After the May 30 protest in Cleveland, the question came to Jasmine Golphin: What’s next? She had attended the demonstration over the killing of George Floyd downtown, and went home that evening so full of energy that she stayed up talking with a friend about the possibility of change late into the night.
The morning came, followed by the next week, and Golphin, a writer, photographer, artist and filmmaker kept going back to that conversation: What’s next? But the police-reform-oriented groups she found looked, to her, to be already tired-out by the extent of their work, and needed an injection of youthful energy.
Though gaining popularity in the farther reaches of the political left, the controversial idea of police abolition, which entails replacing entire departments with an alternative mechanism of law enforcement, had also not yet found much purchase in ever-moderate Cleveland.
But the idea piqued her interest and from that moment, Black Spring CLE was born. The organization has grown rapidly since then. It has accumulated more than 1,000 Facebook likes, raised about $10,000 to build a community garden, and had a hand in organizing several recent protests in tandem with other Black Lives Matter-aligned groups, including one at the presidential debate and an early-morning gathering outside Mayor Frank Jackson’s house.
Most recently, Black Spring CLE launched the “Abolish the Overlap” campaign, to shine a spotlight on the many often-overlooked smaller police departments that operate inside the city, like the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority police and the police that patrol the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. On Oct. 29, it held a digital town hall in conjunction with Clevelanders for Public Transit to advocate for reform in the GCRTA department.
Though she is quick to point out that Black Spring CLE is led by committee, Golphin is one of its key organizers. In addition to that activism, Golphin has worked at several area arts organizations, including Spaces art gallery and the Cleveland International Film Festival. She is also currently a cadre member at Maelstrom Collaborative Arts, a multidisciplinary live performance company. Its most recent production, which Golphin contributed to, was The Wandering, an in-person experience meant for a single audience member.
We caught up with Golphin via video chat to talk activism, art and everything in between.
CM: What is Black Spring CLE, and where did it come from?
JG: I tell everybody that Black Spring Cleveland was an organization I came up with in the middle of a panic attack, about less than a week after the May 30 protests in Cleveland. I had been in other protests, I had seen other movements and things happening in Cleveland before. But this was the first time I had ever seen a turnout that big, and everyone was feeling the same thing. So my thought was, OK, so, what’s next? And very quickly, I’m realizing that the organizations that are in place to do that kind of work are already exhausted, they’re already tapped out. I was just trying to figure out: Who do I connect to? It is my artist background. I did the same thing I would do if I were doing a film project: Put out a post and be like, “Hey, who can I work with?” It’s just the stakes are way higher. The way that it has snowballed so quickly is still very surreal and overwhelming to me. One of the things I say immediately is: I am not Black Spring Cleveland alone anymore. We have almost 100 people volunteering within it at this point. It started as an idea of mine, but it has run way out of hands, in the best way.
CM: One of the things that has set Black Spring apart recently has been calling for the abolition of smaller police departments that operate inside the city of Cleveland, like the RTA police and the CMSD police. Why did you want to point the spotlight at those kinds of departments?
JG: We’ve tried reform, right? We’ve tried, like, plugging in things and patchworking it. That doesn’t work. So now let’s just build something else that could work. Let’s run a couple tests. Let’s keep doing it. We don’t have to wait for permission from on high to approve it. I think the other thing that relates to this idea is: It is hard to tell people to get rid of something they have only known their entire life. Part of the objective of picking these specific things like CMSD, like the Greater Cleveland RTA, is, one, there was a framework already in place. Black Spring was in a position to just support what was already there and help take it to that next level. Part of it is that these are models that we can develop and can be implemented in other places. Part of it is education, so that people can rethink what we think about policing. But a lot of it is we wanted to do something that people who are not plugged in can look at and go, “Oh, that’s what you mean.” That little bit is the key to the conversation.
CM: You just said that reform isn’t working, and we’re talking about specifically in Cleveland here, where there is a consent decree in place to overhaul the Cleveland Police Department. What makes you say reform isn’t working?
