Former “Glee” star Amber Riley remembers the time early in her career when a producer told her that she and other actors of color were “a little more disposable, because that’s the way the world is.” As her professional trajectory continued, she witnessed her fair share of bad behavior, and knew who would — or would not — be held accountable.
“Being told that the white girls are not fireable is being told that you’re disposable,” she tells Variety. Riley internalized that message to the point that she was “distraught” going into auditions in her post-”Glee” career, dealing with anxiety and a loss of confidence.
“I just felt like, there’s a million Black actors that want this — what is special about me? … That’s what that feels like [when] nobody cares,” says Riley. “They don’t care that you’re being abused on set, whether that’s verbally or otherwise. They don’t care.”
Riley recalls all this in the wake of “Glee” actor Samantha Ware revealing that the show’s star, Lea Michele, allegedly threatened in 2015 to “s— in [her] wig.” Riley’s support of Ware on social media led to Black actors with similar experiences reaching out, and prompted her to create #unMUTEny, a movement to “end Black silence in the entertainment industry, hold power structures accountable for suppressing Black experiences and confront microaggressions with courage.”
“We need to address behaviors that are allowed on sets,” says Riley. “We need to address why the Black experience is diminished when it comes to telling you what happened, why we’re not believed, why we feel afraid for our jobs, why we feel disposable.”
Riley is not the only one in Hollywood and elsewhere speaking up about the need to lift Black voices. The death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police in late May has been a catalyst on an international scale, prompting hundreds of thousands to march in the name of Black Lives Matter and to call for reform of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. This has permeated other industries, including Hollywood, whose controversy-shy mega-corporations took the unusual step of issuing public statements decrying racism as thousands of Black artists shared their experiences with workplace discrimination.
What many in the entertainment industry are ready to say aloud is this: The institution itself is imbued with white supremacy and a patriarchal structure designed to proffer advantages unequally. Now the question is whether Hollywood, a town built on the very premise of exclusivity and gatekeeping, can make good on its commitment to inclusion — and amplify the voices of Black talent and other creatives of color the way it has purported to.
The tenor of the current conversation around racism and police brutality has undergone a tectonic shift, even though unarmed Black men have been dying at the hands of police officers for years. The 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, for instance, sparked waves of outrage but no internal soul-searching in, say, the headquarters of NASCAR or Aunt Jemima parent company Quaker Oats.
Some surmise that the coronavirus pandemic left the millions confined to their homes little choice but to pay attention; others attribute the acceleration of the Black Lives Matter movement to the increasing power of social media. The entertainment industry’s recent reckoning with gender parity, sexual misconduct and #OscarsSoWhite has perhaps positioned it to be more inclined to engage in some self-interrogation.
“Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, all those deaths coming in quick succession — I think it’s opened up an entirely different conversation that particularly in Hollywood, coming in the wake of #MeToo, I think everyone is realizing that the business has been built on some systemic wrongs that need to be righted,” Netflix vice president of original content Channing Dungey tells Variety.
Regardless of the cause, this moment appears to be an inflection point in the way we think about institutional racism. But no part of the issue is news to the Black community.
“This is no more urgent today than it was four months ago to people who’ve been paying attention,” says The Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard. “And it’s great that there are some people who are now saying, ‘Oh, maybe we should be doing things differently,’ but the need for that change has existed certainly for as long as I’ve been in the business, and I would argue that it’s been necessary since the first Hollywood blockbuster was ‘The Birth of a Nation.’”
The industry has long evolved past films like “The Birth of a Nation” and Disney’s “Song of the South,” and more women and people of color have come to occupy positions of power, both in front of and behind the camera. But that has not been enough to cancel out generations of hurt and exclusion.
Black writers still “can’t get a shot to write their stories,” says director Matthew A. Cherry, who won an Oscar this year for his animated short film, “Hair Love.”
“If you look at a big majority of studio films that have come out, be they biopics or stories with primarily Black characters, a lot of times you have white screenwriters who are able to tell those stories,” he says. “This is tricky, because a lot of times they’ll say, ‘OK, we want a big-name writer on it,’ or ‘We need to rely on the credits of said writer.’ It’s just like a lose-lose situation because you can’t get credits if you don’t get opportunities. And the people that’ve been getting opportunities for the last 30, 40, 50 years haven’t been us.”
Most studios and networks boast a slate of well-intentioned inclusion initiatives to showcase acting, directing and writing talent from communities of color. But structural shortfalls, perhaps more damaging in their subtlety, persist. Take TV diversity programs, which are often great stepping stones for writers and directors of color to get their first job on a series.
“But what ends up happening is that a lot of them get stuck there, right?” says Dungey. “Because once they’re no longer the diversity hire that’s paid for through the program, they still are facing that same barrier to entry. They don’t have the same relationship. It makes me so frustrated when we’re putting together a director list for a season of television, and then they come back and they say, ‘We have one woman, one person of color — that’s good.’ And then you know, the other eight are white men. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute; you’re telling me that there’s no one else you can find that makes this?’”
The salary for a writers program hire typically comes from the studio or network running the program, not the showrunner’s budget. “A Black Lady Sketch Show” staff writer Ashley Nicole Black, who has not participated in such a program but has heard from many who have, contends that such structures incentivize showrunners to not promote those diversity hires but instead replace them with a new “free” writer of color.
That’s not to say the programs have not seen writers who have gone on to big success. Mindy Kaling, Donald Glover and Alan Yang are all alumni of NBC’s Diverse Staff Writer Initiative, for instance. NBC’s program funds the salary of a staff writer for three years; if a showrunner wants to promote that writer to story editor, then he or she need only pay the difference.
“If you look at a big majority of studio films that have come out, be they biopics or stories with primarily Black characters, a lot of times you have white screenwriters.”
Matthew A. Cherry, Oscar-winning director
But the latest Writers Guild of America inclusion report makes obvious the glaring continued racial disparity in writers’ room ranks. In the 2019-20 season, 51% of staff writers were white, and the rest were people of color. That parity did not translate to the upper echelons: More than 80% of executive producers and showrunners were white, while fewer than 20% were people of color.
“The system is racist,” says Black. “So the system is going to tend toward elevating white people and not elevating people of color. And the only way to fix the system is to attend to every single part of the system. So if you’re just getting people in the door and you’re not attending to how long they stay there, how quickly they’re promoted and elevated — the system, once they’re in the door, is going to tend toward kicking them back out the door.”
Black’s experience on the HBO comedy series has been unique — she is part of a writers’ room populated only with Black women — and a testament to the necessity of healthy representation. When she started on “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” she was “pitching hot fire,” unencumbered by having to explain cultural references to a mostly white audience in order to set up a joke.
“In a room full of all Black women I didn’t have to do that first task,” says Black. “I was just doing the comedy. And it made work so much easier. And I was like, this is how white men are working all the time. It’s like I was doing comedy with a boulder on my back and someone just took it off, and now I’m running up the hill.”
Some go so far as to indicate that the industry’s approach to diversity and inclusion is an act of misdirection, when the focus should be on the conditions that have allowed the main benefactors of the status quo — white men — to remain in positions of control.
