A Conversation with Peter Nicks – BillMoyers.com

In January 2018 I spoke with the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Nicks about The Force, his function documentary about Oakland’s deeply troubled police division and its historical past of violence. (That interview was reprinted here in June.)

The Power is the second movie in his trilogy exploring the interconnected narratives of well being care, prison justice, and training in America. It received the Documentary Directing Prize on the 2017 Sundance Movie Competition, was launched theatrically by Kino Lorber, and aired nationwide on PBS’s Independent Lens. The earlier movie within the collection, The Waiting Room, was set in Oakland’s Highland Hospital, and received the More true Than Fiction Unbiased Spirit award in 2012. Nicks is at present at work on the ultimate section, Homeroom, set in an Oakland public highschool.

The next is a brand new interview with Pete, discussing these points within the post-George Floyd world.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: I went again and seemed on the interview we did a few years in the past, and it was astonishing. The problems we talked about had been precisely the identical points which might be on the entrance web page proper now. So I actually needed to speak to you about how issues have modified, if they’ve modified, and your tackle the entire image.

PETE NICKS: Clearly one thing has shifted by way of how individuals are framing these items. And never simply how they’re framing them, however how they’re feeling in regards to the urgency to behave.

I’m talking of what I’d name “the allies.”

It’s not simply white folks. I believe there are folks — individuals who oftentimes are snug or privileged or no matter — who had been in an area the place making a sacrifice was too summary to determine. The actions that had been offered appeared too radical, like defunding police or eliminating police altogether, or eradicating the Accomplice flag from NASCAR, issues like that. So I believe probably the most tangible distinction with this second is that now we’re seeing the world taking the subsequent step in quite a lot of other ways, each nationally and regionally. The truth that defunding police or abolishing police is definitely within the dialog is fairly astonishing.

My idea is that the pandemic form of primed it, type of cracked us open in a method that we hasn’t been finished earlier than and has now set the desk for a number of the reflection or inquiry that should occur.

Instantly after George Floyd’s homicide, I acquired a name from one of many cops in The Power, and he requested me, “What do I do? How am I imagined to be on this second?” I discovered it exceptional that he was reaching out to me for that. I needed to inform him that, for my part, any form of actual change requires sacrifice. And that’s the identical for politicians, for cops, for the privileged class. All of us have to determine what sacrifices we’re prepared to make, as a result of with out that nothing’s gonna change.

Even for me personally, I’ve been attempting to grapple with how I really feel about the entire thing, as a result of I spent two years filming contained in the Oakland PD, and I acquired to know a number of these cops very properly, and I’ve an amazing affection for lots of them. On the identical time, I believe that we have to attain a bit of bit deeper by way of eager about a few of these issues we’ve witnessed. That’s going to be uncomfortable — it’s all the time uncomfortable. However that’s the place we’re at.

TKN: Are you able to be particular in regards to the sorts of sacrifice that you just suppose are so as?

PN: That is the place you get into the abstraction. It looks as if politically and culturally a number of the concern is round shedding issues, like shedding a way of what it means to be an American in your thoughts, primarily based on your historical past — that “Make America Nice Once more” concept. However we’re additionally speaking about financial insurance policies that can require sacrifice, whether or not meaning much less cash in your checking account, or sharing extra assets, or a type of Bernie/AOC coverage course. I believe reparations are a really tangible factor, if we’re going to provide each African-American $150,000 or no matter it’s. Varied numbers have been floated about. I believe that dialog’s most likely going to be on the desk, and that can require sacrifice: much less cash in our pockets.

I believe one other tangible factor that we’ve talked about within the documentary subject is, in case you’re a white ally, take a step again and never elevate your voice louder than a Black particular person attempting to talk their very own historical past and their very own story. As a result of traditionally, privileged white documentary filmmakers have informed the tales of the poor and the under-resourced, going again to Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North. I believe that’s beginning to change and filmmakers may be lively in that, in attempting to provide alternatives to different folks to inform their very own tales.


TKN: I additionally needed to speak in regards to the defund concern, as a result of as you say, it’s like Accomplice flags at NASCAR. A month in the past it was inconceivable, it wasn’t even on the menu, and now it’s taking place. However on the identical time, to a conservative viewers, “defund the police” continues to be an incendiary phrase.