JG: Because people keep getting killed by police, or brutalized. Or when some sort of crime is committed, against usually people of color, usually Black people, but also all of us, there is no path to true justice. We can talk about the consent decree and break it down every single way. But the fact that the function of this service that’s supposed to protect and serve us is not protecting and serving all of us, that’s an indication of failure. It’s truly just that simple.
CM: OK, so then let’s talk about the “something new.” If Black Spring were to realize all of its goals about policing in Cleveland, what would that look like?
JG: It’s two-pronged. There is the issue of crime. There is a crime, it needs to be addressed, a victim deserves restitution, that side of it. That alone is complex and requires so many different avenues to plug into that it gets to the point where we’re not just talking about policing. We’re talking about the judicial system in general, and there are a lot of things we need to look at. The second part of it is: what is crime prevention? What can be done about the things that cause most crimes, which are crimes of opportunity or desperation or need. So it’s doing things like Black Spring Harvest, where we’re providing free food, no questions asked. But I always hesitate on figuring out the details immediately. For me, my banner is to keep saying, “We have to try something. Here’s what we think the answer is at this moment.” We broke it down for both the CMSD and RTA plan, step by step what it is that we’re looking to do. We’re not just talking about letting people do whatever they want. Like, we want unarmed ambassadors on the bus that can address safety concerns, and they are trained in de-escalation.
CM: If I can, I’d like to go into the realm of practical politics here. None of the demands of Black Lives Matter activists, regardless of which organizations they’re in, have gotten much purchase in Cleveland City Council, or with the mayor. Mayor Jackson has flatly rejected calls to “defund” the department, even by swapping out some police officers for social workers. Cleveland City Council recently took federal money to hire more officers, much to activists’ chagrin. Even Basheer Jones, the only council member who seemed open to the idea of “defunding” the police, has walked back that rhetoric. What does that tell you?
JG: So, I have a metaphor for this. There is a theater to all of it. There are players that know their parts. Everyone has their motivation. They know their lines, they know their marks. But now there’s a moose on stage. But everyone wants to keep treating the moose like it’s normal, and just keep the show going around. And as an audience member, I’m like, “Can we get rid of the moose?” I am in no way surprised that any politician in this city, let alone this country, would not want to get on board, because it disrupts the norm that they understand. That’s why Black Spring is in this position to create demonstrations, to create the community alternative, to work with our neighbors and say, “Hey, that’s not working. So let’s develop something that will.”
CM: This is straying a little from the main point, but one of the criticisms that is sometimes leveled at protesters in Cleveland is: “Well, if you care so much, why don’t you come over and work within the system and make it better?” Mayor Jackson even alluded to this point in his State of the City address this year, when he said that the way the Cleveland police department will change long-term is if there are more Black police officers within it. When you hear that, what is your reaction?
JG: What I hear is, “We don’t know how to do anything besides what’s normal, so everyone should just plug into what’s normal.” Which is this broken system. Everyone should just adapt to this thing that’s causing us harm. Putting Black people in a system that is designed to cause harm against Black people will not solve the problem. Period.
CM: Well, I guess this is the point in the political theater where I, the reporter, bring out some statistics. There was a Quinnipiac poll done in Ohio, in June. We’re a battleground state, so we’re getting a lot of polling lately. And this poll, in addition to the normal battery of political questions, asked Ohioans how they feel about policing in their communities. Sixty-four percent of Ohioans said they think discrimination against Black people in the United States is a serious problem. Fifty-three percent had a favorable view of Black Lives Matter. But 57% opposed cutting funding for police in their communities and shifting that money to social services, and 82% opposed eliminating police departments altogether. There appears to be a big gap between what people think, and what they’re willing to actually do.
