Sound & Vision: Nikkita Oliver on Protest Demands, Meeting With the Mayor, and What It Means to Defund the Police

Sound and Vision
Gabriel Teodros
photo by Alex Garland

Most people know Nikkita Oliver from her very historic run that she had for Seattle mayor with the Seattle People Party. She lost the primary election by less than 2000 votes. But Nikkita is also a musician, she's a poet, she's an attorney, and she is the co-director of an incredible organization called Creative Justice, who works with youth most affected by the school-to-prison pipeline. And they actively use art to help build a city where no youth are incarcerated.

I got to speak with Nikkita last Thursday, which is just the day after she was a trending topic on Twitter for her refusal to have a closed-door meeting with the mayor. She actually got the mayor and the city to agree to live-stream one of those closed-door meetings that they tried to have with folks. We talked about all that and more. As well as how her music informs her work as a community organizer.

Read Gabriel Teodros and Nikkita Oliver's conversation below. This transcription has been edited for clarity. This segment originally aired on Sound & Vision on June 6.


Gabriel Teodros: Man, so you had an incredible day yesterday [Wednesday, June 3].

Nikkita Oliver: Yeah, we did.

Do you want to take us through some of that?

The day started off, honestly, with first a press conference with the NAACP Seattle King County, with members of the community, with Shaun Fuhr's family, the man who was murdered down in the south side of Seattle. He was shot in the back of the head while running with his daughter in his hands. It is important to know that police brutality is not some distant thing in Seattle so we started first with a press conference that was also addressing Seattle's failed accountability process and the city's motion to file for termination of the sustainment plan, which after yesterday, they said they're going to withdraw that motion, which is a small win. It's not our demands, but it is a small win in the right direction. I went from that to the community police commission meeting, which a lot of the same organizers that I was in the streets with were on. And then we went directly from the CPC meeting to Cal Anderson.

What was so beautiful about Cal Anderson was when we started the rally, we started first with censoring ourselves and black culture, black identity, black spirituality, centered ourselves in acknowledging we are on occupied land, that we are in the Duwamish territory, that we are in the coastal Salish lands. And it was beautiful to have black women, black femmes at the forefront of everything from the start, to set our intention to set our hearts on where we were going and what we were doing. And then from there, there was this wonderfully coordinated effort to get everyone from Cal Anderson to City Hall and to show that by our numbers and our coordination that the police didn't push back against us. In fact, they wanted us to go down a different street at one point and we knew what street we intended to go down and we said, "No, this march is going down the street that we planned." It's purposeful and it's meaningful and we were able to make that happen.

At two o'clock, when we started the rally, I had been offered to attend the meeting with the mayor. I'm tired of back door meetings so I talked with our crew and the crew was like, "Well, then let's put some limitations on what your involvement would be in that meeting." Those limitations were that we're only coming if two other black women or black femmes can come in with me and we're only coming if we can Livestream because that's what accountability and transparency look like and we have access to those tools right now where people can see what's happening in those meetings. So we made our demands. We committed to only being in that space for an hour. It was supposed to start at 3:30, the mayor did not reach the space until 3:45. So at 4:30 we reiterated our demands, emphasized that we needed to return back to the folks that we came with.

For the KEXP listeners, can you remind them what those demands are?

Yeah. So those demands are first to defund the police and attached to that would be demilitarizing the police.

And what does defunding the police mean, for people that that might be a new concept?

Seattle Police Department has a 400 million dollar budget, notwithstanding other budgets or items that they might get federally. And so that's just the city level budget. What we're asking is for 50 percent of that budget to be removed and we're asking for a consistent movement to then decrease the rest of the budget. That's called divestment. We're wanting then that divestment to go to a direct investment into the black community. We're talking about not just funds, but also expecting that the city, which has a ton of surplus land, would return land to us and also return land to Native Peoples and ensure that we have the financial capital via the defunding of the police to build that land, to provide resources to the community.

Part of why we're asking that is because we know that community based public health and safety strategies, as we develop them, as we acknowledge them, are actually going to be what keeps us safe. We are going to decrease the "need," because we don't need police, but the false belief that we need police. It would help decrease that because people would have access to housing, health care, education, employment. So we really are making strides to defunding the police and then investing in community-based strategies for public health and safety. Those two things are interconnected. And then are our third demand was to release the protesters.

There are many protesters still being held in jail. There are legal advocates like Sade Smith that are working on that. There is the Black Lives Matter bail fund that's working on that. But we've had a very hard time getting those folks released, especially the black and brown folks. Don't let the mayor make you think that they're only arresting white men. There are lots of black and brown folks that have been arrested. And in some instances, at least 50 percent of the people that have been arrested on certain days have been black and brown people, if not more.

Wow, yeah. Let's get back to the rest of the day. So you went into the mayor's meeting. You Livestreamed it. We were all watching the Livestream. Then what happened?