“When people who have benefited their whole lives from white supremacy and patriarchy are asked to create a program or hire a woman or two or change the way they think about who’s qualified, they’re all pretty game to do it,” says “Transparent” creator Joey Soloway (who recently changed their name from Jill). But instead of being rewarded with an episode to direct or being given “a pat on the head,” they say, the issue is “asking white people and especially white men to really interrogate what they’re willing to give up to be anti-racist.”
The dialogue now happening in the industry is about more than inclusion and creating spaces, Soloway says. “It’s about, I think, white people and men being willing to say, ‘Wow, the help I’ve had from living in patriarchy, the help I’ve had from living in white supremacy, has really done a number on everybody else.’’
Actor Kendrick Sampson recently recruited more than 300 Black creatives — including Tessa Thompson, Sterling K. Brown, Common, Viola Davis, Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae, Octavia Spencer and Kerry Washington — to sign a letter denouncing Hollywood for “encouraging the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness.”
“The lack of a true commitment to inclusion and institutional support has only reinforced Hollywood’s legacy of white supremacy,” wrote Sampson. “This is not only in storytelling. It is cultural and systemic in Hollywood. Our agencies, which often serve as industry gatekeepers, don’t recruit, retain or support Black agents. Our unions don’t consider or defend our specific, intersectional struggles. Unions are even worse for our below-the-line crew, especially for Black women. Hollywood studios and production companies that exploit and profit from our stories rarely have any senior-level Black executives with greenlighting power.”
Internally, studios and networks have made attempts to break down barriers to entry for Black people and other people of color through executive incubators and pipeline programs. But those efforts are not as fast-moving as many would like. Look no further than a snapshot of any major entertainment company’s board of directors or executive team to see mostly white men looking back.
Tara Duncan, the incoming president of Disney-owned cabler Freeform and one of the few Black network heads in the industry, is a founding member of Time’s Up-backed Who’s in the Room, an executive mentorship program that aims to improve diversity among executives and producers. Eighty percent of its 23 mentees, all of whom started as senior assistants to decision-making executives, have since been promoted or moved into new positions since completing their first year in the program.
“I’ve had to navigate issues of being called aggressive and angry,” says Duncan of her experience in the industry, adding that she has been challenged to defend the value of projects from creators of color about which she has been passionate. “There’s this sort of instinct that if it’s featuring a predominantly Black cast or it’s from a Black creator, then that’s only going to appeal to a niche audience. So yeah, these are issues that I have faced continuously in my career. For me, that mentorship made all the difference, which is why it was very important to me that I also would become a mentor.”
Cherry similarly feels a responsibility to keep the door open for other Black creators, in the vein of Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele and Michael B. Jordan’s efforts to promote Black talent. Yet speaking out comes despite a very real fear of professional repercussions, which is why Cherry tweeted his support for John Boyega after the “Star Wars” actor took the megaphone at a Black Lives Matter protest in London on June 3 to address the crowd.
“Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that,” Boyega said at the protest. Hollywood heavy-hitters including Peele, Olivia Wilde, J.J. Abrams, Mark Hamill and Rian Johnson also publicly affirmed their support for the young star.
“I think people are realizing that we have an opportunity to actually have their back and say, ‘We support you; we’re gonna hire you regardless, you know what I mean? We do have your back,’” Cherry says, pointing to celebrities such as Gabrielle Union — who filed a harassment complaint against NBCUniversal, Fremantle Media and Simon Cowell’s Syco amid concerns about racism and on-set misconduct — and Mo’Nique, who last year filed suit against Netflix, alleging pay inequity and gender and racial bias.
For her part, “Glee” star Riley is no longer worried about speaking up. Late 2019 saw her falling into a deep depression that hobbled her so much that she couldn’t sing or work; she lost 25 pounds and ended up in the hospital. Riley has since learned how to manage what turned out to be anxiety, and does not care if she is blackballed, so long as she can improve the entertainment landscape for the next generation.
“I’ve made my money,” says Riley. “I can continue to make money in the background. I can be a part of a production team, and you don’t even know my ass is there, and be making more than being in front of the camera. There’s not going to be anyone that’s going to be able to stop me.”
The momentum is building around calls to action. Leonard and Black were among the 1,000 Black artists, including Union, DuVernay and David Oyelowo, who formed the Black Artists for Freedom collective; in an open letter they urged cultural institutions to cut ties with law enforcement and “put their money where their mouths are.”
The ball is now back in the court of Hollywood’s power players— studios, networks, agencies, production companies — to move the story forward.
“I would love to see a major studio or streaming platform make the public commitment that, at a minimum, their spend on production will reflect demographic realities of the population of the U.S. for minority groups,” says Leonard. “If we as a business are going to spend a billion dollars on content, 13% of that is going to go to the African American community for stories by and about people in that community, 50% of it will go to women, etc. If they want to really go big, they would commit to a floor of the way the world actually is.”
That may sound radical, he says, but the notion becomes less so when considering that white men make up only about 30% of the U.S. population but create the bulk of Hollywood’s output.
WarnerMedia chief enterprise inclusion officer Christy Haubegger, who recently joined the HBO and Warner Bros. parent company after spending 14 years working to improve representation at CAA, says the next step is to do more than “random acts of diversity.”
“I’m a big fan of databases,” she says. “I like taking excuses away. Nobody can say, ‘I couldn’t find them.’ And so we’re building a centralized set of tools for our executives, and for our partners, like our production company partners, to be able to access, to facilitate, looking at more diverse opportunities. Everyone’s trying to hire more female episodic directors, and everybody’s got kind of a list. I’m like, ‘No, no, we’re gonna make one big list for you.’ I’m a believer in systems, and I think systems are the only way to get sustainable change.”
As part of the move in recent years toward increased accountability, companies such as WarnerMedia and Netflix have publicly released granular internal demographic breakdowns, offering transparency on how many people of color are on staff and in the upper ranks. Whether other entertainment giants will follow suit remains to be seen. While the conversation appears to be moving in a constructive direction, executives and creators are cautiously optimistic about the changes to come.
“When I have brought this up, I have been pleasantly surprised at the willingness to listen and think there is still, quite frankly, some fear,” Freeform’s Duncan says. “I think we’re all grappling with where to start. And how do we do something that feels effective and something that’s truly going to make a difference? I will say I definitely think there is a real desire. But I think, again, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just about doing the right thing. This is also good business.”
Ultimately, Riley believes it comes down to ensuring that Black voices are properly valued, which she considers the industry’s biggest blind spot. She advises Black creatives and their allies not to lose sight of the end goal.
“I need people to understand the long game,” says Riley. “I need everyone to be disciplined, after the motions and all of the commotion and all of the passion and the performance has died down. And I need them to be consistent with their message, with their feelings, because we all know when we stop seeing results, it’s gonna take self-discipline to make sure that it gets done.”
Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.
