By Kat Endgame, PQ Monthly
On the morning of December 10, I sat down with renowned community activist Kathleen Saadat to discuss the recent protests in Portland and nationwide over the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, as well as the growing list of unarmed African-Americans killed by white police officers. Born in St. Louis, Saadat moved to Portland in 1970 to attend Reed College. Since then Saadat has worked with numerous organizations, touched all levels of government, worked to organize the first gay rights march in Oregon in 1976 and served as Diversity Director for Cascade AIDS Project. You can read a full profile on Saadat online at PQ’s Queer Heroes NW page.
PQ Monthly: How do you see and experience race and sexuality intersecting in the issue of police brutality?
Kathleen Saadat: I am black and lesbian and if the police are abusing me, they’re not just abusing the black part of me. I am indivisible. We are indivisible, as human beings. We have our characteristics and our traits, and anywhere you go, you bring them with you. When people ask me what comes first, I say, “You can’t divide me that way.” The names that we have assigned the various parts of ourselves are social constructs; we accept them as real whether they are or not. Race, for instance, is a social construct based on myth. Gender? Well, that’s becoming more flexible, isn’t it? I think we need to have another language for talking about ourselves. We need to think about our language for talking about ourselves as human beings. I want to be a part of that big global “we.”
PQ: I feel like there’s tension between the desire to achieve a global sense of “we” without losing the specificity of our oppression.
KS: Oh, I agree. That’s one of the consequences of oppression. Bruno Bettelheim wrote about the concentration camps in WWII and talked about Jews who picked up pieces of Nazi uniforms and put them on themselves. The oppressed begin to identify with the oppressor or with the oppression. If I have been assigned a role in society, how do I get out of it and who am I going to be when I get out of that role? Some find this frightening to think about.
PQ: What do you think the next step is for activists attempting to hold police accountable in Portland and beyond? Who should lead that work, and how can the rest of us support them?
KS: There is no one next step, there are several. The people who should lead those next steps are the people who know about what needs to happen. Established organizations need to play a role in policy change. Certainly in Portland, the Albina Ministerial Alliance should be part of working with police and to restructure the [criminal justice] system. People who have been victimized by the system have voices; those must be heard.
There is no one step because even as you take that first step toward police accountability, you will introduce other issues. You’re going to introduce, well, what about these gay people that keep getting beat up by the police? What about this woman who was raped by somebody who had a key to her jail cell? Our work has to be multi-issue. If we want change the institutions, we have to learn to recognize that it’s not just about yelling at the system. There has to be a continuum from me, the person who’s yelling, all the way to the person who is changing the policy, or institutional structures. Otherwise, you’re just shouting in the wind.
There is no institution in our country that is not biased. This is collective, big picture stuff—not individual. What about the whole group of people who are denied a decent education? Or denied good health care so they can participate in the education that they need? What about all these issues? We have to look at them together as an entire interactive system. We can’t just say we’re going to pick on this institution and not that one—they work together.
PQ: I think many of us come to the conclusion that the revolution must be intersectional, that it must be on all fronts, for all people.
KS: Yes, and that’s not new. Sojourner Truth said, “Do not give black men the vote without giving black women the vote, because then you leave his boot on my neck.” This issue of intersectionality has always been there. We know that the systems are skilled at exploiting the fears that set us against one another. What do we do to keep working together?
PQ: What would you say to those in PQ Monthly’s audience who feel tremendously outraged but don’t have any idea where to put that outrage?
KS: If you really want to, you can find a place. You can go to organizations, you can go to a march, you can introduce yourself to people. Yes, it’s scary, it’s all scary. I mean, it’s scary to stand in a group of 2,000 people and know that at any moment the police may come and spray you with something that may alter your life. I’ve gotten older and I can’t stand as long and being cold just makes me grumpy. But I’m looking at the young people who are doing all kinds of things all across this country and there’s no reason that you can’t find a way to hook into that. It just requires a decision to do it. Go to your church, to your social group, to your social media and ask! “Where do I l find a way to get involved here in Bloomingdale, Illinois?”
“I don’t know what to do” is in the way of so much. Well, we don’t know what to do a lot of the time either! We just know to make some noise. We don’t know which noise to make, or which direction to take it until we get together and start having a discussion about whether our noisemaking has done what we want it to do. That’s where I think the older generation comes in handy—you have to exploit those brains that have done this before. Ask us what we think. You don’t have to do what we say! Just ask… ‘cause we’re sitting here thinking, “Oh, just get a better sound system, that’ll improve your rally. Or don’t have the rally on a Tuesday afternoon. Your best time is Friday, rush hour, people going home.” You know these things from your own experience that you can hand to somebody else. What I want is to give younger people the benefit of my experience.
PQ: Do you like Octavia Butler?
KS: I love Octavia Butler.
PQ: Do you ever feel like we’re living in the prologue to Parable of the Sower?
KS: I would have to go back and read it again to answer that question. What I feel like we are living in is a global upheaval. Now, you can say in China it’s about this, or in Mexico it’s about that, but the common refrain is people saying, “This is enough.” We’ve got American Indians saying, “No pipelines across our land!” And we’ve got black people saying, “None of this!”
PQ: Where do you feel white allies fit into the struggle for racial justice and police accountability?
KS: Our allies have to figure that out, and if they can’t figure out how this struggle is in their interest then they can go home. I don’t need ’em. I don’t need anybody coming to save me. Now, if you know that what endangers me ultimately endangers you, there’s the answer to your question.
