Anarchist playwright Benjamin Turk sees theater as more than entertainment. He believes plays can spark dialogue, transform community and attack systems of violence: capitalism, the police and prisons. Steeped in the work of Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal, who both resisted the idea that stories should help audiences connect with a main character and experience an overwhelming and resolved emotional turmoil (Aristotle called this "catharsis" and viewed it as the goal of a successful tragedy), Turk creates plays that challenge audiences to ask and answer pressing political questions, interrupting the dramatic flow for participatory conversations about police, gentrification, race and beyond. In advance of the July 18 performance of Behind the Badge, a play Turk has been touring across the United States, we spoke with him about his work, violence and the danger of "good cops."
See also: James Walsh on the Romero Troupe and Unbound, the doc premiering tomorrow
Westword: Talk about the event that's coming up?
Benjamin Turk: July 18 is going to be a performance of my play, Behind the Badge, with a community discussion led by Communities United Against Mass Incarceration. There will be a local conversation about mass incarceration and all the different meanings that go into that, as well as a performance of the play and some spoken word from Jeff Campbell. It's going to be a commemoration. It's the anniversary of when Alonzo Ashley was killed by the police. It will be a commemoration of that, and there will be family members there talking about that. It will be an event about how racist and fucked-up the police are and what we can do about it.
Talk about the play. What is it? What can audiences expect?
The play is a one-man interactive thing. I play a cop who thinks of himself as a good person. He's a neighborhood liaison. He's the softer side of policing. I pick an audience member, a volunteer, and set up an interrogation scene where I'm talking and the interogee doesn't say anything because they know their rights and they know not to talk. This cop is sound-boarding off of that person and is trying to legitimize himself as a good police officer. The play is also interrupted with interactive discussions with the audience about some of the things the play is trying to say and also about our American police state in general.
What are those conversations like?
They go down in a wide variety of ways. It really depends on the audience. Sometimes it can become rather free-wheeling, with people bringing up topics from personal experience, and other times it's more of a brainstorm: What do we know about prison? What do we know about torture? What do we know about the different reforms that are going on? We're collecting information and knowledge in the room, so people who have different experiences are also able to share that with me and also the rest of the audience.
Talk about how you got involved in prison work and dealing with the subject of police?
Insurgent Theater toured with a show called Ulysses Crewman, which I wrote, in which I played a WTO official, or a bureaucrat of some kind, going to a global summit. He is held hostage by anarchists. Things have gone wrong for the anarchists.
Kate, who is the director of this play, played a sole anarchist who had this hostage that she didn't know what to do with. It was a very violent play that dealt with questions of violence, militancy and revolution. It brought all of these questions up. We'd have long discussions with the audience afterward and in a lot of spaces we went with that show, people kept bringing up prison. They'd say, the stuff you're talking about in this play is kind of a moot point because we live in a police state, and these things are not possible. We have this bubble of prison stuff going on in this country.
It really opened my eyes, because I wasn't aware that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world or how people are in solitary confinement for decades. That really mobilized me to these issues and discussions that happened afterwards. We went back home and started an Anarchist Black Cross chapter. We evolved that from working on political -prisoner issues to prison abolition. That organization still exists. It's called Red Bird Prison Abolition. There is a sister organization called Red Bird Books to Prisoners. We sent books to prisoners and also started corresponding with them to strengthen the organization and start building resistance in Ohio.
Through that work, I got to know folks like Sean Swain, who is an anarchist prisoner serving a life sentence for a murder which was actually self-defense. The courts railroaded him.
Also, the guys from the Lucasville Uprising, an eleven-day standoff and occupation at a correctional facility in Lucasville in 1993, a number of them are still in prison, in solitary confinement. The guys who negotiated a peaceful surrender of the uprising, the state went after them and called them leaders. It put five of them on death row. I've been working to try to support them. In the process of doing that, we entered into another play about solitary confinement called In the Belly, where we got input from a lot of those prisoners, and put solitary confinement on the stage, so people would have some notion about what it is that is going on across the country.