PN: I believe it’s a semantic downside partially. There’s defund after which there’s abolish. Defunding, in my understanding of it, is about allocation of budgets, coverage framework, transferring social packages out of the police division and to different businesses. Defunding doesn’t imply abolish, it means reappropriating and rethinking the police drive, doubtlessly all the best way all the way down to police not having weapons. And that’s a radical concept, however even concepts like that are actually beginning to acquire some traction. Possibly sure officers don’t want weapons. Possibly there’s tiers of officers. Possibly you could have extra of a social employee sort of officer. In order that dialog goes to evolve and we’re going to get a greater understanding of what it means as we go, however it’s an essential place to begin.

Once we began making The Power, I met with the mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, as a result of we’d been toying with the thought of possibly doing a movie about her. She was very adamant that she didn’t need to make a movie about simply police reform: she needed to take a look at systemic change. And that’s one thing that I consider in 110% as a result of you’ll be able to’t simply go and abolish the police with out understanding that the context of the police is generations of American historical past, slave patrols and so forth. So I believe that police reform needs to be approached within the context of systemic change, and that does lead towards sure coverage or platforms that sure political candidates are actually placing ahead, that even the extra reasonable candidates are beginning to acknowledge and take heed to. So is that going to filter into the overall populace? That’s the query.

Have you learnt what the annual price range is for the New York Metropolis Police Division?

TKN: No.

PN: It’s $6 billion. Three billion of it goes to salaries and I’d wager an enormous quantity goes to pensions. So unions are one concern. Police unions are there to guard the police in any respect prices. I’m not an knowledgeable, however I’m an observer, and one of many issues I noticed with this new movie about training, and in addition with the police movie earlier than that, is that the unions have a number of energy and are tied to the politicians — who are sometimes liberal politicians—they usually assist these politicians get elected. So there’s a very troublesome, difficult relationship. So to be able to reform, you positively have to take a look at the union management.

TKN: It’s attention-grabbing, a buddy of mine just lately despatched me an article — you might have seen it—about lessons learned from Northern Ireland. It was written by a man who’d been a police officer there through the Troubles, after which got here to the US and was a cop right here. Plenty of it needed to do with belongings you had been simply speaking about — even what the police are known as, the best way they’re dressed. Easy however symbolic issues.

PN: Proper. So how are these departments deploying their assets when in idea they might take a few of that cash and direct it towards issues like restorative justice, or coaching, or figuring out methods that you could interact the group in ways in which actually emphasize de-escalation, and psychological well being, and all these items that the general public simply doesn’t completely grasp.

The general public has a distorted sense of the menace that police face, as a result of the police tradition is all about telling that story. Each cop is aware of somebody who’s been killed within the line of obligation. Plenty of cops, significantly in cities like Oakland, have seen or been in harmful conditions. So these tales get informed and retold, and the general public doesn’t see the remainder of it, that these communities are extra than simply what the police see day by day, which is type of the distillation of all of the failures ensuing from generational injustice and poverty and racism, et cetera.

TKN: The query I used to be going to ask you was in regards to the possibilities this second affords for substantive reform in police departments, versus broader cultural change. However what you simply stated suggests to me that they’re the one and the identical. There can’t be one with out the opposite.

PN: That’s the important thing. That’s why we’re doing the trilogy. We didn’t simply do a movie a few public hospital ready room. One of many first folks I met on The Ready Room was a 12 yr outdated woman who had been shot outdoors her center college. She wasn’t at school studying, she was within the hospital ready to get her gunshot wounds handled. And that’s a profound concept. So you then begin eager about the connection between well being care, prison justice, training, group, the American Dream, and also you understand that it’s a must to have a look at it holistically.


PN: I believe that’s been one of many issues with police departments for generations, the lack to dig deeper and to consider the historical past of the police.

The officer that was holding George Floyd’s again whereas the opposite officer knelt on his neck, is blended race, similar to me, and like Kaepernick for that matter. It was solely his third day on the drive. And studying his story was exceptional.

His mother’s white, like my mother, and his dad’s black. His dad was not within the image. His mother was a single mother, and he needed siblings, so she adopted 4 black children. And people 4 children grew up amidst Trayvon Martin and all these different tales, they usually turned activists. So when their brother made the choice to change into a cop, there was some rigidity in that relationship. So I discover that to be a very exceptional and telling metaphor for the nation.