After co-organizing a demonstration in Los Angeles at which he was hit with a police baton and shot seven times with rubber bullets, Kendrick Sampson (“Insecure,” “Miss Juneteenth”) has penned a letter to the entertainment industry at large, asking Hollywood to divest from the police and invest in the Black community. The letter, shared exclusively with Variety, was developed alongside Tessa Thompson (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Westworld”) and Black Lives Matter co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Melina Abdullah. It is signed by over 300 Black artists and executives, among them Thompson’s Marvel co-stars Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Mackie, Michael B. Jordan and Danai Gurira, as well as Billy Porter, Cynthia Erivo, Idris Elba, Issa Rae, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and many more. It follows a statement from Black Artists for Freedom, which likewise was signed by a list of prominent Black artists and called for cultural institutions to “break ties with the police.”
Here’s the letter:
To our allies in Hollywood:
Hollywood has a privilege as a creative industry to imagine and create. We have significant influence over culture and politics. We have the ability to use our influence to imagine and create a better world. Yet, historically and currently, Hollywood encourages the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness.
The way that Hollywood and mainstream media have contributed to the criminalization of Black people, the misrepresentation of the legal system, and the glorification of police corruption and violence has had dire consequences on Black lives. This includes stories that demonize our mental health as violent. These stories contribute to the killings of Black people like Deborah Danner, who was murdered by NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry. It also includes the perpetuation of transphobic stories which are used to justify the murder of Tony McDade in Florida, Nina Pop in Missouri, Dominique Fells in Philadelphia, and Riah Milton in Ohio. We must end the exaltation of officers and agents that are brutal and act outside of the law as heroes. These portrayals encourage cops like Derek Chauvin, the murderer of George Floyd.
The lack of a true commitment to inclusion and institutional support has only reinforced Hollywood’s legacy of white supremacy. This is not only in storytelling. It is cultural and systemic in Hollywood. Our agencies, which often serve as industry gatekeepers, don’t recruit, retain or support Black agents. Our unions don’t consider or defend our specific, intersectional struggles. Unions are even worse for our below-the-line crew, especially for Black women. Hollywood studios and production companies that exploit and profit from our stories rarely have any senior-level Black executives with greenlighting power.
Even with the recent successes of Black-led and produced films and television, myths of limited international sales and lack of universality of Black-led stories are used to reduce our content to smaller budgets and inadequate marketing campaigns. White people make up the smallest racial demographic globally, yet their stories are seen as internationally universal. When we do get the rare chance to tell our stories, our development, production, distribution, and marketing processes are often marred, filtered, and manipulated by the white gaze.
Due to Hollywood’s immense influence over politics and culture, all of the racism, discrimination and glass ceilings Black people in Hollywood experience on a regular basis have direct implications on Black lives everywhere.
Every time a Black executive or assistant is passed over for a promotion, or the marketing or production budget for another Black-led film is limited, or when Black agents aren’t supported, Black writers are shut out, outnumbered or diminished, Black hair stylists are neglected, Black grips, gaffers, and camera assistants and operators are shut out of below the line unions – EVERY SINGLE TIME – this gives us less control over our narratives, continues the legacy of white supremacy’s influence over our stories and makes Black people in Hollywood and all over America less safe.
By allowing white people to control and oppress the narratives that affirm Black lives, Hollywood has directly and indirectly inflicted harm and oppression onto our communities. Because Hollywood has been a huge part of the problem, we demand it be a part of the solution. We, as Black people, bring immense, immeasurable cultural and economic value to the industry. We are also suffering from the oppression perpetuated by this industry. We have every right to demand this change.
We demand better. Prove that Black Lives Matter to Hollywood by taking bold moves to affirm, defend and invest in Black lives. Follow the examples of the Minneapolis School District, Denver Public Schools, the University of Minnesota and many other institutions in divesting from the policing system and investing in the Black community. We demand that Hollywood:
DIVEST FROM POLICE
DIVEST FROM ANTI-BLACK CONTENT
INVEST IN OUR CAREERS
INVEST IN ANTI-RACIST CONTENT
INVEST IN OUR COMMUNITY
We know these changes have the power to change Black lives in America. It is time for Hollywood to acknowledge its role and take on the responsibility of repairing the damage and being a proactive part of the change.
In light of continued systemic, brutal murders of Black people, members of the Black community in Hollywood are standing together with the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of community-based organizations from all over the country including Black Lives Matter, and with the families and loved ones of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Kenneth Ross Jr, Wakeisha Wilson, Rayshard Brooks and countless others in the movement to Defund Police and Defend Black Lives.
See the full of list of demands and signatures HERE.
Over the past two and a half months, as much of our country has lived in quarantine, we’ve witnessed the violent loss of black lives with disturbing frequency. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have died at the hands of racists and law enforcement. Complex Networks recognizes the power of its platforms and is committed to amplifying their stories and the voices of our communities to work for justice.
My dad was born in 1947, about 82 short years after the last slaves in Texas learned they were “free.” He was orphaned, grew up in segregation in the foster “care” system, and didn’t have voting rights when he turned 18 because he is black. It is safe to assume he had poor mental health before he got drafted for Vietnam. Based on what you know about segregation, the gruesome fight for voting rights, and the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, think about the trauma that informed his life choices, including how he raised his children.
My father has a whole host of health issues, but he does not acknowledge his mental health and doesn’t trust the systems we have to diagnose them. Considering the way America treats its veterans, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Henrietta Lacks, and authorities using schizophrenia diagnoses to invalidate civil rights ideas in the 1960s (as outlined in Jonathan Metzl’s The Protest Psychosis), why would he? Black and indigenous Americans have no reason to trust the genocidal, colonistic systems that were forced on them, but our generational trauma is undeniable.
Compared to my father’s upbringing, and many people in my community, I have had a relatively privileged life. I keep and can afford a healthy diet and exercise, but I haven’t ever been able to sleep. I’ve been admitted to the emergency room about five times in my adult life, and each time they can’t quite tell me what is wrong. They always tell me it has to do with stress.
I have dealt with crippling anxiety for a couple of decades, and it manifests itself in different ways. While in quarantine, I’ve mourned the death of a loved one, comforted many grieving in my community or experiencing rough COVID-19 recovery, and dealt with my own financial problems and other personal private problems. This, plus stress accumulated before quarantine, put me in the ER once again after a week of debilitating neck and head pain.
I know there are millions of people that can relate and don’t have the tools I am privileged to have to cope. I briefly lost my insurance in January due to unfair policies. I fought with my public platform to get it back. I think of the people who can’t. I’m thinking of all those who have lost their jobs and may not have a space to yell and cry in private.
My old acting coach used to say, “Homeless people aren’t simply crazy; they are experiencing their private lives in public.” Think of how we deal with our poor mental health moments in private. Now, think of how many people are losing their privacy due to this crisis. What makes it worse—our government’s main solution for homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse is criminalization.
When we need support, we find punishment. Police are targeting and brutalizing black and brown folks in New York and Los Angeles for “improper social distancing” while handing out masks in white communities.
Black folks are currently experiencing highly disproportionate sickness and death, on top of being quarantined, and seeing the publicized images of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, George Floyd, and Nina Pop. We will have disproportionate grief, trauma, and funerals. And due to the nature of the American legal system, the problematic stories perpetuated by Hollywood, and a culture founded on violence, this is likely to lead to more criminilization, incarceration, and murder of our loved ones.