Doing that play really deepened our connection with prison struggles and prisoner support and made it much more of a personal issue for us, even though none of us have actually been incarcerated. But now we have very good friends who've been in solitary confinement for decades. After that, it was like I can't imagine doing another Insurgent Theater play that doesn't deal with these issues, that doesn't deal with prison. Behind the Badge is about police, which is really the first step to incarceration and to our presentation. Obviously, police and prisons are related, and that's where that came up.
Read on for more from Benjamin Turk.
As you're writing about a self-perceived "good cop," what was that process like? Do you have empathy for good cops?
I've had a lot of debate and my thinking has evolved on this, whether or not police are the enemy. Is it possible to be a police officer and be a human being or are all cops bastards? That, plus trying to resist the gentrification of the neighborhood I was in and meeting the neighborhood liaison officer there and seeing how he operated and what was going on, as far as what that neighborhood was concerned, gave me impetus to write this play and to examine the psychology of police officers.
Then, in the process, I read Our Enemies in Blue, by Kristian Williams. After reading that, I went back and wrote a redraft of the play. He talks about this very issue in that book with some really good analysis. He says, yes there are good cops and good cops do the work of the state more effectively than the bad cops. At some point, we should be more afraid of them and more critical. We need to improve our analysis in order to be able to respond to the more nuanced ways police can operate and not just protest police brutality but protest police and over-policing.
What do you mean by over-policing?
The United States has a lot of cops per population. We put a ridiculous amount of money into controlling our population with military armed vultures on the streets. The police and the surveillance state are the most invasive system of control that human history has known. We are living in a police state.
Often times, at Occupy protests, people will say, "Oh no. We're moving toward a police state."
No. We've been in a police state. It's just that the police state operates in communities of color and low income, high unemployment communities where middle-class folks don't recognize themselves and don't understand what is going on.
Over-policing of poor neighborhoods, if you take a critical perspective on it, is a way the police increase trauma, violence and invisibility in those neighborhoods. They put violent, well-armed officers on the streets in the first place, and they're constantly making trouble. Then they arrest people, take them away, put them in prison for a few years, lock them away and then put them back into that same neighborhood, which serves to keep the black and marginalized dealing with harm and hurtful actions that occur in a community.
Over-policing is a system of institutionalized, systematic violence and control that is primarily exercised against targeted communities.
Talk about alternatives to policing systems?
Doing this play, one of the discussion sections is about alternatives. People talk about restorative justice, ways in which the survivor becomes central, instead of the state's priorities being central in dealing with harm or hurtful actions that occur in a community. I think that's just one example.
If you look at it throughout history, mostly police have not existed. Mostly, people have found other ways to deal with things. A lot of people look at that and say, yeah those other ways were torturous and barbaric and terrible, but what we have here today is only a more sophisticated and hidden form of torture and control that actually works better to control people and to traumatize and terrorize communities. I think that when it comes to alternatives, I'm of the opinion that, yes, on an individual level, when it comes to people who hurt each other, we need to find ways in our communities to deal with those things, to respond to those things. But on a system-wide level, the police don't do that and what the police do is worse than almost any alternative that I can imagine.
A lot of times, anarchists are held to this standard or expectation: Oh you want to get rid of capitalism or you want to get rid of the state? What are you going to do instead?
You're expected to have some kind of perfect, utopian alternative. In reality, it's destroying this and creating space for something else to evolve that's very likely to produce something better.
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Why use theater in dealing with these questions?
I came into theater almost randomly. I went to school for political science. I was always interested in politics and I was also always an artist. I would draw and paint. I met somebody who was really into theater and they were like, "I want to put on this play."
That experience of creating something that is thought-provoking and engaging and advances political, critical thought in collaboration with others is a process that has changed my life and has changed the lives of many other people that I've worked with over the last seven years that I've been doing this stuff. That is really inspiring to me.