Keith Antar Mason:Toward a Culture of Resistance

Revolutionary Worker #875, September 29, 1996

THE RW INTERVIEW:A special feature of the Revolutionary Worker to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.

Keith Antar Mason is a poet/performance artist/playwright based in the Los Angeles area and the artistic director of the Hittite Empire--a performance group whose work centers on the lives of Black men and the contradictions they face living in Amerikkka. The group has performed at theaters and performance spaces from New York's Lincoln Center to Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Keith's work has been included in a number of poetry anthologies and his theater pieces have been staged throughout the U.S. and in Britain. Keith and the members of Hittite Empire dedicate a large part of their artistic effort to working among youth and developing progressive theater companies in the projects and poor neighborhoods of major cities throughout the U.S. So it was natural that Keith, like artists, musicians and poets around the country, was attracted to the October 22 National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. The RW caught up with Keith in Los Angeles, where he talked about the importance of this day for the people and about building a culture of resistance.

RW: What led you to get involved in the October 22 National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation?

Keith Antar Mason: Deep down I don't think it's right for there to be an armed force in this country that can brutalize people at any given moment on a whim or because of the politics or policies of this nation. I think that's unconscionable, as a human being.

As a young African-American man, when I was 17 years old, a high school student out on a college campus, a white cop in St. Louis beat me down in the quad, kicked my ass and told me n*ggers don't belong on campus. The person that he threw down was not the person who got up. I have to know every day that I lived that experience and I have to tell myself. It's real easy to say I should forgive him and forget this. It's harder to stay conscious and say `No, he was wrong. No one should have the right to do this to anybody at any given time or any given circumstance.'

So that's why I took up October 22. I still know brothers are going through that....

Like I said, it is unconscionable that the police do what they do. I found it unconscionable that the police can determine if the people in Nickerson Gardens can have a concert or whether people can make art in this country. No, they don't have any say in that. And when people want to do something--like bring different elements of the community together and have a voice and participate in a society in which they are empowered to participate and feel free enough to participate and do this thing called create art--the police shouldn't have a right to destroy that moment or to use it as some political policy to oppress people. That cannot be factored into my head, I cannot understand that.

I don't understand why they would do that and I'm going to resist that. It's real easy to be apathetic but I can't make that choice. I can't afford that choice.

RW: Tell us about the impact of the Rodney King beating on your work and outlook?

KAM: I was in Cleveland, Ohio, when I first saw that videotape. I called my phone machine back in Santa Monica and I had like 25 messages asking me if I saw the video. I was out of town and watching it over and over again on CNN. I told the other Hittite who was there in Cleveland with me that this was very important and we had to hurry up and get back home to figure out what was going on.

It impacted me cuz I knew little songs that were made up out of it--little Black kids singing "4 times 14 equals Rodney King" when they jump rope. They're making art about oppression and that's gonna be their childhood memories. And they gonna do the "Rodney King"--a little dance that shows you the brutality of it. People make art all the time, they speak to the oppression all the time. It's not just rappers. And it shouldn't be demonized, it's a way for us to resist.

So yeah, my work is about that and it's right that people resist. People try to make me forget and go back to normal. But the words "not guilty" were the words that ignited the people. People said, "No, that's wrong, that's the wrong verdict, the wrong decision." This system is not gonna work for us, in our behalf, anymore. It's obvious now so we have to take action. And everybody has to take action in their own way. As an artist I chose to use my art, my art making process as what I can do. Like Charles Mingus said, `With one hand I can make you see god.'

I think we should inspire people to rise up and struggle against police brutality. And I don't want it to be localized. They want us to believe that it's only happening in Los Angeles or it's only happening in Detroit or it's only happening in ghettos around America. It's happening all over America. We can't be divided on that. We all have to understand that this is a national problem. They have permission to beat us at any time they want to. They have permission to stop us from making art at any time they choose to. Well, no they don't. That's what's important.

RW: A lot of your work deals with the criminalization of a generation--which is one of the themes of October 22.