I think the people who are asking where do the white allies fit are frightened. They want to know where they can go so it’ll be easy and they won’t have to learn anything new. Well, there isn’t anywhere like that. There were white allies in the ’60s. We’ve been doing this together all along. White allies need to get over the hump of fear; it can still be there, but you can decide that it’s not an impediment to your action.
PQ: Right, get past the white guilt.
KS: White guilt is totally useless. It serves no one. Not even the white people who feel it.
PQ: I’ve been present for the Ferguson protests in Portland, and for probably the first time I can remember, I’ve had the experience of watching the nightly news report and feeling that reporters weren’t completely dismissing the protestors as lunatics or potential terrorists. The tone felt a lot more sympathetic. Do you feel like the media’s tone has shifted in any meaningful way?
KS: I think it’s shifted a little, but I don’t know how meaningful it is. We have to remember that the media is in the business of selling controversy. We can like or dislike the story; we just have to remember what they’re selling is controversy. We have to tell our own stories, which is a good thing about social media; we share our own stories, we post our own pictures. I think, for America in general, witnessing the murder of Eric Garner in such graphic detail has made people pay attention. It means reporters have to pay attention. People see how it doesn’t work for us and ultimately how it can be that it won’t work for them.
We’re the surface at this point, but they’re not just doing it to black people.
PQ: Right, the police are unaccountable everywhere.
KS: A lot of ink has been spilt lionizing or denigrating those who’ve engaged in property destruction in Ferguson and beyond. Do you think that property destruction can exist inside of the framework of an overall nonviolent protest movement? Does its presence distract from or add to the gravity of that movement?
I understand frustration. Back in the ’60s, I understood for the first time in my life the inclination to throw a brick through a window. The window didn’t have a name and it didn’t have a color; it would be the sound of the glass breaking that was going to give me some relief from the tension and the rage that I felt. I didn’t do it. I probably still wouldn’t do it, because I don’t think it helps much, except as a release of personal rage. When you’re talking about advancing a movement for peace, or a peaceful movement, you automatically exclude those things that are seen as violent, and property destruction, in this country, is seen as violent.
You are looking at broken hearts. You are looking at people grieving, and they have no other way to grieve. It is our body lying in the street. It’s our body, and it’s “Somebody killed us again.” You’re looking at hurt and disappointment, which does not lend itself to a rational approach to politics. You’re looking at anger. You’re looking at years and years and years of grief.
We need a place for public grieving about this. I’ve been talking to people about this and I see tears pop up in their eyes. Where do we grieve over this and what does our grief bring us?
PQ: It either breaks you or it transforms you, right?
PQ: So, how can we offer up the space and energy to allow it to transform us, instead of break us?
KS: Precisely, and what does it mean in the larger context? If I went downtown today, went and took a chair and said, “I am grieving a loss of confidence in my government, I am grieving the loss of lives across our country.” What if I just sat there and cried? What kind of response would I get? I wonder if other people would sit and cry with me.
We’ve lost something. People have lost hope.
PQ: You’ve been doing this a long time. You’ve been involved in radical work, organizing in nonprofit management, and all kinds of struggle for social justice. What sustains you in that struggle, and how do you avoid burnout and hopelessness? What’s your secret?
KS: It’s not a secret. I believe in what I’m doing. I totally believe in the possibility of human beings working together to make things better for all of us, and better doesn’t mean having more money. I believe I’m valuable and the people around me are valuable. I believe in redemption. I believe in reconciliation, in forgiveness, and I believe I don’t know every goddamn thing. It took me a long time to get there.
I know that if I become a cynic, they’ve won. I know I am blessed in every sense of that word, and my obligation is to take the skills that I have and to use them to make things better. I live a really comfortable life. I sleep in a warm, dry bed every night. I’m blessed. That means I have an obligation. So that keeps me going. Other things that sustain me are my computer games, movies, arguments with friends and allowing myself to feel sad—allowing myself to feel sad because it is sad that we even have to have this kind of a conversation.
My friends are critical. Friends saw me through the stint I did on the steering committee against Ballot Measure 9 [in the 1990’s]. If I hadn’t had people holding me up, I would never have made it. Support from people like Jack Danger made the difference. She helped me think, and she gave me so much support that I didn’t even know was there until afterwards. That was a terrible, terrible time. I was fighting outside and fighting inside. Racism is a part of the gay and lesbian community, just like sexism is a part of every community.
PQ: We are indivisible.
KS: We are indivisible.
PQ: One last question. In your best estimation, how do we win? How will we know when we have won?
KS: The answer to how we win may be situational, but there are some basic tools that we need; without them we will not win. Coalition is one. Assumption of good will, until proven otherwise, is another. You cannot do this work if you keep flashing your ego. Compassion, empathy, a willingness to work with people, a willingness to understand, a willingness to forgive. You cannot have a movement if you don’t have forgiveness. You cannot have a marriage, a partnership, anything that lasts beyond the first fight, if you do not have forgiveness. So part of what we have to do if we are to win is forgive each other for the present and the past. Let’s start here.
In terms of knowing when we’ve won, it’s when we feel good about the world we’re living in. It doesn’t mean the world will be perfect, but it does mean that that old man down in Florida’s not going to get arrested for feeding hungry people.
It does mean that when somebody hears somebody say, “I can’t breathe,” they stop. They stop, and they say, “Let me help you breathe.”