When we need support, we find punishment. Police are targeting and brutalizing black and brown folks in New York and Los Angeles for “improper social distancing” while handing out masks in white communities. The occupant of the White House and his administration have referred to the new coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” further perpetuating stigmas, stereotypes, and hate crimes against Asian-Americans.
This quarantine life, paired with this country’s demonization of anything other than white, straight, and wealthy, is guaranteed to exacerbate mental illness. And, according to a Treatment Advocacy Center study, people experiencing mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police.
There has not been a stretch of history in which law enforcement and the American legal system did not represent abuse and injustice in black, indigenous, and brown communities. Our trauma—our existence—is criminalized. Because there is no true mental health care system, police and prisons are tasked with handling this crisis.
The three biggest jails in America are also our country’s largest psychiatric treatment facilities: Chicago’s Cook County Jail, L.A. County’s Twin Towers, and NYC’s Rikers Island. More than half of the inmates in jails and state prisons have some kind of mental illness. It splits to 55% of men and 73% percent of women. This is an indicator of intersectional layers of oppression. I have seen firsthand the abhorrent, unsanitary conditions of our jails and immigration detention centers. The high-observation wards, where the mentally ill are caged with no access to human resources, make such places much worse than what gets shown on television.
Why does the U.S. imprison its mentally ill? Why does it rely on the modern-day systems of incarceration and policing that were built to protect elite whites from the people they enslaved and murdered—slave catching and continuation of legal slavery through powers of the 13th Amendment? It’s intentional. It’s justified in the movies we see, the jokes we tell. It’s systemic and cultural. We can go back and forth with theories and facts, but the bottom line is it’s wrong.
Our trauma—our existence—is criminalized. Because there is no true mental health care system, police and prisons are tasked with handling this crisis.
Instead of criminalizing and demonizing mental illness, we desperately need to repair communities. Let’s establish the first culturally competent health care system in America. We need artists, Hollywood, and community organizers to work together to imagine, demand, and build the culture we deserve.
Our current reality is a mental abuse system. Those who receive available services are met with rising costs, over-medication, and diagnoses that callously ignore the role persistent trauma, environmental racism, gender oppression, transphobia, white supremacy, and capitalism play in it. Liberating our bodies and healing our souls from trauma requires care, not cages.
Now, more than ever, we need a mental health care system that is free or affordable, provides culturally competent mental wellness practitioners, art therapy, and unarmed first responders to the communities being hit hardest by this pandemic, and acknowledges community trauma as a public health issue.
Policymakers will not prioritize our mental health if we don’t demand it. To truly liberate our mental health, we have to heal our communities. We must abolish the systems that were built to put our mental well-being under constant attack and build systems founded in liberation, healing, and wellness.
Systems like our current health care, prison, and police systems, built on capitalism (aka profit) over people and white supremacy, were designed to protect the most able and abusive. They’re all active opposition to the liberation of our mental health. And, as the successful organizers of JusticeLA say, “No one gets well in a cell.” We need repair. Reparations.
It can be done. We see hope in examples like the reparations ordinance won five years ago for survivors of police torture in Chicago. It’s not nearly enough. It is just the beginning. The work that the Chicago Torture Justice Center is doing is unprecedented. It is proof that when we fight, we win. We need to demand and expand.
Mental Health Awareness Month has come to an end, but the attacks on our mental health do not, and neither does our work. We need a Green New Deal of Mental Health. So we at BLD PWR are launching our #LiberateMentalHealth campaign to highlight and collect stories, solutions, and content to fight for the mental health services and liberatory culture and art our communities need.
Let’s demand and fight for the resources continually extracted from our communities. They are ours. Let’s abolish the systems that target our most vulnerable communities. Let’s build, fund, and expand healing practices that are culturally necessary for our communities. Let’s unearth our buried stories and use our voices, our bodies, our art, and our creativity to radically shift this violently oppressive culture towards care and love of the most vulnerable.
Peace and liberation,
Kendrick Sampson is an actor, activist, and advocate for justice as a co-founder of BLD PWR, a non-partisan, grassroots liberation initiative. He is best known for his roles on The Vampire Diaries, The Flash, and as Nathan on HBO’s Insecure.
Breonna Taylor did all the right things. As an essential worker, she clocked long hours as an EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, risking exposure to COVID-19 to help those in need. Taylor, who went by the nickname Breezy, also spent quality time with her mom, little sister and boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, whenever she wasn’t working and dreamed of becoming a nurse someday. Unfortunately, she would never get to realize those dreams. Taylor was killed by Louisville Metro Police, just three months before her 27th birthday.
“She was so young,” says actor Kendrick Sampson, who has been protesting in the streets of Los Angeles for weeks demanding justice for Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. “I already felt extremely enraged but more than any other case, I was more angered by the death of Breonna Taylor. She was asleep in her bed and they already caught the suspect earlier in the day.”
I already felt extremely enraged but more than any other case, I was more angered by the death of Breonna Taylor.
Just after midnight on March 13 a group of plainclothes officers banged on Taylor and Walker’s door to serve a no-knock warrant to a suspected drug dealer, and eventually busted it down. Walker, who thought the men were intruders, fired his licensed firearm once. Three LMPD officers shot back — an estimated 20 times — hitting Taylor eight times and killing her.
Sampson, a Houston native who is best known for his role as Nathan on HBO’s hit series Insecure and Caleb on season two of ABC’s How To Get Away with Murder, is the cofounder of BLD PWR (pronounced build power), an organization that works with Black Lives Matter LA and encourages entertainers and athletes to wield their platforms for significant social change. He is also fed up with the types of police violence that ended Breonna Taylor’s life.
“There have been so many,” Sampson continues, rattling off a string of names of victims of police violence. “Sean Reed, transgender man Tony McDade, Atatiana Jefferson, and Sandra Bland. But Breonna’s case shows that all of that force that police used was excessive. They did not need those weapons. They didn’t need them. For what? If they were doing all of that, they didn’t care about the lives inside. What they cared about was securing the drugs no matter what. When we’re valuing drugs over lives, something is wrong.”
No drugs were found in Taylor and Walker’s apartment, and the couple did not have any prior convictions. The three officers involved in the raid were not wearing body cameras and are currently on paid administrative leave. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has been slow to respond to protestors’ demands that the officers be fired and criminally charged. But he did fire the city’s police chief, Steve Conrad, because it is a departmental violation not to use body cameras. Conrad was slated to retire at the end of June.
Sampson says protests around the world have worked as a catalyst for change and justice when it comes to cases like that of Taylor and Floyd, who died on March 25 after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Chauvin and the three other officers involved in Floyd’s death were fired and have been criminally charged.
While people have been pouring into the streets all across the country since video of Floyd’s death went viral, Sampson says his peers in Hollywood can do more to fight for justice and equality.
“Mike de la Rocha, Tia Oso and I co-founded BLD PWR to start building up a liberation culture because we realized how oppressive Hollywood is and how much they’re a part of the problem,” Sampson says. “Black folks are being killed in the streets by police and then brutalized for protesting, in part, because of the images Hollywood perpetuates in the stories we tell and the criminalization of black folks. We have been working to change that culture for a long time.”