KAM: See, I grew up at a time when being a young Black meant you were just automatically a suspect. There's a big difference now. The oppression is escalated. The tyranny is straight up--you're guilty and you guilty when they say you are. That's a line from "Moving Target," one of my pieces. You ain't even suspect no more. The "Usual Suspects," that movie, it was all white boys--that's who the suspects are now. We're the ones who are already found guilty, three strikes and you're out, that mentality, those kinds of slogans are real and they impact people's lives. We already did the justice thing, we already did the Supreme Court, you know the laws and you struggle to change them. Well, now we changed the laws and that's a waste of time. Guess what? You guilty!

You were born, you guilty.

Young men growing up with that kind of abuse heaped up on them and you gonna act like you don't know how come they so ready to face off with the police, constantly, all the time. They so ready to do what it takes to have some respect in their lives. No--this society is definitely calling for that kind of response.

It's like the Fugees say, you let a motherfucker kick you four times, he'll kick you four times and so on.... It has to stop now. That has to be the ultimate goal, and a culture of resistance has to be developed so that it gets to that point. And everybody has to participate in that. I mean the mothers at home with young teenage sons--white, Black, Puerto Rican, Asian-American. This generation --there ain't no jobs for youth and the system says, `We don't have to respect you, we don't have to promise you nothing, the most you can get from us is that there's some cops out there that's gonna kick you upside your head cuz you aware of this knowledge.'

And they ain't no lost generation. I don't believe in no lost generation. They're an incarcerated generation.

RW: What's been the response when you talk to the '90s generation about October 22?

KAM: I'm positive this will get a good response in that generation. I don't think it should be called generation X either. I think they should be called generation Y(I ain't gonna take this shit no more). They're responding cuz they hear the truth in the call for a National Day of Protest.

I went to a meeting the other day and I saw this room full of all these different people. You know I'm an African-American raised up as a Black Nationalist and then I was in this room and saw all these different people struggling and coming together around different issues to have a discussion about this kind of thing. They was white, Black, Latino, Asians, different ages and generations. And all of a sudden I felt like wow, this is the future. That was really important for me to see, to experience and to acknowledge inside of myself that I have to join hands with these people and work with these people and connect with these people. And a lot of these people were of this generation Y(I ain't gonna take this shit no more). And I was impressed that people that I know who had come up against the cops was white, Black, Puerto Rican and not just Black young men who are the symbol that you see on the evening news as some local problem. It's everybody in this nation and that's what that room was symbolic of to me.

RW: Tell us about some of your experiences building for October 22.

KAM: I had a chance to go to this summer camp for artists and they had this open space where you could plan your own timing. So I worked with some artists from the Atlanta area and we decided to have a discussion around political prisoners every night from midnight to 1 a.m. The first night we had 12, the second night we had 25 and by the time Friday night came along we had like 85 people dedicated to this discussion. Some young African-American high school students decided they was gonna take up this National Day and make posters and really get their whole high school out around it. People really joined in immediately. That was the way I started to see mothers involved cuz it was like an arts camp so there were different generations and different people there. I got to see people get engaged in a dialogue around this issue. You know, this was midnight and was supposed to be like party time but people was gathering together and having serious conversation. They was taking it so serious that when we was all supposed to be square dancing on the final night there was 85 folks in our meeting as opposed to going to the square dance.

People are understanding that we have to struggle with this. This country is out of control, man. I don't like what's going on in this country. I hadn't acknowledged that since I was 17. I was in denial. I got up angry, hurt, crazy but wouldn't deal with what the madness is all about. Then April 29, 1992 happened and I knew it. `Not Guilty'--fuck it, there ain't no justice in this country. That's what the madness is all about. It's insidious that it took so long but awareness is awareness and the hardest thing to do is to stay conscious.

A lot of poets are taking the day up. I know about this cuz I'm a poet and they hear my work where I'm sharing my work with them--where I talk about the situation here in L.A. and my life experiences --and they getting with that. And artists like to make art, man, and there is a storytelling and poetry in the African-American tradition so poems were written and we got up and read them. People should be motivated to take it up on their own because we can. We are artmakers and we don't have to go through the art museum to make art, so we can all respond....

RW: What is your vision of the 22nd--what do you want to see happen.

KAM: You know I wish that all of the people who dress everybody up on soap operas would put everybody in black that day and not offer any explanation. America would be so freaked out. That's my really wild, out there vision. I'd like to see housewives waking up and dressing the kids for school and saying `you're gonna wear black today Johnny' and then go shopping in black jeans and black sweatshirt. I want it to be so that nobody really has to say anything but that everybody really knows.

