One recent afternoon, in an art classroom at Franklin High School, senior Sam Jimaale stood in front of a tall panel, painting a large sunflower and talking about the Black Panthers.
Jimaale had heard of the Black Panther Party before she joined Franklin’s Art of Resistance & Resilience (ARR) club, but didn’t know too much about them. “I didn’t know they were behind free breakfast programs at schools,” she said, touching up a big, yellowy-orange petal. “I didn’t know they were behind free community clinics.”
A few steps away, senior Asia Hemphill was gluing posters (of Angela Davis, David Bowie and Patti Smith) to another panel, this one painted like a red-brick wall. She also knew little about the Panthers before joining the club, but was excited to discover more. “I really like the girls a lot,” she said. “They saw guys had their Afros puffed out and did the same to their hair. They weren’t afraid to be natural.”
Franklin students of ARR, a social-justice-minded art club, are working on the panels (and learning about Panther history) for the set of “Don’t Call it a Riot!,” a play by local writer Amontaine Aurore about activism in Seattle, particularly the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, its disruption by the covert federal investigators of COINTELPRO, and the WTO demonstrations of 1999. Aurore had seen a Black Panther mural the students had painted for the fence outside Franklin last year, and asked if she could hire them to help with the set. “We don’t want to just use them!” Aurore said. “I believe in showing them that artists should get paid.”
“They all worked on this Black Panther theme last year, so I thought they might be burned out on that,” Lauren Holloway, educator at Franklin and co-adviser for ARR, said. “But a lot of them are really passionate about Black Panther history.”
Longtime ARR member Miles Grant, a senior who helped paint last year’s Black Panther mural, said the subject matter naturally attracted new members. “We’d be painting in the lunch room and people like Asia showed up and wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “The mural was a life-changing experience — I’m still going through Black Panther reading lists and reading about Black Panther history. And the play [“Don’t Call it a Riot!”] really puts you in the driver’s seat to see how the FBI gaslit people and destroyed families. It’s like a documentary.”
Holloway decided to start the ARR club in 2017, the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. “What was more horrifying than the news that Trump won the presidency was coming to school the next day and seeing the faces of the students,” she said. “It was quiet devastation. A lot of these teens don’t always know the minute details, but they can feel what is happening around them. So many are of color, first-generation immigrants, LGBTQ, and especially our Muslim students — we have a sizable number. It was just this anxiety of the unknown, like: ‘What’s about to happen?'”
Seeing them, she said, felt like a call to action. “I thought: ‘I need to do more, and what does more look like?'” Now, it looks like an after-school club, with roughly a dozen core members and others who come and go as their schedules allow.
Junior Alina Fowler, for example, listed her extracurricular interests while painting a panel that would be a landscape view out of one character’s window. “I’m in the robotics club, which takes up most of my time,” she said. “I’m president of the anime club, I do social media for EarthCorps, and next year I want to join the Black Student Union.”
What has she been learning by joining ARR? “Time management!” she said, grinning. Working on “Riot!,” she added, also helped humanize activist history — in both the Panther and WTO chapters. “When you hear about movements, you mostly hear about facts,” she said. “‘They’re fighting for this, they’re known for guns.’ But the play makes it less scary, helps you know what they were feeling.”
Learning about the WTO protests, Fowler said, has also sparked club conversations about activist tactics. “There’s the debate about whether to do more peaceful protest or property destruction to get your point across,” she said. “The peaceful way is powerful, but so is property destruction, if we do it in an organized manner — don’t hurt innocents, but go after specific buildings associated with the problem. That can make your point effectively.”
Students around the room worked, danced to their improvised soundtrack (Nirvana, Panic! At The Disco, Flo Rida with T-Pain), and chatted about whatever, from the music to the proper application of gold leaf on a giant, painted Afro pick.
When Grant talked about his Black Panther reading lists and mentioned black nationalist and Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, senior Véronique Harris chimed in (“I love Marcus Garvey!”) before shifting gears to talk about how women in the Black Panther Party didn’t get enough credit.
“The breakfast program? Women,” Harris said. “The Carolyn Downs clinic? Women. Sickle cell anemia treatment and research? Women. But there’s not a lot of information about them out there.” Harris, who began learning about the Black Panthers and other black-history leaders at family Kwanzaa celebrations, said she hopes to become a lawyer with a human-rights focus.
“I am really impressed that they have this interest,” Aurore, the playwright, said later by phone. “A lot of young people don’t care about history — and to me, theater is just so special. To get young people involved in this way is a wonderful thing.”
“Don’t Call it a Riot!” by Amontaine Aurore. May 30-June 23; Ten Auras Productions at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $20-$25; 800-838-3006, brownpapertickets.com
A photo caption has been updated to correctly identify Billie Holiday as the singer depicted in the mural with James Baldwin.