When the homicide occurred, these siblings did communicate out. I don’t understand how vocal they’ve been, however they’ve stated some issues publicly, and one among them was that they consider that their brother ought to have stopped this different officer who killed George Floyd, and he must be held accountable. And if meaning charged with homicide and incarcerated, then that’s what meaning.

That’s a troublesome one. You recognize, it’s his third day, he’s a rookie…..for him to try this would have been fairly exceptional. However on the flip facet of it, and that is the digging deeper factor, is the query of “Yeah, why didn’t he cease that different officer?” We’ve to ask ourselves that.

His siblings additionally stated that their mom by no means talked about race rising up. And their mom — this white girl — stated she didn’t know the way to do it. Once more, that’s digging deeper. Why did you undertake 4 black kids? Possibly it’s as a result of your eldest son is black, however nonetheless being afraid to dig into that.

For me personally, not simply because I’m blended race, however I used to be born right into a Black household and grew up very Black within the Black church, went to Howard College, however I’ve all the time had a fascination with the duality of African Individuals and the European founders of our nation. I do know it’s not only a duality, however narratively, I nonetheless do consider that duality is the controlling narrative of our nation. Similar to we study in remedy, our narratives management us in methods which might be unconscious, and if we don’t interact and dig deep we are able to veer off and lose our perspective. In order that’s form of how I see this second. It’s a possibility that type of do some remedy. 

TKN: Properly, that controlling narrative you’re speaking about could be damaged if that divide between black and white on financial points was breached. If poor white folks recognized with poor black folks due to the “poor” half, versus figuring out with wealthy white folks due to the “white” half, that will be precisely what the powers-that-be don’t need.

PN: Possibly white poverty must be talked about too, as a result of white poverty is so very hardly ever mentioned on this nation. However there are a number of similarities, culturally, between poor white folks and Black folks. It’s like that “Black Jeopardy” sketch on “Saturday Night time Reside.”

Some folks consider that’s why Fred Hampton was killed. He had the potential to be probably the most charismatic, highly effective chief ever, and he was constructing coalitions between the Panthers and poor white folks, assembly with the coal mining unions in West Virginia and southeast Ohio. It was starting to resonate and he was beginning to make these connections and a few folks consider he was assassinated due to that. So these are some highly effective concepts.

Police train their energy in ways in which transcends race, however then there’s the race dynamic particularly. When a policeman sees a black particular person, they’re already devalued that particular person’s life, and that then permits that policeman to place their knee on that particular person’s neck for eight minutes 46 seconds whereas they’re crying out for his or her mother, and what permits that different officer to not intervene, although he’s black himself. In order that speaks to the complexity of the difficulty.

And the place do you begin? What’s the factor to hone in on? It may very well be that defunding is a pleasant place to begin. I’m about to begin engaged on this movie in regards to the Nationwide Anthem and Francis Scott Key, who was a slaveholder, but additionally tried to repatriate Africans in America and ship them again to Africa. That’s how Liberia began. It’s all ripe for storytelling, and I believe that’s going to be a giant a part of this complete course of. It’s like type of what Nikole Hannah-Jones did with the 1619 Project, what all us storytellers have been attempting to do for quite a lot of years, which is to attach the current to the previous, as a result of that’s actually the entire thing. It’s change into summary in folks’s minds, connecting police violence to our historical past.

We’re beginning to see a few of that dialogue coming into the police academies, however then those self same recruits hit the road and it’s the Coaching Day factor. They study within the academy, however they learn to be cops on the road. You possibly can educate them something within the academy — in regards to the Panthers, about slave patrols, about implicit bias, all the things — they usually may very well be crying in there and having revelations. However then day one, they’re on the market in a unique setting, and their actual world teacher is the cop who killed George Floyd — I blocked his identify out of my head. So if no person had filmed what occurred that day in Minneapolis, that rookie cop would have realized in that second, “Oh, that is what you do.” So now he’s being taught, “You possibly can’t try this.” That’s why his siblings are saying he should be prosecuted and he should go to jail.

