff member walked over to the table where the coffee sleeves were laying and discarded of the remaining two.
This intervention would work best when there is the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time lingering in the coffee shops to refill taken coffee sleeves and to make sure that police officers have the opportunity to take one. Customers noticed the writing on the sleeves so I believe that with patience the sleeves will be grabbed by officers too.
Direct action mixed with culture jamming
Kill them with kindness, Laughter is the best medicine, Quick and dirty
Pillows are handed out at the May Day March in downtown Seattle. By offering the protesters something soft, I hope to prevent them from getting arrested like when a protestor got arrested and charged with terrorism for throwing an (unlit) Molotov cocktail to the riot police during May Day 2016.
I thought it would be wise to bring something soft to the May Day March. And to bring something that would bring a bit of laughter to those trying to overthrow the powers that be and to those who are there that day as a “symbol of the establishment”.
When the majority of the people and media, see the May Day March as an annual annoyance, there is a problem. I believe we can infuse our protests with a bit of creativity. Throw a little bit of laughter in the mix. Let’s not lose our sense of humor.
Westlake Park in downtown Seattle, where the anti-capitalists march usually starts, was this year the scene of a pro-Trump gathering. Antifa protesters were there, but it mostly felt like both parties showed up because the other one was supposed to be there. I set up my table at Westlake Park. Within one hour all 20 pillows were decorated and part of the protest. Because things were not as rowdy as they were in previous years no altercation between protesters and police took place. Although lots of pillows were used as protests signs, only one pillow got thrown.
I really enjoyed handing out the pillows and seeing what creative statements protesters came up with. The inspiration for this intervention was completely depended on the news. Design is usually not as fast as the news so it was an intervention in which prioritization was very important. I wasn’t sure what to expect for reactions as there was little time to think the action through and taking all stakeholders into account, like you would normally do when designing. Luckily, the intervention was positively received during the May Day event.
Kill them with kindness, Use existing vernacular
Using existing vernacular that is familiar to see around parked cars, i.e parking tickets, I can provide positive reinforcement and thank the SPD for their effort in honoring the 2012 Federal Consent Decree.
The relations between police and the community they serve are described as fragile at best. Positive reinforcement is a desired consequence of a certain type of behavior. By thanking the SPD as opposed to pointing out what else could be improved I aim at rewarding good behavior.
After deciding which police cars to target we walked passed and quickly placed the tickets under the wipers. After placing several tickets we watched from a distance to see if any of the officers inside the police station would get to their cars. Most officers drove off without noticing the ticket at first. However, one unmarked police car with several officers in it drove by, and we could see that the officer in the passenger seat was opening the envelope. Message received!
This is the one intervention I had the most questions about. Is affirming the police in their practice really the way to go? Less than 3 weeks after this intervention the SPD fatally shot a pregnant mother of three, Charleena Lyles, who called the police herself after she suspected a burglary and I felt conflicted about my compliments on doing a fine job. Although the shifting of power structure by fining the police makes an interesting intervention, I am not sure I would do this again.
THE SPD IS THERE FOR ME
Choose your location carefully, Everyone has a voice, Allow anonymity
A true or false vote can be cast on the statement “The SPD is there for me”. Participants have the opportunity to comment on the back of the ballot, providing feedback on their choice.
By placing a voting box in each of Seattle’s precincts the input will be diverse. I am hoping for a good amount of votes but am tentative to believe that passerby will interact with the voting station.
A lot of votes were cast, and most of them had comments written on the back. Opinions were strong, on the ballots as well as in spoken word. Some participants came to talk to me before or after their vote. We discussed race and policing, and how the question was a tough one as they felt that they as a white person felt that the SPD is there for them, but that it doesn’t count for all in their community and if it therefore meant that the SPD was there for none.
It turned out to be quite difficult to find a way to be unbiased in the design of the the voting station. Both “true” and “false” cards needed to have the same level of hierarchy, and the statement took some external copywriting experts to make sure it was as impartial as possible. I believe the possibility for comments on the back of the ballot was a good choice as it helped people to nuance their vote.