Back in October of 2015, I wrote a review of Shaun Leonardo’s performance, I Can’t Breathe, at The Eighth Floor (video below). Leonardo conducted "a public-participatory workshop and performance that takes the form of a self-defense class" in the pristine gallery space, combining poetry and movement to deliver a stark message about the reality many people of color face when confronted with “Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect” (a euphemism for the NYPD). The performance stuck with me.
Leonardo had intimated that he was planning to do the performance at schools and community centers in the future and so I put him in touch with my partner, a guidance counselor at EPIC North, a project-based public school in Richmond Hill, Queens.
In December, he reprised his performance in front of 87 EPIC sophomores in the gym of a former Catholic school. The majority of EPIC students live in the neighborhood which contains strong concentrations of Sikh Indian and Guyanese families. The overall curriculum and design of EPIC focuses on social justice, restorative justice, and bridging the achievement gap. The performance was Leonardo’s first in a school setting but it went fairly well. Kids were kids and it was hard to keep them interested and focused as Leonardo went through the movements with a set of 15-year-old volunteers who awkwardly lunged at and cringed away from each other, not knowing how to play aggressor or victim. Following the exercise and performance, the school staff lead a discussion on police violence and racism. Kids seemed to get it but as Leonardo would later remark, “It wasn’t real for them.” EPIC’s students understood the dynamic on an abstract plane, knew of it as an issue, but hadn’t had the experiences to engage with the subject personally.
Still from I Can't Breathe performance at EPIC North High School. Courtesy of the artist
The next day, he performed at the Wingate High School Campus in collaboration with the Kings Against Violence Initiative (KAVI), a mediation intervention group that works to prevent retaliatory violence. This group of high schoolers were more in tune with the issues at hand, and had been selected by KAVI to take part in the performance.
The third performance outside of the gallery took place at a community center called Reality House near the site of Astoria Houses, a storied failure of Public Housing in New York City. The group was much smaller, maybe only 8 people, aged 14 to 60, in the room, but this time two NYPD officers were present to help lead a discussion following the performance. The majority of the conversation tracked the mistrust between police and community. One of the officers blamed much of the mistrust on the media’s portrayal of police officers, likening it to others’ characterizations of people that live in the projects as “animals.” “It’s important to judge people as individuals,” one officer said, “I want you to judge me for what I do to you. I don’t want you to treat me any differently.” After a few questions from the audience, I naïvely asked the officers if they ever saw a time when it wouldn’t be necessary for police to carry deadly weapons. Swiftly, they responded, “No.” I forged on, “That fear of death is part of what creates mistru—” I was cut off and they continued: “It’s a reality of life.”
Don’t get me wrong, these officers were very gracious—they even gave us a ride to the subway after the performance—but this inability to even entertain the idea that policing could be done without one group holding the power of life or death over another bugged me. Leonardo would later tell me to rephrase my question in the future: “Instead, ask ‘could you ever imagine a world where you as a police officer have never used your gun?’”
Leonardo sat down with me following the performance and discussed, at length, the goals of his performative practice; what changes when performing for different audiences; the difficulties in developing policing methods that can be fairly applied; and his own philosophy brought about through trauma.
Still from I Can't Breathe performance at Wingate High School Campus. Courtesy of the artist
Joel Kuennen: What are your goals for I Can’t Breathe?
Shaun Leonardo: The recording of the material will be used as a curriculum for future works. We [collaborators Melanie Crean and Sable E. Smith of the ongoing, Creative Capital funded project Mirror/Echo/Tilt] don’t know how to define that final output yet. It will consist of text, instructional manuals, documentation and a film. It will serve as a toolkit. It’s a way to create a space to start a very difficult conversation. That’s what we have in mind when we’re producing this work. The subversive nature of art is what allows for this kind of safe space.
If you go to the Vera Institute or any other kind of social justice-based organizations that are working on these issues, you find very heavily directed language. It’s formulated like any school lesson which results in a lecture; it results in talking at people. When we use art as an excuse to create this space, it is much more about the complexity of the issue. It produces more questions than statements and that’s how you have a deeper conversation.
JK: How do you see poetics in your work?
SL: There are moments in my work when I address moments of police violence directly. But in the I Can’t Breathe piece it’s very fuzzy. I frame it as a self-defense class, as an invitation—it is an entry point. The poetics are necessary to trick people into being there. It’s a gray area which keeps people off guard. As soon as they expect a certain kind of discourse, they feel that they know and understand their role in that place.