It’s onerous to argue towards that. Nevertheless it’s unhappy. And that’s going to be troublesome for lots of cops. But when we’re prepared to prosecute, that’s a primary very tangible step, and that’s a part of the sacrifice in a method. I don’t know if sacrifice is the fitting phrase; you might additionally say justice. That’s the dialog that’s taking place amongst a number of police unions and cops — extra on the conservative facet of the equation — that feeling that it’s an overreach much like #MeToo. It’s uncomfortable. It’s troublesome. However we have now to have it. #MeToo has had a profound influence on how males take into consideration themselves and the way they consider ladies, and the way they consider their energy.


TKN: Within the wake of George Floyd, I had a giant argument with an outdated faculty buddy, a conservative man. His son’s a cop, and he was adamant that there’s no such factor as systemic racism within the police or wherever else — that we’re solely speaking about a number of dangerous apples, which is the usual dodge. So what do you say to anyone like that?

PN: I believe the “only some dangerous apples” argument dismisses the purpose completely. You may don’t have any dangerous apples and nonetheless have injustice taking place as a result of it’s the establishment, and the ability dynamic of it in connection to the historical past of the nation.

However you don’t must go too far again to hook up with the current to the previous. I really wrote down…..(reads from a household tree) In 1857 my nice nice grandfather was born a slave, and was owned by the Nix household, n-i-x. This can be a little one who most likely witnessed his father being whipped bloody. So trauma. Then in 1881 my nice grandfather was born a free man, his household had been sharecroppers, they usually modified their identify to “Nicks,” spelled c-k-s, which a number of former slaves did after they turned sharecroppers. Then in 1904 my grandfather was born and in 1930 my father was born, and he suffered from alcoholism and died at age 75 from a esophageal most cancers. He was the primary in his household go to school, confronted large racism rising up as a result of he was an achiever and a striver, each within the Black group and within the institution. Then I used to be born in 1968. So that you type of understand that the historical past is shut.

King is without doubt one of the finest at articulating very particular ways in which boundaries had been positioned in entrance of Black folks to realize. Being a slave is Exhibit A. You’re not even a human being. There’s a actuality and a historical past that led to the issues that these communities are going through. And you then intersect that with the police and also you’re going to have every kind of issues, as a result of these are generational trauma results in trauma results in trauma. A part of that’s violence. A part of that’s self-hate. A part of that’s apathy.

Are there some dangerous cops? Yeah. There’s dangerous cops, dangerous lecturers, dangerous medical doctors, dangerous troopers. I’m watching “Billions” proper now, and it’s like, man, there’s every kind of like dangerous folks on Wall Avenue doing every kind of harm and rape. So yeah, they’re throughout — dangerous folks. However these are additionally programs too.

I don’t know the way to get by way of to of us who don’t see that, just like the man you had been speaking to. However clearly, we create narratives in our head which might be very, very highly effective, and that may be very disconnected from the details. We’re seeing that now with the individuals who refuse to put on masks. A part of the issue is management most likely, however management’s additionally only a reflection of the nation. It’s irritating, however as storytellers, all we are able to do is inform these tales and actually attempt to put the foot on the pedal by way of exposing one another to totally different factors of view.

And generally you could have be sneaky, and are available within the again door. That’s why I like that Saturday Night time Reside skit, the “Black Jeopardy” one. I wager you might present that sketch to some conservative white of us and they might snicker, they might get it. Possibly that will get them to suppose a bit of bit deeper. So we should be inventive and intelligent with how we strategy this, as a result of no person’s going to alter their thoughts primarily based on an argument on a social media. So the place are there actual areas for dialogue? 

TKN: On the danger of stating the blindingly apparent, the entire phrase “racism” is so loaded for white folks. Like this man, we went forwards and backwards and I made zero headway as a result of he simply stored saying, “My son’s not racist. My son’s not racist.” And I’d say, “Properly, I’m positive he’s not, however we’re speaking about one thing past private prejudice. We’re speaking about institutionalized bias, and so on and so on.”

However what I didn’t say to him  — and possibly I ought to have, if I used to be braver — was, “Your son most likely is racist. I’m racist, you’re racist. We’ve all gotta have a look at ourselves.” However he was not even near having that dialog.

PN: Are you able to separate your particular person id from the nation’s id? I don’t know.

Racism is a virus of types: it’s one thing that been plaguing this nation from the start, and we’re all on the spectrum. Even Black folks, as a result of slavery was enabled by Africans, there was a tradition of slavery in Africa that already existed, they enslaved one another. So when Europeans got here alongside, they simply type of went, “OK.” So these are issues that I believe can possibly get us nearer to one another, versus pointing fingers.