Then at 4:30, we had to reiterate our demands and say, "We've got to go but you're welcome to come outside and speak to the crowd, specifically to the demands." That's what we wanted was her to speak to the demands and address it and speak to her willingness to pursue those demands. When we got outside, I have to give one moment, though. There was one moment where they really messed up.

When you say "they" you mean...

I'm saying the police really messed this up for the city and it did nothing but elevate our movement or, you know, they might have messed up and it benefits the city. We were trying to enter into the meeting from 4th where the rally was, and I was told that we would have to go to 5th, which meant we needed to walk back up the hill through the crowd to get to the doors. And it was maybe one of the most incredible things, aside from the incredibly deeply spiritual and beautiful opening that happened was the entire crowd began to split for the folks that went in: myself, Ivana, and Ayan.

And we're talking about like 12,000 people, right?

Yes. 12,000 people coordinated a split, created a pathway chanting "Black Lives Matter" for us, along with a group of black men that walked us up. They chanted "Black Lives Matter" as we walked through the crowd. It was a very powerful, very moving moment. I definitely started to cry because there was an energy. And what the sergeant who told me I had to walk through the crowd intended was to demoralize and demean. And really all that happened was this incredibly powerful moment of everyone feeling included in us getting into that meeting.

It emboldened the crowd to stay engaged, to stay there, to make sure that we came back out. It made it even more powerful when we returned back out with the mayor and she began to talk about how her family emigrated to the United States. It was offensive, as black people, for her to even mention the oppression we've experienced after she spoke about her privilege because she did not then post speaking about her privilege, speak about her power to meet our demands. She didn't even speak to our demands.

So after a little bit of listening, we did stop her and say, "Mayor Durkan, are you going to meet our demands?" At which point she went inside. You know, it's not that we didn't already know whether or not they were willing to meet our demands. Now we absolutely know and we are very clear about our ability to bring many people out into the streets aligned with our demands now. So we have to keep doing this work and being strategic and coordinated about it. And what was beautiful at the end was everybody walked back to Cal Anderson, but we were not at the front. I walked in the middle of the crowd. Many of the other organizers of yesterday walked in the middle of the crowd and the people safely led each other back to Cal Anderson, where people continued to protest.

And the curfew got lifted because of yesterday, right?

Yeah. The curfew got lifted because of yesterday. Because of the last six days. To be clear, young people have been in the streets for six days. I have gone out twice and I think for a lot of us that are in my age group, that are also running organizations, that are meeting the needs of some of the most disenfranchised in our community, it is a tug of war between doing our job to meet needs, to provide mutual aid and then wanting to be in the streets. Because in 2013, 2014, 2015, that was me every night. And so we're trying to figure out how do we support young folks. But I have to give them all the props and the glory for this sustained uprising and for making our coordinated efforts on Wednesday so powerful and dynamic.

I think there's something so beautiful about the way that you move through the world. And it was something that you even said onstage yesterday. You said, "This isn't about me. I'm not up here because I'm trying to be a leader." But your name was still trending on Twitter. Can you talk about what you meant when you said, "It's not about me being a leader"?

Yeah, I mean, that's the point is it's not about leaders. It is about a coordinated strategic movement that has demands, that has analysis. Our goal yesterday was to collectively build that analysis and bring forward those demands that align with what Black Lives Matter National have been putting out but are contextualized here in our city and our region. We made sure that we were aligned with our native relatives. Native folks stood at the front of our march of our rally and drummed the beat that we marched to. And that is an acknowledgment that we live here on stolen land. And it's also acknowledged that stolen black peoples are the back of what built the United States, neither of whom have received reparations, both of whom are the targets of state-sanctioned violence. I don't want to be the leader. I want to be present. I always try to move in coalition and accountably and transparently. It doesn't always happen perfectly. I think black women are expected to be perfect.

Black femmes are expected to be perfect. We don't get the same grace that often cis-gendered hetero men get in how we move. And so there is a difference between being a leader and being the leader. You really need a diverse movement, especially because, this is the last thing I'll say about leadership. When they think there is a figurehead, and we've seen this historically when the figurehead is gone, some of our movements have been gone. That is a dangerous, dangerous thing that makes our movement about a person and not about the vision. And we all want to be about the vision.

Well said. I wanted to ask if there's anything else that you witnessed, just participating in these protests in the last two weeks, that you want people to know. Things that the mainstream narrative is completely missing.

You know, I think one of the biggest things that we want to combat is the bad protester, good protester narrative. That does not exist. It is a tool of division. And there is a lot of righteous anger, a lot of rage, a lot of pain and to gaslight and victim blame people who have for hundreds of years suffered an immense amount of injustice over a burnt-out car or a broken window in a downtown store that we can't even buy anything at because we're so economically disenfranchised because of the way racialized capitalism works is gaslighting and victim-blaming and undercuts our movement. And I don't expect everyone to move in the same way. I don't expect everyone to be in the streets. I don't expect everyone to feel that property damage is their best way to disrupt economically.