JK: The performance itself hasn’t changed very much between the performances in different settings. We’re talking about social justice in a gallery setting because it’s “art”; we’re talking about issues of self in a school setting because it’s between self-defense and a lesson; and then we’re talking about deep issues of self and community in the context of a self-defense course. What do you have in mind when you’re transiting between these specific contexts?
SL: My voice as the choreographer/instructor changes slightly depending on the environment. That’s in relation to the physical space but also in relation to my role in the community. Astoria Houses, for example, they know me. There’s a familiarity, whereas at EPIC I was brought in as a “special guest visitor.” KAVI brought me in as a collaborator. So my role is slightly tweaked and my voice and delivery is slightly modified to fit that role. Most importantly, the conversation that follows changes. It has to be specific to the concerns and context of that community. In a more academic environment, we discuss psychological trauma. In a school, we’re talking about fear in connection with what they might witness and experience growing up. At KAVI, there was already a starting point that brought with it a level of intensity so we were talking in personal terms about conflict resolution.
Still from I Can't Breathe performance at Wingate High School Campus. Courtesy of the artist
JK: Tell me about the KAVI experience.
SL: You could tell that the teenagers were in tune with the kind of conversation that addresses violence. Mainly, that was because they were recruited by KAVI and have already been working within their program. It was also a much more violent neighborhood than that which surrounded EPIC North so just the walk over to the school brought with it a level of tension, a tension that they feel on a daily basis walking into a metal-detector school. When I started talking about self-defense or fighting, even when it wasn’t addressed in terms of policing, there was a familiarity that is unfortunate. The immediacy of entering the conversation—it was not guarded at all. Most of that I owe to KAVI. They were able to dive into the issues using very plain language from a place of personal knowledge.
JK: What was the discussion like following the KAVI performance?
SL: We talked about what police do wrong in these situations. Kids would get up and speak freely about what the officer in the Eric Garner case did wrong. They were aware. They had seen the video. They could compare it to real life circumstances. A lot of them would voice “This happened to me. Why did this happen to me?” And so it was framed in that way. There was much more of a personal connection.
KAVI has a relationship with those schools and those kids. There is an immediacy to their passion and their words. They are first responders to trauma. Their role is to convince a kid not to take the missteps that would lead to their death. These are students where something has gone wrong and KAVI is in the school and the hospitals trying to counsel these teenagers. That level of trauma was in the room. You had teenagers who, with eloquence, reacted with, “Well, what am I supposed to do?”
GIF from I Can't Breathe performance at Wingate High School Campus. Courtesy of the artist
JK: If EPIC seems to be a precursor to encounter, KAVI is dealing with the after effects of encounter—what kind of adjustments need to be made for a final curriculum to come out of it?
SL: If I were to pose the I Can’t Breathe performance to be coopted and used in other communities, I would have to list recommendations on how to approach it based on different levels of awareness.
JK: What do you think was impactful at EPIC?
SL: Planting the seed was the most important aspect of that experience. But what I found most powerful at that venue was the fact that we did not answer any of the questions. Each question led to more questions. For them to go through life knowing that it’s not simple and that they will have to navigate these issues as they live them is powerful. My goal with this piece is to create a space for the conversation, to express how it is much more complex than it seems and in that complexity there are choices.
JK: From some of the responses from the NYPD officers, it seems pretty black and white—one officer did say there are some cops that shouldn’t be cops—but they do have the power of life and death and that’s a greater responsibility. It’s not like having a bad accountant.
SL: The one thing that I try to convey through this piece is that to feel victimized by someone in power is a different story. There are bad people on both sides but there is only one side that resembles power.
JK: One of the NYPD officers brought up that last year [in New York City], 6 officers were killed. That’s very serious but it is also a negation of the people who have been killed by police [25 in the state of New York in 2015]. You can’t say, “Yeah, but…” and you get this sense that it’s a little war-like. This side has lost this many but we can’t talk about how the other side lost so many more.
SL: It’s a defense mechanism. It’s very difficult to gain perspective. I think the most honest thing that was said today was when the detective said “We all just want to get home to our family.” It’s the cause for fear.
JK: This is why I brought up the lethal use of force as a central issue to working through this. If you have two people who fear each other, why give either of them the ability to kill the other? We’ll never be able to rid bias from ourselves, but we can take away the ability to kill another person, or at least make it a lot more difficult.