JG: I’m speaking for myself here. There’s a whole other team of leadership. My background is in media. So when, you know, what [people think] the scary leftists are saying is, “Let’s get rid of Superman,” instead what we’re actually saying is, “Have you read this one book called Watchmen?” That’s what we’re trying to get at. So, yeah, there’s nothing surprising to me that when you ask someone “Do you support Black people?” or “Is violence a problem?” everyone’s like, “Yeah that’s a problem.” And then when you ask, “OK, well, the one thing you understand as safety is going to be either defunded or eliminated completely,” of course they’re going to say, “Don’t get rid of the one thing I’ve ever seen.” So what has to happen is this educational campaign, this conversation.
CM: In addition to all of your activism, you do photography, you make films, you’ve worked in community organizing-type roles in arts organizations. How did you arrive at art as the thing you wanted to do?
JG: The disgusting answer is that I’m one of those people who has always known what they wanted to do, since I was 9. I wanted to be an artist, and at the time I thought that meant being a painter. At around 14, I was like, “Oh, I can still be an artist and make film.” I’ve wanted to do the thing I’ve wanted to do now since I was 14. I am a very visual person. Sometimes I need 24 frames per second. Sometimes I just need one.
CM: We were talking about theater before, and you are part of an actual theater company, Maelstrom Collaborative Arts. Maelstrom is putting on a socially distant show right now called The Wandering, meant for one audience member, or two people from the same household. [Editor’s Note: The Wandering closed Nov. 1.] The company’s website describes it as “part art gallery, part theme park ride or haunted house.” What does that mean?
JG: There’s one person to take your ticket, and then it’s just you in the space. You’re exploring the space. There’ll be music cues and audio cues and the whole nine. With that in mind, we started thinking: OK, what’s the story? What it is, really, is looking at responding to a traumatic moment going on, and all those complexities. I won’t give too much away, but there is an event that happens. The narrative is that everyone was impacted by that tragic event and starts to share the same dream, the same dreamscape. That’s what we gave our artists to run with, over 30 artists. We break the space off into the night of the event, a week after, and then a month after, so you’re going through the dreamscape, but also the time that’s passing. I was already going to hype it up as a cadre member, producer, fellow artist who’s got an installation in there. But I went through the dress rehearsal and went, “Oh, this is actually moving.” I’m really proud that when we got the opportunity to do something different, we really knocked it out of the park.
CM: Have you started thinking about your art as activism? Or about trying to achieve activist ends with your art?
JG: My art is about self-expression. At the end of the day, I’m an artist, and I am an artist because I don’t feel heard. So some of my art, by definition, will be activist art. But I am selfishly an artist first and foremost. I love y’all, and I want us all to come up and do better. But I have to consistently make art, not unlike Tinkerbell receiving claps. I truly have to just keep going. I don’t have that much direct intention. It’s about what’s on my heart currently. If it’s activist work, it’s activist work. But I did a photo set this summer of myself, just depressed as hell, there’s blood and weird colors and crazy angles. And on some level, that’s activism for me. If we look at protest as a way of being disruptive, and any sort of disruption causes an avenue for new conversation, then me being transparent about what I’m feeling and how hard it hurts sometimes is a form of disruption. Especially as a Black woman, we are culturally conditioned not to do that, to be strong and silent. I think by definition, anything that I’m going to do, if I’m going to be honest about what I’m feeling, honest about what I want to depict, honest about why and intention, it is going to be [seen as] political and activist and protest. But it isn’t intentionally that way. I’m just trying to live.
CM: So, to prepare for this interview, I started going through your YouTube channel. I watched some of your videos. You’ve worked on documentaries and have really wide-ranging interests. But the one thing I wanted to ask you about most was this: last December, you went to see Cats, and you posted an almost hour-long review of it on your channel, where you’re holding a cat. I also saw Cats. And I just want to talk about how crazy the movie Cats is.
JG: This is going to sound like I’m trying to make one giant point, but it should really just inspire people to follow your dreams. Even if you fail, you could still succeed. I still don’t understand what I saw. I am not familiar with the play, so apparently the complete lack of plot is inherent [to it]? The CG — have you ever played any sort of PlayStation 1 era game? Yeah. Except in some cases, it was worse. It was amazing.