I know that there are some people who have access to elected officials and who are gatekeepers. And gatekeeping is a two-way street. You can let things in and let things out. So I also have to trust that when people are in those positions, they're doing their best to do that. But when you throw folks under the bus, any of us, when you buy into that bad protestor, good protester because somebody broke property. What you're doing is saying that property means more than our lives. The question I ask people is: is your anger or your critique of people who broke windows, is that anger less than your anger regarding this violent system? Or is it more? And if you are more angry and upset about that window than you are about how this system has continued to treat black people, you're on the wrong side of history.

That's right. One hundred percent. Well said. I feel like not enough people know about your work as a musician. And this is KEXP so we focus stories behind the music. So I wanted to ask you, how does your work as a musician and a poet and artist overlap or is informed by your organizing work?

Honestly, being an artist is where all this started. It started by needing a way to express the pain and the trauma and the grief and the fight and the rage. I started out as a slam poet, just spitting on my ex, about things that people were experiencing and people resonated with. I think art has the power to say things to people in a way they can receive, even if they're bothered by it. And they think about it different because they're like, "That's art." There's a reason why when colonizers take over a space, they destroy the culture. They destroy the artist and the poet because that's what tells us who we are. That's what tells us where we're going and it's what inspires.

So being an artist, I would say, is the place where I found my voice and I first started to form my analysis around what was happening around me, learning how to write it, learning how to speak it, learning how to use it to motivate and move. I would say 90% of the art I've made in my life has, especially in my adult life, has been for the movement, about the movement, about injustice, about what is justice. It has been a way in which I build with other artists, whether it's you or Rell Be Free or Mom and Nikki. I have two guiding principles as an artist. Nina Simone said, "The role of the artist is to tell us what is happening right now." And Octavia Butler instructs us that the writer, in writing what we want to see, can manifest that reality. And so art for me is about bringing about that truth as well as that manifestation. And it undergirds everything.

What gives you hope in this time?

First and foremost, young people always. I will always have the back of the youth. Their side, you know, whatever they need from me. I show up for young people because the youth have been at the forefront of every social movement. I'm seeing this uprising and resurgence, it's bigger than anyone I've seen in my lifetime. And some of our elders are telling me it's bigger than anything they've seen since the civil rights movement. And that is inspiring.

The art that's coming out of what's happening right now is inspiring. To see people take grief and pain and transform it into something beautiful just reminds me that as we dismantle this system, that we can turn these ashes into something beautiful. We have that capacity. We have that ingenuity and creativity. And my squad, I don't move alone, the squad gives me so much hope.

Everybody on our squad works tirelessly in so many areas nonstop and that gives me fuel to get up in the morning. And also seeing young people graduate this week, hearing their speeches, watching their joy, seeing their parents be like, "You did this, I'm so proud of you." And them smiling. Black people smiling gives me joy.

Say that. Beautiful. You give me joy. You give me hope. And I love that you highlighted the squad, too, because I think that's just something very important for everyone to know. You know, like I worry about my folks that show up to the protests alone or feel like they have to go through it alone. I think finding your folks and building with your folks and building that squad around you, that council, whatever you want to call it, is just so important. So I'm glad you highlighted that.

Yes, yes.

Any closing thoughts?

I think just my closing thought is reminding people that this's not the beginning. This is a resurgence of an uprising that's been happening for a long time. And also, this is an important climax. It is the beginning of this climax, of this arc. And continuing to do the work and showing up the way that you can in the spaces that you can, reiterating the demands and our vision of liberation for black peoples and understanding that when black peoples get free from white supremacy, it actually promotes the freedom of so many other peoples.

And to make sure that we don't allow this moment to be yet again another reform. It can't be reform because reform often leads black people out. We've seen that time and time again. This needs to be a transformation and we have to be in it for the long game and we're in a complex time. You know, I want people to be safe and be healthy. I am, if I'm honest, a little terrified about in a week, which will be two weeks of this uprising, what our collective health is going to be like.

That's my biggest fear right now, too.

I'm terrified. And our mutual aid networks are going to be more important than they've ever been. Getting people food, getting people medicine. And then how do we use any time where we might have to be caring for each other as a strategy building time and remembering that our collective health, in itself, is a value. Our collective health means something. I know "health is wealth" is kind of corny, but it's true and it matters.

So, you know, reminding ourselves that right now we have tactics that we've used in the past because those tactics worked then, we're also in a new situation that we haven't been in before. And we're actually laying the groundwork for the stories that will be told to other young people in the future as they continue to do their movement work. So how can we be creative, collective, coordinated, and strategic are things that I'm thinking about.

Say that. Thank you so much, Nikkita, for taking time out of your very, very busy schedule to rap with me.

Thank you for telling this story, family. It means a lot. It means a lot.


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