by Jenna Hanchard
From Fannie Lou Hamer to Stacey Abrams, Black womxn organizers have historically had one of the biggest impacts on transforming our communities and improving the social outcomes of our neighborhoods. In the last year in Seattle, there is no doubt Nikkita Oliver (they/them) has served as one of the community’s north stars as we look for solutions for eradicating police and State violence and building a community that we want to live in. In this pivotal moment in U.S. history, where more people have joined the fight for Black and Brown Liberation, Lola’s Ink journalist Jenna Hanchard was in conversation with Nikkita Oliver to talk about their leadership and imagining a future where someday they could just fade into the background.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Jenna Hanchard: What does Black Liberation look like, smell like, taste like, feel like?
Nikkita Oliver: I feel like I had a lot of things that it was about last year, and right now “choice” just feels like such an important thing. Black Liberation feels like “choice.” Even when we’re presented with an option, we’re presented with two options we would’ve never chosen for ourselves.
JH: I would love to talk about that moment of you addressing Mayor Jenny Durkan on the steps of City Hall.
NO: June 3, 2020 was a wild day. The folks that I went to the protest with, we started talking about that there was this major uprising, thousands of people are in the streets, what are our demands? We decided that we wanted to put out demands that were defund the police by 50%, invest in Black communities and free all protesters.
We didn’t know how many people would show up on June 3rd when we got to Cal Anderson park. But 12,000 people showed up to take demands to City Hall. For me what was powerful about that is that I didn’t view it as me delivering something. We marched within the crowd of folks and I viewed it as we the people are delivering demands to City Hall and telling them what we deserve and what we demand. There was an opportunity on the steps of City Hall to then deliver the demands and it was beautiful to see 12,000 people show up to deliver those demands.
JH: For those that don’t know, what is abolition? What does it mean to be an abolitionist in our day-to-day practice?
NO: Abolition, as a way of existing in a world that is incredibly punitive and oppressive does manifest in a lot of different ways. I also think of abolition especially in our day and age when we think about the ways in which physical enslavement of Black peoples has evolved into the prison industrial complex, how anti-Blackness has really permeated all aspects of living, how racialized capitalism plays a major role in that — abolition is developing a worldview that allows us to understand those forces. Another part of it is actively disrupting and tearing down oppressive structures. But, there’s a third piece for me that is equally important and sometimes more important: What are you building? Abolition is an invitation for a vision of something beyond police and prisons, punitive court systems. It is an invitation to imagine a world where people have what they need and rather than viewing people through a crime and punishment lens and rather than accepting poverty and racism as how the cookie crumbles, you envision a world where those things are not allowed to be a part of the way in which we as a community function. It really is based in the idea that we can create healthy, thriving, safe communities that are not reliant upon punitive or oppressive structures to make that happen, and it also acknowledges that things like racialized capitalism, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity have in many ways created the climate in the context that we’re in and we have to do the cultural work, the spiritual work of unearthing those unhelpful bad beliefs and instilling in us a a true regard, a true love and respect for the whole ecosystem of beings.
What abolition does not mean is that all pain and all harm will disappear. We still will have to figure out ways of restoring community members, of addressing harm when it happens, of transforming systems that maybe do not serve our ecosystem of people and creatures and plan it well — and so it’s not going to be, like, a clean, perfect transition from the space we’re abolishing into the space that we’re building. I really try to encourage folks that even in the defund the police conversation, we’re not going to get it all right at once but we can’t keep getting it all wrong.
JH: Do you think you would ever run again?
NO: I’m not sure. I’m honestly, even with this 2021 election, still in process, having conversations with community about what best serves our movement. I worry a lot about what I call the “Obama effect,” because we get in this place where we trust these elected officials because of the promises they make, because of maybe the identity they carry or the party that they’re with and that has failed us time and time again. Executive positions are very different than say the legislative position that AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is in. There are a lot of legislators and AOC can play as far left as she wants to play and she’s building the critical mass in that space, she’s organizing that space which means she spends less time governing and more time focused on, “how do I get these people to understand the real political agenda of what the most marginalized need.”
But when you’re in an executive role like mayor, you do have to concern yourself with governing. There is a governing responsibility. I’m not sure people realize it, but Seattle gets sued a lot. I could very easily spend four years fighting off suits, not achieve the things I told people I would do and then could very well hurt the way that people think about abolitionists or radicals in the movement and be like — look they got the opportunity to do it and they didn’t even really do it, and so I think it’s important to ask ourselves when we run, whatever position you run for, what’s the goal what’s the purpose, and can I actually fulfill that in a way that is accountable to we the people and actually meets the needs of the radical movement I’m a part of. And, if not, is there a way to be transparent about that and why will that transparency help or hinder?
I have an immense value in building movements and of course you can do that from a political seat, and at the same time you still have the challenge of governing and a system that was not made for us or by us in any way — and in fact was built to oppress most of us — and you become a part of that system, and so the difference between 2021 and 2017 is the uprising we just had, we hadn’t had that yet. We were still waiting for a massive uprising to occur and so at that point running for mayor represented two opportunities: The first was to put out a radical political agenda that could shape the next few years of how we move in our city, and the second was what if you win, it’s the opportunity to try to put that agenda in place. Post the uprisings that we’ve seen, I think that we have to consider that we’re in a new place and it might be better to have some of our radical on the front lines in community and not on the front line within city government. I’m still mulling that over, even for the 2021 election. I’m always open to the leading of our elders in our young people.
JH: I think I view you as one of the greatest leaders of the city, of our time. How do you see yourself?
NO: You know, I have really tried as much as possible to talk about the “we.” We’ve seen time and time again with movements that when the, “leader,” falls from their pedestal or is assassinated or for whatever reason is removed or imprisoned, sometimes movements don’t survive and I think it’s because we get too invested in the figurehead and we forget that we have our own agency to be a part of this movement. I think what has been so beautiful since May is people have found their own ways to get involved, their own front line. There are so many organizing bodies in the city right now: Black Action Coalition, Morning March and Everyday March, Decriminalize Seattle, King County Equity Now, I mean I could go down the list, there are so many organizing bodies, and that is a really powerful thing because it means that our movement is not dependent upon the vision or viability of any one person.
I take it very seriously the trust people give me, and I take it very seriously the visibility and the platform, and honestly, I kind of languish over it. I have a lot of sleepless nights over, “Am I doing the right thing, am I leveraging this well?” Not to mention, being a light-skinned Black mixed queer femme, that comes with certain privileges and wanting to make sure that I’m actually worthy of the visibility, not based on some privilege but based on I actually show up in community; I actually have community relationships; I really do the organizing, you know. I’m not out here just trying to get famous, like, this is about the work and having the various ingredients to show I’m doing that work and I’m showing up for it, and I’m building my analysis and knowing who I’m accountable to, who am I in partnership with, what coalitions call me on my shit, because I’m not perfect. I’m never going to be perfect, and everybody needs people to hold them accountable.
I especially think that post-this last election and the upcoming elections it’s going to be very easy for people to think that electoral politics is the best apparatus and start to idolize radicals in elected positions as the apex of public service and it’s just not true. We need so many different people because there’s so many different front lines and so you know my goal in a lot of ways is to figure out how do I amplify more coalitions, more voices, more spaces so that one day I could just fade into the backdrop and all they see is the people.
Jenna Hanchard is a Seattle-based journalist, public speaker, and multi-platform storyteller who centers voices of Black & Brown womxn. Her groundbreaking podcast, Lola’s Ink, shares unexplored stories of Black girl liberation.
Featured Image of Nikkita Oliver by Susan Fried.
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