Awakening and Sacrifice: A Conversation with Pete Nicks

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In January 2018 I spoke with the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Nicks about The Force, his feature documentary about Oakland’s deeply troubled police department and its history of violence. (That interview was reprinted here in June.)

The Force is the second film in his trilogy exploring the interconnected narratives of health care, criminal justice, and education in America. It won the Documentary Directing Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, was released theatrically by Kino Lorber, and aired nationwide on PBS’s Independent Lens. The previous film in the series, The Waiting Room, was set in Oakland’s Highland Hospital, and won the Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit award in 2012. Nicks is currently at work on the final segment, Homeroom, set in an Oakland public high school.

The following is a new interview with Pete, discussing those issues in the post-George Floyd world.


THE KING’S NECKTIE: I went back and looked at the interview we did a couple of years ago, and it was astonishing. The issues we talked about were exactly the same issues that are on the front page right now. So I really wanted to talk to you about how things have changed, if they’ve changed, and your take on the whole picture.

PETE NICKS: Clearly something has shifted in terms of how people are framing these things. And not just how they’re framing them, but how they are feeling about the urgency to act.

I’m speaking of what I would call “the allies.”

It’s not just white people. I think there are people—people who oftentimes are comfortable or privileged or whatever—who were in a space where making a sacrifice was too abstract to figure out. The actions that were presented seemed too radical, like defunding police or eliminating police altogether, or removing the Confederate flag from NASCAR, things like that. So I think the most tangible difference with this moment is that now we’re seeing the world taking the next step in a variety of different ways, both nationally and locally. The fact that defunding police or abolishing police is actually in the conversation is pretty astonishing.

My theory is that the pandemic kind of primed it, sort of cracked us open in a way that we hasn’t been done before and has now set the table for some of the reflection or inquiry that needs to happen.

Immediately after George Floyd’s murder, I got a call from one of the cops in The Force, and he asked me, “What do I do? How am I supposed to be in this moment?” I found it remarkable that he was reaching out to me for that. I had to tell him that, in my opinion, any kind of real change requires sacrifice. And that’s the same for politicians, for cops, for the privileged class. We all have to figure out what sacrifices we’re willing to make, because without that nothing’s gonna change.

Even for me personally, I’ve been trying to grapple with how I feel about the whole thing, because I spent two years filming inside the Oakland PD, and I got to know a lot of these cops very well, and I have a great affection for a lot of them. At the same time, I think that we need to reach a little bit deeper in terms of thinking about some of these things we’ve witnessed. That’s going to be uncomfortable—it’s always uncomfortable. But that’s where we’re at.

TKN: Can you be specific about the kinds of sacrifice that you think are in order?

PN: This is where you get into the abstraction. It seems like politically and culturally a lot of the fear is around losing things, like losing a sense of what it means to be an American in your mind, based on your history—that “Make America Great Again” idea. But we’re also talking about economic policies that will require sacrifice, whether that means less money in your bank account, or sharing more resources, or a sort of Bernie/AOC policy direction. I think reparations are a very tangible thing, if we’re going to give every African-American $150,000 or whatever it is. Various numbers have been floated about. I think that conversation’s probably going to be on the table, and that will require sacrifice: less money in our pockets.

I think another tangible thing that we’ve talked about in the documentary field is, if you’re a white ally, take a step back and not raise your voice louder than a Black person trying to speak their own history and their own story. Because historically, privileged white documentary filmmakers have told the stories of the poor and the under-resourced, going back to Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North. I think that is starting to change and filmmakers can be active in that, in trying to give opportunities to other people to tell their own stories.


TKN: I also wanted to talk about the defund issue, because as you say, it’s like Confederate flags at NASCAR. A month ago it was impossible, it wasn’t even on the menu, and now it’s happening. But at the same time, to a conservative audience, “defund the police” is still an incendiary phrase.

PN: I think it’s a semantic problem in part. There’s defund and then there’s abolish. Defunding, in my understanding of it, is about allocation of budgets, policy framework, moving social programs out of the police department and to other agencies. Defunding doesn’t mean abolish, it means reappropriating and rethinking the police force, potentially all the way down to police not having weapons. And that’s a radical idea, but even ideas like that are now starting to gain some traction. Maybe certain officers don’t need weapons. Maybe there’s tiers of officers. Maybe you have more of a social worker type of officer. So that conversation is going to evolve and we’re going to get a better understanding of what it means as we go, but it’s an important starting point.

When we started making The Force, I met with the mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, because we’d been toying with the idea of maybe doing a film about her. She was very adamant that she didn’t want to make a film about just police reform: she wanted to look at systemic change. And that’s something that I believe in 110% because you can’t just go and abolish the police without understanding that the context of the police is generations of American history, slave patrols and so on. So I think that police reform has to be approached in the context of systemic change, and that does lead toward certain policy or platforms that certain political candidates are now putting forward, that even the more moderate candidates are starting to recognize and listen to. So is that going to filter into the general populace? That’s the question.

Do you know what the annual budget is for the New York City Police Department?

TKN: No.

PN: It’s $6 billion. Three billion of it goes to salaries and I would bet a huge amount is going to pensions. So unions are one issue. Police unions are there to protect the police at all costs. I’m not an expert, but I’m an observer, and one of the things I observed with this new film about education, and also with the police film before that, is that the unions have a lot of power and are tied to the politicians—who are often liberal politicians—and they help these politicians get elected. So there’s a really difficult, tricky relationship. So in order to reform, you definitely have to look at the union leadership.

TKN: It’s interesting, a friend of mine recently sent me an article—you may have seen it—about lessons learned from Northern Ireland. It was written by a guy who’d been a police officer there during the Troubles, and then came to the US and was a cop here. A lot of it had to do with things you were just talking about—even what the police are called, the way they’re dressed. Simple but symbolic things.