For Sampson, this isn’t just about saying all the right things. He’s been participating in protests across Los Angeles and has put his body on the line. In fact, on March 30, he was hit several times with batons and was shot with rubber bullets during a demonstration in the city’s Fairfax District.
“Everyone was being peaceful and nothing warranted that sort of force,” the former star of The Vampire Diaries explains. “My friend has fractured bones in his skull. They brutalized us and every time they shoot you with rubber bullets, it takes several layers of skin off. They wanted to send that message.”
Still, that didn’t stop Sampson and others from flooding the streets again.
“The next day, we were out there again. And the day after that and the day after that and each day the crowds got bigger,” he says. “We are more afraid of being murdered in the streets than being brutalized while exercising our basic human right to protest.”
Days after the violent confrontation with officers, BLMLA and BLD PWR held a resistance-free demonstration in front of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house. And on June 7, Sampson’s friend and Insecure co-star, Issa Rae, as well as celebs like Michael B. Jordan, peacefully protested in Hollywood alongside him in a march that drew an estimated 100,000 people.
“The reason we got so many people out to protest and knew where to protest and designated clear actions and demands is because of the work that was done in advance every day,” Sampson says. “I’ve been yelling at Eric Garcetti for years. I’m appreciative that people are starting to recognize the movement more and my contributions but this wasn’t overnight. We’ve been putting in the work for years. This is the first time I got shot with rubber bullets but that brought attention to how the system is corrupt at its core.”
A longtime activist, Sampson also says it shouldn’t take senseless deaths to get people’s attention.
“It shouldn’t take a George Floyd or a Breonna Taylor to show the mainstream how they brutalize us in the street for our grief and our trauma,” he says. “I’m grateful to have this platform but that’s not the activism. That’s me being proactive and showing everyone the brutality that I know is at the core of over-policing.”
The death of Floyd, who was also a Houston native, hit closer to home for Sampson. “He could’ve been any member of my family,” he says. “I have a really large family – six brothers and sisters, 22 nephews and nieces. A lot of my relatives are Mexican, a lot of them are black and a lot of them are white. I have racists in my family and liberals. I’ve got the full gamut but I know who is more in danger.”
“I always say I’ll be damned if one of my brothers or sisters or nephews or nieces gets caught up in this mess and brutalized or shot and killed or choked,” he adds. “And ironically enough, I’m the one who got shot seven times with rubber bullets. I’d rather it be me than them.”
Strangely enough, Sampson sees the LAPD’s initial overreaction to protestors as a sign that better days are coming.
“The protest became aggressive and super violent because our movement is working and the police wanted to make an example out of us,” he says. “George Floyd’s murder was a lynching. The system is a bad tree with bad fruit, like Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’ says. This is still happening. George Floyd didn’t die from a bullet wound. He died because the system encourages brutality.”
But police aren’t the only threat when it comes to participating in a march or protest. The ever-looming presence of COVID-19 could be just as deadly. Despite this, Sampson says showing up is the best way to apply pressure and defund the police.
“We had to get out there. It came to a point where we felt like we were dying anyway,” Sampson explains. “For the most part, people were wearing their masks. But I can’t lie. You see me on the video. I take my mask off. And I do my best to put it on when I can but there are thousands of people. A mask can only do so much.”
Michael B. Jordan, Kendrick Sampson and others participate in the Hollywood talent agencies march to support Black Lives Matter protests on June 06, 2020.RICH FURYGETTY IMAGES
Globally, protesters are taking to the street to also make their voices heard and Sampson is inspired.
“All over the world, we are fed up,” he says. “Racism doesn’t self-quarantine. Sexism does not self-quarantine. Homophobia and transphobia don’t self-quarantine. These problems didn’t go away because of COVID. They just got worse. People are frustrated. We’re in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and the worst health crisis in 100 years.”
Sampson continues, “These are triggers and people, companies and governmental systems are showing their true colors. We’re not getting the relief we need. It’s an attack on our mental health,” he says. “Black people are at home watching as we disproportionately die from COVID, we’re being disproportionately affected economically and the cops are killing us in the street when we finally leave the house. We’re criminalized for wearing masks. We’re criminalized for not wearing our masks. Enough is enough.”
While many have wondered how long the large-scale protests will continue, Sampson urges people to keep showing up — in whatever way they can — to truly change the system.
We have so much more work to do. We have to keep showing up in the streets.
“We have so much more work to do. We have to keep showing up in the streets. We have to keep hashtagging. And we need to pressure Hollywood to make a bold move and get these police officers off of our sets and events and pull away from these police corruption stories that we glorify on the big and small screens,” he says, heeding the call of his fellow activists who have criticized the media’s complicity in pushing “copaganda” (pro-police propaganda).
“There are so many ways that we invest in police departments and we need to stop that from happening,” says Sampson. “If they really valued Black lives, they wouldn’t subject us to so much brutality. As artists, we don’t want to pull up to work and realize we are part of the problem. We need more black creatives and more of us in high places.”
But for Sampson, who has a family full of musicians and studied music and theater at a young age, his art is also his passion. He’s excited about what’s happening on Insecure as season 4 comes to a close and urges fans in the #NathanHive to not count his character out just yet.
He’s also costarring in the new film Miss Juneteenth. Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, the indie film will hit select theaters and On-Demand June 19. In it Sampson plays Ronnie, the estranged husband of Turquoise Jones, a former beauty queen played by the talented Nicole Beharie, who helps their teenage daughter Kai prepare for the Miss Juneteenth pageant.
Given his commitment to liberation, it’s only fitting that Sampson would costar in this film. Juneteenth is a celebration that marks the day — June 19, 1865 — in which Union Soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform the last of the country’s enslaved black people that they were actually free, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“This is definitely a full circle moment for me,” Sampson says about the film. “Juneteenth is my favorite holiday.”
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic, editor, and entertainment journalist. Follow her on Twitter @mekeishamadto.
Dangerous things strongly linked to cancerPelosi: GOP senators ‘pulled their punch’ on police reformKerry Washington and Activist Kendrick Sampson Spoke About Mental Health In the Fight for Racial Justice
If you’ve been devoting a lot of your time to protesting against racial injustices and participating in the Black Lives Matter movement, taking care of your mental health might be slipping on your list of priorities. It’s understandable—after all, there’s a lot of work to be done in supporting this movement. But Kerry Washington and Kendrick Sampson are reminding you just how important it is to take care of your mental health along the way.© Rich Fury/Getty Images/VF20/Getty Images for Vanity Fair “Take care of yourself and then work for justice for others.”
The duo recently got together in an Instagram Live session (which you can still find on Washington’s main feed) for a candid conversation about taking care of yourself as you put in the work to learn about and fight against systemic racism and racial inequality.
The video starts with Washington leading her followers through some guided yoga, complete with deep breathing exercises and stretches. Around the 20-minute mark, she begins her conversation with Sampson. In addition to playing Nathan on the HBO show Insecure, Sampson is the founder of BLD PWR, an organization that encourages Hollywood stars to use their platform to advance radical social change.
