Over the summer and into fall, Seattle saw an upswing in political activism prompted by the police killing of George Floyd. Thousands of people took to the streets. But with many stuck at home amid the pandemic, it was easier than ever to find a way to get involved, whether that meant taking the activism online, phone-banking from home for candidates in the Georgia Senate runoff election or incorporating themes of injustice into art.
With a new spike in coronavirus cases, the ways we fight for the things we believe in have shifted, but the urgency hasn’t gone away. Here are three stories of how activists kept going despite a pandemic and an all-consuming election — and how they plan to keep it up into the new year and beyond.
Channeling activism into art
On June 2, Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Amanda Morgan spoke out against systemic racism in its many forms, from police brutality to the ballet world’s well-documented diversity problem. Her words circulated widely on social media. They picked up momentum and didn’t stop.
“Black ballet dancers were talking a lot about injustices they were facing throughout the years and things that were still happening, and that still weren’t happening, for dancers of color,” she said. “And I was one of those dancers that was very much doing that, especially in my own ballet company because I am the only Black woman there.”
Morgan was also “protesting a lot during that time, really giving a lot of my energy to that.” She responded to media inquiries, she said, and “so many people reaching out to me … asking, ‘Oh, what can I do?’ Or ‘Do you want to be part of this?'”
“Obviously, I wanted to do all of it,” she said. But it meant she had less energy for herself. “I wasn’t actually letting myself cope with what was going on in the world, I wasn’t allowing myself to fully think about it, in an emotional way, in a sensitive way, that I think every person needs to … especially Black women.”
In early August, Morgan took a step back from attending protests in person. She was called back to work at PNB, and had to limit her own risk of exposure as part of the company’s COVID precautions.
She skipped protests and walked to work instead of taking the bus. Though working under these constraints wasn’t ideal, Morgan said she and her colleagues were glad to be working at all. “In these particular times we’re really grateful to be able to dance,” she said. “Some companies aren’t able to and aren’t able to pay their dancers, and we’re able to do all of that still.”
But Morgan’s activism didn’t stop. It simply evolved. “After that I tried to put all of that energy into my art, the things I was making,” she said.
Against the backdrop of the summer’s protests, Morgan choreographed “Musings,” “about spatial injustice for Black femmes in the city of Seattle” for Seattle Dance Collective in collaboration with Spectrum Dance Theater’s Nia-Amina Minor. She performed with PNB in performances recorded and streamed to subscribers.
Now, Morgan is taking some time for herself — a month of self-care. She has the time. With no immediate PNB performances scheduled, she won’t be dancing again until February. And “I’ve been saying no to a lot of people,” she said.
Morgan is dedicated to continuing her activism, and making it sustainable is part of that. She sees her work against systemic racism within and outside of the ballet world as ongoing, a long game. “I think a lot of people are gonna think, ‘Oh, it’s fine now, because we have a Black woman as vice president, and we have a president that’s Democratic, but at the end of the day, they still have done a lot of atrocious things towards people of color and communities of color,” she said. “So I think we still need to very much bring the heat no matter what.”
Activism goes online
Five days after George Floyd was killed, Tacoma science teacher Tara Bacher took her daughter and a friend to a protest at Westlake Center, where police threw flash-bang grenades at protesters. It was a disturbing experience that cemented her opposition to police violence and systemic racism, and afterward, she and her daughter continued attending protests in the Puget Sound area. Then a new wave of coronavirus cases hit.
“We attended a few different protests and marches down in the Tacoma area earlier in the summer before numbers really started getting out of control,” she said. “But since then, I would say the majority of the things that we have done have been more virtual and online.”
For Bacher, activism at home has meant educating herself and her family about systemic racism. She has “attended” online conferences and workshops with speakers including Ibram X. Kendi, Eddie Glaude and Bettina Love. Bacher also participates in community groups like the South Sound Antiracist Project, and her family supports organizations like the National Conflict Resolution Center and the Equal Justice Initiative. “We’re trying to stay as active as we can while still being safe in terms of health,” she said.
With the move online, it was easier to include her family in these events and discussions that followed. “This has dominated our conversation, I would say, as a family this last year,” she said.
Still, Bacher’s looking forward to a time when she can return to taking in-person actions. “I’m looking forward to being able to be more physically present at things like city council meetings where votes that matter and will impact people are happening,” she said. “I’m looking forward to being able to help with election canvassing … that face-to-face connection can make such a difference.”
And as a teacher, she’s looking forward “to being back in the classroom with my students, so these conversations can be happening more organically and naturally and consistently.”
“One race really can be pivotal”
Julia Ricketts sees 2020 not as an unusual year for political action, but the culmination of newly-motivated activism sparked by the election of President Donald Trump.
Ricketts leads a group of 300 political volunteers called Code Blue Washington. The group bolsters Democratic campaigns from state-level races to the Senate runoff in Georgia.
“Most of the people I know who are doing political volunteer work pretty much found a way to start doing it in 2017 and have been going ever since,” she said, attributing Democratic wins to “the dedicated, hard-core volunteers who show up again and again, year after year,” who were “totally galvanized by what happened in 2016.”
Since then, Ricketts has watched as these volunteers “have matured and grown up a bit into more seasoned, and savvy, political citizens.”
Code Blue Washington uses Facebook and Google groups to send members monthly actions, and is powered primarily by women volunteers in their 30s, 40s, 50s and “beyond.” “Some are retired, some are busy with their own careers, and some are stay-at-home moms who try to figure out a way to fit in a little bit of political action,” said Ricketts. They’re all “doers,” who form “an auxiliary field force” for campaigns.
Ricketts started the Seattle-based Code Blue Washington in 2017. She said taking action felt important after the 2016 election. “Most people are motivated by things that they care about, and we could all see that a lot of things were going to be really put to the test … by a Trump presidency and we were not wrong,” she said. “Nobody was wrong to feel anxious or scared. But if you stayed stuck in that place for four years, honestly, you’d probably have a huge ulcer by now.”
Instead, Code Blue channeled that anxiety into supporting Democrats in races large and small, in the state and across the country, even experimenting: “What if we make another 1000 phone calls for some tiny board of supervisors race in Connecticut?”
“All this was new to me,” said Ricketts. “And it was new to a lot of people … And it turns out it does work. You can’t move mountains, necessarily, but you can create enough extra energy in a close race.”
This was nowhere more apparent than in State Sen. Manka Dinghra’s 2017 win, which flipped the State Senate and paved the way for a slate of Democratic policies. “Experiences like that really helped my volunteers be like, ‘Oh, my God, one seat can really make a difference,” said Ricketts. “One race can really be pivotal.”
In every election, the group chooses three to six races to focus on, supporting candidates through phone- and text-banking and postcard- and letter-writing. As of December, they were working on the Senate runoff in Georgia, connecting volunteers with phonebanks for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
Ricketts sees much work ahead. Given Trump’s refusal to concede the presidential race and attacks on voting, she said, “I think we’re just going to have to have a big reset in tactics and messaging around voting.”
And there’s one more thing. “I think some of the hard-core people might need to take a break, the dedicated volunteers who have given it all, you know, they might need some time, and I might have to include myself there, too,” she said. “A little bit of recovery time” — then on to the next race.