We must use show spaces to aid our community struggles
Photo by Carlos Romero
Art and music have always been a platform for exposing political injustice. So many artists go out to perform and tour and in doing so meet people, battles, and places that teach us our own agency and role in supporting the struggle. We slowly learn how to control the political tools at our disposal on the stage and in the media, similar to how we learn how to master our instruments.
Now, like everyone else in this country, musicians find ourselves in a moment where a despotic leader has power to take executive power to make laws and the choose judges to enforce them. He has been supported and voted for by over 84% of police officers and by more white voters than his Democratic counterpart in the 2016 Presidential Election. Our mass media platforms have to deal with the toxic spill of reacting to fascist policies instead of reporting on how the government is killing and endangering its own population via police murder, poverty, restricting access to healthcare, and environmental colonialism like the North Dakota Access Pipeline.
As an artist and activist of color, there are several ways to bring your work into the service of political fights. We can talk about political injustice in our music, speak out in interviews, and do all we can to inspire action. But more and more artists are also seeking to merge our show spaces and social justice into one fire. It’s out of pure necessity, our of an urgent need to infiltrate expectation of the status quo and crystallize dissent as much as we can.
Bands all over the country used the days of Trump’s inauguration, January 20th and January 21st, as a time to host their own anti-inauguration concerts of resistance. Rolling Stone even posted an article entitled Where To Cry On Inauguration Day compiling the huge number of events. My band Downtown Boys decided to create a show in our hometown of Providence that would help provide a soundtrack to our community for the rage, exhaustion, desire, and anger that the inauguration meant to so many of us, while also providing a space for direct, local organizing to happen. With so many attacks being directed at us, it can be hard to know where to act as musicians or organizers. As always, we must first consider where we can act in our own communities, with the people we know, to check the cops that we see while walking to work.
We didn’t want to create a show that was an escape from the world outside, but a show that brought people further toward what we need to win. We created a bill of inspiring local artists to perform and invited local organizations to table and speak at the event. One participating organization was the Community Defense Project (CDP), a group of people fighting for police accountability in the city. They presented a video on their “Son of Trump” campaign, an effort to fire a white male police officer named Matthew Sheridan who has brutalized numerous people in one of Providence’s majority POC neighborhoods. Their movement to get him fired has been supported by filing (and winning) civil court cases against him, exposing his violent and racist actions to the public, and stitching his behavior into a greater context of police violence against the people throughout the country. You can sign the petition asking the city to fire Sheridan here.
Sheridan’s violent abuses of power have been been numerous. The video above shows Sheridan brutally attacking a man named Esmelin Fajardo at a night club in Providence’s south side. I myself was able to attend a trial last fall in which Officer Sheridan testified against a young man of color named Charm Howie who Sheridan first attacked and arrested before charging him with fabricated crimes to cover up his own violence. The judge ultimately found the Howie “not guilty,” throwing out Sheridan’s trumped up charges. In yet another case, Sheridan terrorized a black poet named Christopher Johnson in the summer of 2016, profiling him, pulling him over and subsequently arresting him without any legal reason.
These fights must bleed into all the veins of public platforms that we have, and this includes the music show. To say “no” to our current president is to say “no” to normalcy and to remember all the institutions that open their door for him to walk through and feel warm. When those Andy and Daniel of the Community Defense of Project took the stage before we played to a packed house, with “Fuck Trump” signs lining the walls, the crowd was locked in. People’s moshing sweat evaporated, personal rage and pessimism grew into compassion and questioning of the police.
No single tactic can win this fight again fascism and the police state. We must all act in all areas of society to make change. As musicians we must make the art and the spaces to help make that change. We should always be engaged on a national level – which is why we also just performed at an ACLU benefit in Washington D.C. in early February – but we must struggle to make direct demands within our communities. Our show in Providence was one of many on January 20, and hopefully one of many more to come through the next four years and beyond. Let’s keep pushing to weaponize music and the community around it.
Below is a statement from the Community Defense Project that I’d like to share in its entirety. I’m sharing this as an ask for your support, to open our eyes further, and to make this part of the resistance movement against not simply a President, but against all he represents both past and future.
At a time when it is difficult for all people— especially people of color— to feel safe from bodily harm, and equally protected by the law, we must be vigilant in disarming people who demonstrate that they are unable to wield power safely and fairly. Mayor Elorza has expressed pride about the relationship the Providence Police Department has with communities here, but Police Officer Matthew Sheridan repeatedly endangers the people he has been charged to serve, and threatens whatever peace exists in this volatile moment.
Since joining the Police force in October of 2014, Patrolman Matthew Sheridan has logged several documented incidences of gross and unwarranted violence and aggression toward members of our community. He assaulted and illegally arrested Christopher Johnson near the nationally recognized poet’s home only because Johnson exercised his right under Rhode Island law and the constitution not to provide his name when not suspected of a crime. Video footage shows Officer Sheridan brutally assaulting Esmelin Fajardo, a young disabled employee of a local nightclub. Before that, Sheridan attempted to choke long time community resident and father of four, Charm Howie outside of his own house while Mr. Howie’s children slept inside (Mr. Howie endured more than year of prosecution by the City on charges Patrolman Sheridan fabricated during this incident, and was recently acquitted of all charges). Without even considering how many other examples may exist, these documented instances of abuse are unacceptable for any person, let alone one who is paid with tax dollars to carry a gun on our streets. A pattern of violence has emerged, and we have to respond before a fatal accident occurs.
2016 brought a spike in hate crimes and racially motivated vandalism in Rhode Island: In May, a swastika was painted on sign outside a temple in Pawtucket; in July, a mosque was defaced in South Kingston; and in December a Providence community organization was broken into and vandalized. How can we trust our elected officials and other municipal employees— including police— to protect us and serve the common good, when a man this violent is allowed to remain in uniform? We are calling on Mayor Elorza, Police Commissioner Perry, and Police Chief Clements to protect the people of Providence by getting Matthew Sheridan off the street.