Over the past couple of weeks, Sampson has been leading Black Lives Matter protests with BLD PWR in Los Angeles and sharing his experiences from the demonstrations. In a recent tweet, he spoke about being hit with multiple rubber bullets and getting beaten by police with batons. Understandably, the aftermath of these incidents has taken a toll on him mentally, Sampson told Washington. “I was waking up with a lot of adrenaline and wasn’t able to sleep much this week,” he said in the video, adding that he’s been experiencing bouts of anxiety.Kendrick Sampson✔@kendrick38
Glad I y’all witnessed this. Esp the video of them actually targeting us. He didn’t try to ricochet the bullets of the ground – one tactic – he pointed the gun DIRECTLY AT ME. I actually got hit 7 times with rubber bullets and many with batons. My boy has stitches. #DEFUNDPOLICE
Washington related to Sampson’s feelings of anxiety, noting that mental health in the Black community is particularly impacted by the recent events involving the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, not just because of the injustices these deaths represent, but also because of the decades of systemic racism and inequality that the Black community has faced in the U.S. (Related: Tools to Help You Uncover Implicit Bias—Plus, What That Actually Means)
“For marginalized communities, Black folks, indigenous folks, there is generational trauma,” explained Sampson. “There is trauma that hasn’t ever been addressed. We haven’t ever had a point in history where we’ve been able to deal with the trauma of slavery, genocide, and such.”
It doesn’t end there, continued Sampson. Jim Crow laws (and the racial segregation they enforced), the prison industrial complex, and policing have all been a “continuation of that legacy” of systemic racism, which has led to generations of trauma, he said. “[This type of generational trauma] informs the way we raise our kids,” he added. “It informs the way we have our interpersonal relationships, how we deal with other communities.”
There’s no denying that, compared to white people, BIPOC folks experience an increased rate of mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression, according to an article from Thomas A. Vance, Ph.D., a mental health clinician at Concierge Psychology and psychology teaching fellow at The New School for Social Research. In part, this disparity is “related to the lack of access to appropriate and culturally responsive mental health care, prejudice, and racism inherent in the daily environment of Black individuals,” in addition to the generations of trauma already inflicted on the Black community, wrote Vance. “Moreover, given that the Black community exists at the intersection of racism, classism, and health inequity, their mental health needs are often exacerbated and mostly unfulfilled,” he explained. (Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)
In his conversation with Washington, Sampson speaks to Vance’s sentiment about the lack of proper mental healthcare for Black individuals: “[There] hasn’t ever been a culturally competent, trauma-informed mental healthcare system or even a system of practices that is cultural and accepted and encouraged in our communities,” shared Sampson.
Unsurprisingly, high-profile police killings of Black individuals often exacerbate these existing mental health issues. Research suggests that police killings can have a measurable, population-level impact on the mental health of Black Americans. More recent data gathered by the online student learning platform, StuDocu showed that, in a survey of over 100 adults aged 18-32 (including BIPOC and white people), nearly 60 percent said that their mental health has been impacted by recent racial tensions in the U.S.
Bottom line: The fight for racial justice is an important one, but there’s no doubt it can also be mentally draining, especially for the Black community. With that in mind, it’s crucial to treat this fight as a marathon, Washington said in her video with Sampson. “Getting this country to where it needs to be is not going to happen overnight,” she explained. “So we have to be taking care of ourselves in the process.” (Related: Kerry Washington Made a Brilliant Comparison Between Therapy and Personal Training)
Sampson shared that he’s been working closely with his doctors in taking care of his mental health: “My main things are making sure I get a little bit of sun, making sure I get a little bit of fresh air if I can, eating properly, getting electrolytes, water, nourishing myself,” he said. “I do therapy at least once a week. Now I’m going to try and up it to twice a week.” (Here’s how to find the best therapist for you.)
Sampson also said he finds it helpful to be part of the BLD PWR community, where he can surround himself with people who support him. “Being with a community that accepts you for who you are, understands you, can hold you accountable—a lot of the time, that’s a great place to express your rage,” he told Washington.
Ending the conversation, Washington reminded viewers to prioritize their wellbeing not just now, but consistently as they continue participating in this movement. “Please, everybody, take care of yourself and then work for justice for others,” she said. “Do both, because the justice work will make you feel better, and feeling better will make you a better freedom fighter.”
If you or anyone you know in the Black community has been struggling with their mental health, here are a few resources that could help:
Black filmmaker Tommy Oliver could not just sit back and watch the rallies for George Floyd. As a filmmaker, he knew the importance of his platform and the power of the media. “The power to inspire, the power to incite, the power to challenge,” is what Oliver says compelled him to go out and capture the power of the protests and document the images.
Without a press pass, he was on the frontlines taking photos of the June 7 protests, aware that he was putting himself in front of police and amidst crowds in the middle of a pandemic.
Oliver, producer of “The Perfect Guy,” and co-creator of “Black Love” talks about his widely-shared Hollywood Boulevard photo and what it was like being on the ground.
Tell me about capturing this photo and what that meant to you personally.
I had the good fortune to be on the truck leading the protest, which happened because Kendrick Sampson, co-founder of BLD PWR (one of the two groups that organized the protest), is a friend who was leading the rally from the truck and he was ok with me getting a ride.
Eventually, the truck stopped midway between Highland and Orange on Hollywood Blvd. as the sea of protesters literally ran for as far as the eye could see. Janaya “Future” Khan got on the mic and asked for signs to be lowered and fists raised in a show of solidarity unlike any I’ve ever seen in my life — 50,000-plus strong, all unified. I snapped a few pics from the bed of the truck and realizing the magnitude of what was happening, I climbed from the bed of the truck to the roof and quickly snapped a few from up there.
Why was it important for you as a filmmaker to go out there and document this?
I had to. For me, the idea of having the ability to do something positive in any way, shape or form, I just needed to be there. I wasn’t going there to document it. I just wanted to take my camera.
Some people were capturing it, but a lot was happening that people weren’t seeing in the way it should be captured. You’d see images from Getty or the AP and you’d see that they were looking for shots for the sake of shots. There was so much more to what was happening. People were fighting and potentially putting themselves in harm’s way because there was the risk of catching coronavirus. There’s a strength in that and there’s a beauty in that which needed to be seen.
What was it like being out there as a non-journalist facing the possibility of police brutality?
The people who came before me and were fighting went through so much worse. The idea of something might happen where I’d be hit by a rubber bullet or a baton and I’d be deterred by that, that was never an issue. I owe it to everybody who had fought and died before me.
It was not a choice. I had to be out there. I’m never going to intentionally put my family in harm’s way, but it was a time for me to potentially make a change.
Did you ever feel/experience a moment when you felt were in danger?
While on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, the National Guard told a few hundred of us we had two minutes to disperse or we’d all be arrested. We could see from our vantage point they had already started throwing gas on the other side of their barricade and we heard reports there had been shots fired somewhere in Santa Monica. Now couple that with the fact that I have a wife who was already afraid for me to be out because of both Covid-19 and the potential for violence, three boys under the age of 4 at home, and 20 employees I’m responsible to, a lot goes through your head very quickly in those situations. Despite the very real possibility for danger and additional calls to disperse, none of the protesters left — an absolutely beautiful show of support.
