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Slams, censorship, and the politics of prose.
Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
March 8, 1999
Encinitas is a very interesting place. A melange of five distinct communities, this coastal city is no stranger to people mixing it up over political differences. Usually it revolves around Greens and Growth, environment versus the economy, and who is zoomin' who at city hall. The new conflict in town, centers around cultural expression, perceived racism, blatant censorship, and standing up for what you believe. I would also suggest an element of duck and cover is at the heart of the issue.
It is probably best to start this story at the point where Mumia Abu-Jamal entered Encinitas politics. To mark Black History Month the 101 Artists colony in Encinitas was planning a free form gathering that included art, poetry, and music reflecting the African American experience, with full support of it's supporting patron,the Downtown Encinitas Maainstreet Association. This all changed however, when one of the participating artists stated that he was dedicating the event to Mumia Abu-Jamal, an alternative journalist wrongly convicted of murder in 1982.
The event was promptly canceled when DEMA refused to endorse the Mumia dedication, and threatened continued funding of the 101 Artist Colony. Meanwhile, back in the Lumberyard, event coordinator Robert Walker was fuming over what he saw as blatant racism on the part of the DEMA Board of Directors. I disagree with Mr. Walker, DEMA is not guilty of racism, the charge against them is a clear case of censorship. Something quite familiar to anyone remotely aware of the history surrounding the Mumia Abu-Jamal case.
Flash forward 4 days, on March 1st I received a forwarded E-mail from someone wondering why Second Annual Encinitas Poetry Slam was canceled. Contacting the DEMA office, Peder Norby, the Executive Director for the Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association, told me that he was not aware of any last minute cancellations regarding the poetry event. Retracing my steps I was able to make contact with the person who sent out the cancelation notice over the internet. What I discovered is that Robert Walker had resigned from the 101 Artist Colony Board in protest over the Mumia dedication incidence, and was no longer willing to organize and host the poetry event scheduled for March 2nd. In a show of support, a boycott against DEMA and the Encinitas Poetry slam was encouraged by Mr. Walker's contacts in the Poetry community. Is this Encinitas or what?
Although I was very disappointed, I was not at all surprised by Robert Walker's decision to undermine his work by disseminating false information about the slam being cancelled.
Is it just me, or do others see the irony in a group claiming to be victims of censorship, choosing self-censorship as their form of protest. Having been to the first DEMA sponsored slam, it is obvious the true victim in this whole mess was the people of Encinitas, who missed seeing some righteous poetry being performed at the La Paloma Theatre. A rare treat indeed.
Let's face it, the Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association, is afraid of two things; rocking the boat and police backlash. When one considers the amount of police brutality in America today, their fear is justified. The treatment of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Rodney King at the hands of the police, the wide spread corruption of Los Angeles's Rampart division, the rape of Abner Louima, and the murder of Amadou Diallo is reason enough for people to speak out against entrenched racism. Limiting the free speech of local artists though economic coercion is indefensible, doing it along racial lines is inexcusable.
If the Arts community in Encinitas is to thrive, members of our community must not be afraid of taking risks. Good art is that which challenges the senses, shakes up personally held beliefs, while evoking emotions both pleasant and unsettling. Art is about the conflict between light and shadow, perception and politics, the proud and the profane. Trying to homogenize artistic expression, will undermine any efforts to promote a vibrant arts community in Encinitas.
If it is necessary to assign blame to any of the parties involved, I would have to place it at the feet of the DEMA board who took it upon themselves to regulate free speech. Citing an unwillingness to align themselves with any group presenting an alternative voice, it is quite clear DEMA's hesitation is more about timidity, than it was about racism. But make no mistake, racism was lurking in the wings. This time it took the form of well-meaning community members hiding from the truth. Free Mumia!