I believe that this second can also be about asking the allies to form of take a step again and permit another voices to return ahead and reframe a few of these conversations. That’s a type of sacrifice too. The allies must proceed working, and displaying up and simply being very acutely aware of the place you’re located and what you’re telling and the way you’re telling it, who you’re telling it with. I even undergo that means of eager about who am I hiring, who am I working with? All people’s acquired blind spots.


TKN: You already touched on this a bit of bit, however is there something you need to say about your new movie by way of how these are all related?

PN: The entire idea of the movie was to finish the trilogy by going into the house of training in Oakland. Not essentially to do an expose on the training system, as a result of I really feel like that story’s been informed; simply to be in that house and see it from the angle of the youngsters over the course of 1 yr.

However the entire thing stored iterating. Ultimately we determined that it was going to be by way of the eyes of the seniors. And as we moved alongside, it turned clear that it’s not simply the seniors, it’s this one explicit senior who sits on the college board who represents the 36,000 children within the district, after which weave that with the story of different children who’re extra in danger, who are usually not engaged politically, who are usually not leaders, who’re failing out, who’re struggling. So we needed to juxtapose these two views, however maintain the movie firmly rooted within the children’ perspective.

This can be a college of principally children of shade: it’s about one third black, one third Asian, and one third Hispanic. Only a few white child — and you might simply do a movie about them, and that will be a movie in and of itself. And as we went, we began realizing that was about children’ voices and the way does this technology that was born within the wake of 9/11 discover its voice, in a method. In order that labored thematically as a result of it’s a coming of age story and all that.

However then the coronavirus occurs and the youngsters expertise this trauma, and issues that a few of them have been eager about since they had been in kindergarten — like promenade, and commencement — all acquired taken away. And that was a crushing second for them. However then the Awakening occurred they usually type of emerged out of that with a really robust voice and an nearly optimistic propulsion into the longer term, although not all of them are being propelled into the longer term in a great way, a number of them nonetheless are struggling. So we’re attempting to determine the way to weave these two tales collectively.

And now that the Awakening has occurred, our one child who’s on the college board has change into the primary storyline, and it’s very robust, so how can we carry within the perspective of the opposite children who aren’t political, who aren’t leaders, who aren’t going to school? In some methods it’s simply form of telling itself. All these things occurred, we didn’t anticipate it—as occurs in nonfiction—and the truth that all of it occurred within the yr that we had been filming…..I can’t clarify it. We’re simply attempting to make sense of it.

However there’s one thing about this technology that’s totally different. As a result of if you concentrate on, being born within the wake of a nationwide trauma like 9/11, after which coming of age amidst this second, that’s a reasonably exceptional framing. I believe it’s related to the bigger concept of why we’re even speaking immediately, which is knowing and recognizing the influence of trauma. It’s one thing that’s troublesome to speak about, however actually vital. I believe there are methods that you are able to do it and permit folks to see one another somewhat than having this continuous division persist.

I don’t know what the reply is apart from to maintain telling these tales. And this story of the youngsters, I believe it’s gonna have a hopeful tone. They succeeded in two enormous measures: they acquired the age to vote on college board members in Oakland lowered to 16, they usually acquired the school police department disbanded, which additionally occurred in Minneapolis. Simply the truth that they had been in a position to achieve these two initiatives is fairly exceptional, for them to have had such imaginative and prescient. In some methods, they’re that rookie cop who’s witnessing an injustice, however they spoke up, they really had the braveness at a really younger age to make their voices heard. So I believe that’s going to be very hopeful and a really highly effective concept to place on the market proper now, as we seek for the management of the longer term that’s gonna get us by way of this very troublesome patch I believe we’re about to undergo over the subsequent couple of years.


Photograph: KQED


Peter Nicks is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker primarily based in Oakland, California, and the director and cinematographer of The Waiting RoomThe Force, and the forthcoming Homeroom. He obtained his BA from Howard College and his MA from UC Berkeley’s Documentary Movie Program in its Faculty of Journalism. He’s a 2015 United States Artist Fellow and the founding father of Open’hood, a non-profit storytelling entity devoted to exploring advanced social points — particularly, the important but under-funded public establishments that serve us all.





Reprinted with permission of The Kings Necktie

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