How important is it to use our platforms to inspire change?
The reason I’m in entertainment is that I believe in its trans-formative power. The power to inspire, the power to incite, the power to challenge.
That said, change doesn’t happen by sitting by and we have a commitment to the next generation as a duty to pay for those who fought, bled, and died to get us to where we are today. I’ve seen and experienced far too many instances of systemic racism in my life, in this business and out of it, to merely watch from the sidelines and if there’s something I can do to make it better but I don’t, then I don’t deserve whatever platform I may have.
In the shadow of the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, hundreds of Angelenos gathered Wednesday in the sweltering heat to decry the practices of law enforcement.
The families of victims from officer-involved shootings spoke of losing loved ones as protesters shouted, “Say their name.”
Diana Hernandez described how her brother, Daniel, was shot and killed, and said more needs to be done to investigate his death.
“Our family is devastated by the policies of LAPD,” she said.
Speakers said that the energy of this moment shouldn’t wane and that politicians like Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and President Trump needed to be voted out of office.
“Jackie Lacey must go. Jackie Lacey must go,” the crowd chanted. “We need to show the next D.A. we mean business,” one speaker said.
Another chant went up: “Prosecute killer cops. Prosecute killer cops.”
Lacey has become a major target of the Black Lives Matter movement, with activists saying she has not done enough to prosecute officers accused of misconduct.
She is facing a tough runoff against George Gascon, who has also slammed her record on criminal justice reform. Lacey has strongly defended her record on police oversight, and this week filed charges against an LAPD officer seen on videotape repeatedly punching an unarmed homeless man in Boyle Heights.
The father of Grechario Mack described the circumstances surrounding his son’s killing — how Mack was shot by the LAPD when he was already on the ground. Despite his sadness, he was proud to see this movement grow in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
“My son was not a danger. The police were a danger,” Quintus Moore said. “If it wasn’t for these phones and social media, they would be getting away with much more.
“They [police] lie over and over and over. We can’t breath. It’s time for us to breathe.”
The protest Wednesday was ostensibly about calling for reducing policing budgets and increasing money for social services. Still, speakers and protesters understood these gatherings have a broader purpose.
Activist Janaya “Future” Khan spoke about how opponents of the Black Lives Movement would try to sow division between the various races and ethnicities who are participating. Besides Black people, there were representatives of indigenous people and others who felt wronged by law enforcement in Los Angeles.
“They will try to divide us,” Khan said. “They will try to use our pain against each other because that’s what the colonial project does. They said that the focus must remain on undoing a system that’s been unjust to minorities and benefited white people.”
After more than a week of protests against police violence following the death of George Floyd, Los Angeles saw its largest demonstration so far flood the streets of Hollywood on Sunday. An estimated 100,000 people attended the march, according to Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, which organized the action along with BLD PWR and the rapper YG. Early crowd size estimates by the LAPD placed the number around 20,000, though the throng of protesters stretched unbroken from the TCL Chinese Theatre all the way to Vine Street and beyond. In addition to the march in Hollywood, Sunday saw dozens of other protests throughout the city, including in downtown Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and Compton.
Aside from a few LAPD helicopters monitoring the protest from the sky, there was virtually no visible police presence at the march—a marked departure from earlier protests, which saw large numbers of heavily armed police and National Guardsmen. The LAPD has come under heavy criticism for its tactics in those protests, including accusations of misuse of force and conducting mass arrests of peaceful protesters.
A class action lawsuit filed by Black Lives Matter on Friday alleges that the LAPD illegally detained 2,600 peaceful protesters and engaged in “excessive force with batons and rubber bullets, and prolonged handcuffing and improper conditions of confinement.”
The mood on Sunday was alternately festive, impassioned, and defiant.
“If any one of you has ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights era, what you would have done when the Black Panther Party was taking to the streets, this is your answer!” said Janaya Future Kahn, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto.
Dozens of volunteers handed out free water, snacks, sunscreen, pumps of hand sanitizer, and masks, urging attendees to stay hydrated and safe. Almost everyone in the march wore masks, though social distancing quickly became an afterthought. Afterwards, some protesters crowded into recently opened bars along Hollywood Boulevard.
For Jordan Simpson from Carson, Sunday’s protest felt particularly moving. “We just felt the spirit of the community,” he said. “Everyone was just encouraging and lifting up everyone [else].”
The crowd displayed the diversity of the current movement against police violence and systemic racism. Protesters carried signs reading “Latinos for Black Lives,” “Koreans for Black Lives,” and “Palestinians for Black Lives.” While the crowd was mostly young, parents brought their children and grandchildren brought their grandparents.
One sign, written in Greek, read “Cops, Pigs, Murderers,” a common refrain at protests in Greece, according to Dee, who didn’t provide a last name.
“I’m glad that it took an anti-capitalist turn and became a movement for defunding the police,” she said about the wave of protests. “Especially in L.A., we see so many homeless people that could benefit from housing services [and] mental health services.”
Actor and activist Kendrick Sampson played emcee for the event, leading the crowd in chants of “Defund the police” and “Jackie Lacey must go,” a reference to the L.A. District Attorney. Sampson has joined protests over the last two weeks, getting shot seven times by LAPD officers using rubber bullets at an action on May 30, he said. A CNN broadcast captured Sampson being repeatedly struck with a baton the same day.
The final speaker for the day was Black Lives Matter Los Angeles co-founder Melina Abdullah, who continued the day’s message of defunding the police and holding police accountable.
“We can’t see the end of this march just like we can’t see the end of our fucking power,” Abdullah said to the crowd, commenting on its size. “Our power is infinite.”
“We have the power to end the police as we know it,” she said.
Source: LA MAG
Featured Photo: Samuel Braslow
Pan Pacific Park is located in a family-friendly area of Los Angeles, filled with local shops and across the street from Park La Brea known for being home to Angeleno newbies. Right next door to the park is The Grove, an outdoor mall that is adjacent the iconic Original Farmers Market, an L.A. institution that attracts locals and tourists alike. The area is fairly lively on a regular basis, but on May 30, 2020, the park served as a location that was part of a bigger movement for the protection of Black lives.
As the nation and the world reeled from the death of George Floyd as well as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others due to police brutality and racism, thousands gathered in the park that Saturday to peacefully mourn their deaths and fight against racism. I was one of them. It was a call for change to systemic racism and its historical unjust treatment of the Black community.
I have been to one other demonstration at Pan Pacific Park in the past; to put into context, it was for Black Lives Matter. Considering the current landscape and the insurmountable anger, frustration and sadness the Black community was feeling surrounding Floyd’s death, I knew this one was going to be different. I immediately noticed the number of people walking to the park while I was en route, and when I got there I found a huge crowd of people. In fact, it was the largest crowd I had ever seen there.