SL: It’s a measure and to say that is to have a conversation about gun control. Police forces are not going to give up control or power unless they feel there are fewer guns on the other side. Police officers are trained to escalate situations. They are trained to establish control. “If you go higher, I go higher.” This is part of the current instruction in the NYPD which is now being reconsidered. [NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton] has put forward proposals that will address how and when that type of enforcement can and should be curbed. This is something they are saying, but if it happens, we’ll see. Much of it has to do with bias and community policing—knowing who’s who.
JK: Community policing used to be the standard.
SL: It was pulled back by Giuliani because of budget constraints and strategic allocation of resources. Rather than community policing, which remains highly successful in other cities, when crime shot up, “broken windows” was put in place. Community policing was nixed. If you read the original document that led to the “broken windows” policy, it stated that priorities should be in education, social programming, desegregation, and employment, and that the police should have a role in all of those things. Preventative police was the term used! That was turned into “let’s give officers the autonomy to judge whether they should step in or not.”
Broken windows as a psychology became an aggressive posturing. Fuck the effectiveness of it. What is the psychological effect of this policy? What you see now as “excessive force, stems from 10 to 20 years ago when you had directives from a Mayor who said “Clean up New York City at any cost.” Aggressive behavior was not only permitted—it was taught. What you now have is that police education is still laced with this aggressive posture. This is internalized by a much younger, untested, predominantly white police force being thrown into the most crime-ridden communities, mainly communities of color. They are misusing or misinterpreting education that was put in place for different circumstances.
JK: The lawyers of Peter Liang, the officer that shot Akai Gurley in the stairwell of Pink Houses, are arguing that he was placed in a dangerous position as a kind of hazing. They are placed into a fearful situation and that fear is increased.
SL: I’ve heard that. Now we have rookies partnered with rookies, whereas it used to be that a rookie would be paired with a veteran. But veteran cops don’t want to be in dangerous situations especially at the end of their career.
At the end of the day, if I’m achieving anything with this work, it is conveying that these situations happen because we have humans making human mistakes. If you strip away the conversation about race, justice, law, at the very core of these tragedies there are humans doing wrong and that is a very human problem. Fear is real.
JK: Let’s get crazy here. How do we envision post-human policing?
SL: Let me turn that question on its head. When I first started experiencing trauma again when watching the videos [of police shootings], my emotions were activated. When I started thinking about what might happen and how it could get better, I thought, “well, humans will continue to fuck up and imbalance in power is a real and tangible thing.” I once had an officer tell me that an officer will never say a bad word about another officer. This is where we are. The only thing that can be accomplished is accountability and we are starting to see that: officers going to jail. Accountability is the only measure that will protect lives from being lost. Does that make matters better? Not at all... because then you are saying, “Well what you’re saying is officers can’t do their job and if officers can’t do their job, blah blah blah,” and you get into this convoluted argument about what policing should mean.
JK: And who should be safer.
SL: Which is the most fucked up part. The fact that there cannot be an area of mutual respect for community policing. What I’m saying is that it’s going to get a lot worse before it’s going to get better. When I make my work, what I want these young people to know is that struggling to live and navigate all the fucked-upness of life actually provides a life worth living. It’s not about survival. People have to prioritize joy. What does that mean for young people of color? To prioritize joy means having an active role in creating a space where you can almost always see the light at the end of the tunnel.
JK: Hope. The ability to be able to think beyond the now, is the freedom to believe in hope.
SL: I would agree with you on that definition of freedom. But it’s hard work to believe in freedom for many of us. It takes a lot of self-work to prioritize joy. How do you do that? You encourage that in others. I hate to talk about betterment, but just understand for yourself that experiencing the shit is actually worthwhile. I believe in suffering but I don’t believe in the story of Job where one must deserve joy. The struggle in and of itself is beautiful. When you start to believe in the struggle you gain so much more perspective on life than when you shut down. When black and brown bodies that are perceived as criminals, when we experience trauma and are accused of being guilty or victimized physically, there is no joy.
The contrast of joy, to me, is not sadness or suffering. To live is joyful. There is something about being a black or brown body and understanding oneself, the very simple fact that you are living, you know more, you understand more about living than a white person. That in and of itself, that struggle even though it’s shitty to have that knowledge, that can bring joy because complexity is joyful. Knowing that there is no complete understanding of humanity brings joy because then you just live.
(Image at top: Still from I Can't Breathe performance at EPIC North High School. Courtesy of the artist)
Tags: resistance I Can't Breathe social justice police violence, performance