I see wearing black on that day as the first step of resistance. What the police gonna do then, everybody in black and they in blue....

The impact of the day--the day that our people, everyday people, say `No more' without Clinton and Dole saying anything, without them knowing about it. That to me is the fantasy of fantasies, we know but they don't know for once.

It's like they knew that they was selling drugs in South Central and we didn't know it. We blaming ourselves cuz our young people are killing themselves with drugs and in the drug wars. They're OD'ing and dying and we thinking we deficient. And all the time the CIA is selling drugs so they can support some repressive regime someplace else. I want us to know what the black is for and for them not to know and then we can tell them on Nightline--you know, "Oh, by the way, you in the blue suit..."

When we can embrace something that the people can really get behind and can figure out a strategy to support it and it's easy as the clothes that you wear--that's the basis of us linking with people that we normally wouldn't have any other contact with and that we don't always think we have anything in common with. On October 22 I'm gonna look at the people who do have on all black and I'm not gonna make any assumptions but I'm gonna have a different kind of conversation with them on that day. That day will be a day to communicate with people. I think people should use it like that. I think people should seek people out and like really look at people who are wearing all black that day and say `You know what? I didn't think that I would ever have anything in common with this kind of person but here is a symbol of we do have something in common.' We got to be bold enough so that it spills over to the 23rd, the 24th, the 25th and we're still having dialogues with these people. So to me it's a symbol of communication.

I'm like really impressed by the breadth of support for this day. It's like another level of joy seeping into my body. It's not just the artists I'm concerned about but it's like all kinds of people. I've written letters to a lot of artists to take it up and I'm struggling with how to get people like my cleaners to take it up.

Art galleries are gonna ask all their staff to wear black. You know, black on black on black is the artist's uniform. It's like the catholic girls' school uniforms, artists come in black. Small art spaces are gonna do art shows. Poetry readings are gonna happen. What I'd like to see is three girlfriends sit on the couch that afternoon and don't watch Oprah but they have a conversation about the day of protest against police brutality. How do I get that to happen? Hopefully Oprah will get behind it and wear all black and that would help. Maybe she could set the space and time to put it on the show and have a dialogue about it--get Eric Dyson and John Edgar Wideman and have a dialogue about brothers who have been incarcerated. I'm hoping people will take it up on all different levels of society. I hope there will be teach-ins--I'm gonna get a chance to participate in a teach-in cuz that's where I'm gonna be at on that day.

The day will influence the performance that I do, the "Undersiege Stories," which is about incarceration in America. We're gonna change the costumes so it will be all black. And we gonna have activities going on the whole week on that campus.

I'm working with some other people in Philadelphia and a reading of one of my plays may happen on that day and the audience will be asked to wear all black on that day. But I think everybody should take it up.

RW: I understand that there is a plan to gather an initial list of the names of people who have been killed and brutalized in conjunction with the National Day.

KAM: You know, I cried when I saw that list of people killed by the police in New York. I think gathering together all of the names of people killed and brutalized by the police would be a powerful document to develop. We have names of people who participate in racial hatred, who are sex offenders and abusers but we don't have a list of names of the people that the police killed or brutalized. I think artists should take that up in a big way.

I think we should make movable memorials. I think that the men's movement should take this up, you know we going around and getting in contact with our grief and having grieving ceremonies. Well, we should grieve those men and women who have been murdered and beaten by the police so they don't remain nameless. We should get bold and perhaps have like a Vietnam memorial. Artists can make that happen. There should be one in every city, you know, like the tomb of the unknown soldier.

We should not let people forget that in this day and age there is this group of people that's a part of this system and organized by the system to brutalize the people.... Americans need to look at themselves. We don't have to be in Bosnia--there's a war going on in every city and there is this armed force called the police and they have declared war against the people. I want Ted Koppel to have a conversation around that on the day. And I want people to be on the panel who will have the conversation in those terms, not some apologists who will say the system works and the police have some problems. No, that day is over, they got more than just some problems. And we got a group of citizens that's gonna do something about that, that's gonna resist.

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