There were people of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexual preferences, providing a strong sense of community, support and passion anchored by the mantra of Black Lives Matter as they held signs that paid tribute to Black lives lost because of police brutality. The message was unified across race lines with signs that read “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” and “White People Do Something.” Many people were giving out bottles of water, face masks and food. It didn’t feel like a protest. It felt like a movement towards progress. There was a feeling of hope undulating throughout the crowd. It felt like the side of a demonstration that people seldom see: a moment of focus, determination and purpose.
Advocate and activist Pastor Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie was on hand to lead in the crowd in prayer while Jess Calderon, who is of Tongvan descent, acknowledged the indigenous land we stood upon. Actor and activist Kendrick Sampson, founder of BLD PWR, helped drive the ship while Black Live Matters co-founder Patrisse Cullors and BLM-LA’s Melina Abdullah made inspiring speeches in front of the growing crowd and chanted the names of those who have died.
“We’re living in the middle of an uprising,” Cullors said. “Let’s be clear — we are in an uprising for Black life.”
“They have told us we got a right to mourn and be in pain — fuck that shit! We got the right to be angry!” said Abdullah, before pointing out that it wasn’t enough that in Minneapolis one officer was arrested for killing Floyd. “It’s about those four officers who killed George Floyd — it’s about all these officers including the ones that are standing in our midst.”
“We’re here to say this whole system has got to go and we are gonna make it go!” she declared.
Sampson added, “We are here to build power!”
After Amber Riley sang a passionate rendition of Beyonce’s “Freedom,” a sense of solidarity grew. From there, the crowd began to march with a feeling of unity. Abdullah encouraged people to be safe and courageous as they got underway. As we hit the street, we passed The Grove and started to march towards Fairfax Avenue between 3rd Street and Beverly Boulevard, chanting “Defund the police” and “Prosecute killer cops.”
“Standing amongst the thousands of people in the crowd, it was such an inspiring moment of unity. I actually felt hopeful,” Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright, associate director of BLD PWR, told Deadline. “We closed out the march at Fairfax and 3rd. Kendrick [ended the gathering] with the words of Assata Shakur: ‘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.’ “
Like many others, actress Lilan Bowden marched and was moved by the protest. “There was a clear feeling of care in the crowd and a calmness when we got to 3rd and Fairfax,” she said. “Many protests I’ve been to for different causes, unfortunately, get off message by fringe parties but we were particularly united in the Black Lives Matter message.
I decided to part ways after Fairfax & 3rd — not only because the march had closed, but largely because I was feeling queasy from the heat and felt I would be of no use if I passed out. I also admit that I felt an intensity building.
Actress Jiavani Linayao, who was marching, felt the same way. “The first part was incredible. Everyone came together with this palpable energy of anger and hope and march.” She added: “I could see the police helicopters getting lower and feel the shift. My friends and I felt it would be safer to go when we did. The sense was accurate — it turned shortly after.”
As we have seen on TV, things started to escalate as the demonstrators stayed in the Fairfax area while a march went on towards Beverly Hills. Wright said the LAPD arrived and began splitting up the crowd in Fairfax. “I firmly believe LAPD came in with the intent to be aggressive. They were never going to try and de-escalate the situation,” she said. “They wanted to scare us and hurt us. People protest because they need their voices to be heard. What LAPD told us was our voices had no place here.”
Wright, who was on the frontline with Sampson, said that individual cops were arguing with protesters, screaming for them to step back. “We refused, but we didn’t fight back or lash out…people had linked arms,” she said. “Then they began swinging their batons at us, and all sense of peace or order was gone. Everyone split off and had to run. That beautiful moment of unity we had was now gone.”
She added, “We had always intended for the day to be peaceful, and I went in with so much hope that it would be…and I genuinely believe the day would’ve been peaceful if LAPD had not shown up.
Sampson, along with many others, were injured by batons and rubber bullets. This includes writer Nathan Ramos-Park.
“At the corner of Fairfax and 3rd we listened to personal stories of the lives affected by this,” he said. “We were rallied by the voices dismantling systemic racism and oppression.” He said things were calm, efficient and joyful as they let medical vehicles came through the crowd.
Much like Wright’s recollection, Ramos-Park noticed a change when police showed up.
“The police came in riot gear, pushing us back, using their batons, firing into a peaceful crowd,” he said. “My friend picked up a rubber bullet and laid it at the feet of an officer while we stood with our hands up.”
When the second wave of police came, things escalated further. Ramos-Park was following orders and staying calm while moving backward. “I was not instigating… and I got shot point-blank by a rubber bullet 3 feet away by a cop,” he said. “He wasn’t scared. He was calm and collected. He took aim and pulled the trigger. I was and still am a peaceful protester.”
Actor Lewis Tan took numerous photos from the event and marched past the Beverly Center and into Beverly Hills. “As we turned on Rodeo Drive there were police standing by the Saint Laurent store with shotguns,” he said. “As we approached them, [one of the] Black Lives Matter leaders [Abdullah] called on a loudspeaker for the crowd to kneel — the crowd almost immediately went silent and knelt.
Tan said organizers made it clear the crowd was not there for violence; as they kneeled, she spoke of community, racism in America, police and the need for justice. “Before she could finish we heard screams from the back of the crowd. We realized it was because the police were shoving and arresting people further down the street because we had all stopped marching,” he said.
He recalls moving down the entire length of Rodeo Drive with thousands of people without a single looter in sight. But when the crowd moved back east towards Melrose Avenue and Fairfax later that night it was a different story.
“The scene was much more chaotic, stores were looted and cars were burning,” he said. “The police in riot gear shot rubber bullets toward crowds on Fairfax as they sat in the middle of the street protesting. Tear gas was set off to disperse them.”
Tan also pointed out there were peaceful protesters trying to calm angry people destroying property. “I am still processing,” he admits.
As am I. I felt peace, hope and solidarity at the start of the day, when BLD PWR and Black Lives Matter inspired the crowd, urging them to make change and fight against a system that has failed marginalized communities — specifically Black lives. It was a call to action.
Unfortunately, that side of the protest is the one rarely seen on TV.
Well into the late night, I heard helicopters hover over and cop cars whizz by near my apartment. I realized the escalated events had migrated further east of Fairfax and Beverly Hills towards La Brea and Melrose. The next morning I woke up and walked on La Brea, a street filled with restaurants and shops. There was graffiti on the sides of buildings — many of which had been boarded up. Damage had been done at a local Trader Joe’s. As I kept walking, there were a handful of looted stores.
When I arrived on Melrose, I saw more damage to businesses but I also saw the community that had showed up and hit the streets to clean, show their support and stand in solidarity. Just as protests are a sign of anger they are also a road to healing — and I saw that the following morning.
It is heartbreaking that local businesses were hit by looters and damaged. However, I am devastated by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Kimani Gray, Amadou Diallo, Dana Martin, Chynal Lindsey, Bee Love Slater, Bailey Reeves and a long list of Black lives that were lost because of hate and racism.
I don’t have all the answers as to what we should do, but what I do know is that, as a non-Black person of color, I have the ability to use my voice and stand with the Black community as they fight this fight. It’s not a burden that falls on them. It falls on all of us. Whether you are participating in protests, signing petitions, calling government officials, donating to organizations, holding people accountable for racist actions or having difficult discussions about race, do what’s in your power to create the change you want to see.