PN: Right. So how are these departments deploying their resources when in theory they could take some of that money and direct it toward things like restorative justice, or training, or identifying ways that you can engage the community in ways that really emphasize de-escalation, and mental health, and all these things that the public just doesn’t totally grasp.

The public has a distorted sense of the threat that police face, because the police culture is all about telling that story. Every cop knows someone who’s been killed in the line of duty. Lots of cops, particularly in cities like Oakland, have seen or been in dangerous situations. So those stories get told and retold, and the public doesn’t see the rest of it, that these communities are more than just what the police see every day, which is sort of the distillation of all the failures resulting from generational injustice and poverty and racism, et cetera.

TKN: The question I was going to ask you was about the chances this moment offers for substantive reform in police departments, as opposed to broader cultural change. But what you just said suggests to me that they’re the one and the same. There can’t be one without the other.

PN: That’s the key. That’s why we’re doing the trilogy. We didn’t just do a film about a public hospital waiting room. One of the first people I met on The Waiting Room was a 12 year old girl who had been shot outside her middle school. She wasn’t in school learning, she was in the hospital waiting to get her gunshot wounds treated. And that’s a profound idea. So then you start thinking about the relationship between health care, criminal justice, education, community, the American Dream, and you realize that you have to look at it holistically.


PN: I think that’s been one of the problems with police departments for generations, the inability to dig deeper and to think about the history of the police.

The officer that was holding George Floyd’s back while the other officer knelt on his neck, is mixed race, just like me, and like Kaepernick for that matter. It was only his third day on the force. And learning his story was remarkable.

His mom’s white, like my mom, and his dad’s black. His dad was not in the picture. His mom was a single mom, and he wanted siblings, so she adopted four black kids. And those four kids grew up amidst Trayvon Martin and all these other stories, and they became activists. So when their brother made the decision to become a cop, there was some tension in that relationship. So I find that to be a really remarkable and telling metaphor for the country.

When the murder happened, these siblings did speak out. I don’t know how vocal they’ve been, but they have said some things publicly, and one of them was that they believe that their brother should have stopped this other officer who killed George Floyd, and he needs to be held accountable. And if that means charged with murder and incarcerated, then that’s what that means.

That’s a tough one. You know, it’s his third day, he’s a rookie…..for him to do that would have been pretty remarkable. But on the flip side of it, and this is the digging deeper thing, is the question of “Yeah, why didn’t he stop that other officer?” We have to ask ourselves that.

His siblings also said that their mother never talked about race growing up. And their mother—this white woman—said she didn’t know how to do it. Again, that’s digging deeper. Why did you adopt four black children? Maybe it’s because your eldest son is black, but still being afraid to dig into that.

For me personally, not just because I’m mixed race, but I was born into a Black family and grew up very Black in the Black church, went to Howard University, but I’ve always had a fascination with the duality of African Americans and the European founders of our country. I know it’s not just a duality, but narratively, I still do believe that duality is the controlling narrative of our country. Just like we learn in therapy, our narratives control us in ways that are subconscious, and if we don’t engage and dig deep we can veer off and lose our perspective. So that’s kind of how I see this moment. It’s an opportunity that sort of do some therapy. 

TKN: Well, that controlling narrative you’re talking about would be broken if that divide between black and white on economic issues was breached. If poor white people identified with poor black people because of the “poor” part, as opposed to identifying with rich white people because of the “white” part, that would be exactly what the powers-that-be do not want.

PN: Maybe white poverty needs to be talked about too, because white poverty is so very rarely discussed in this country. But there are a lot of similarities, culturally, between poor white people and Black people. It’s like that “Black Jeopardy” sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”

Some people believe that’s why Fred Hampton was killed. He had the potential to be the most charismatic, powerful leader ever, and he was building coalitions between the Panthers and poor white people, meeting with the coal mining unions in West Virginia and southeast Ohio. It was beginning to resonate and he was starting to make those connections and some people believe he was assassinated because of that. So those are some powerful ideas.

Police exercise their power in ways that transcends race, but then there’s the race dynamic in particular. When a policeman sees a black person, they’re already devalued that person’s life, and that then enables that policeman to put their knee on that person’s neck for eight minutes 46 seconds while they’re crying out for their mom, and what allows that other officer to not intervene, even though he’s black himself. So that speaks to the complexity of the issue.

And where do you start? What’s the thing to hone in on? It could be that defunding is a nice starting point. I’m about to start working on this film about the National Anthem and Francis Scott Key, who was a slaveholder, but also tried to repatriate Africans in America and send them back to Africa. That’s how Liberia started. It’s all ripe for storytelling, and I think that is going to be a big part of this whole process. It’s like sort of what Nikole Hannah-Jones did with the 1619 Project, what all us storytellers have been trying to do for a number of years, which is to connect the present to the past, because that’s really the whole thing. It’s become abstract in people’s minds, connecting police violence to our history.

We’re starting to see some of that dialogue coming into the police academies, but then those same recruits hit the street and it’s the Training Day thing. They learn in the academy, but they learn how to be cops on the street. You can teach them anything in the academy—about the Panthers, about slave patrols, about implicit bias, everything—and they could be crying in there and having revelations. But then day one, they’re out there in a different environment, and their real world instructor is the cop who killed George Floyd—I blocked his name out of my head. So if nobody had filmed what happened that day in Minneapolis, that rookie cop would have learned in that moment, “Oh, this is what you do.” So now he’s being taught, “You can’t do that.” That’s why his siblings are saying he must be prosecuted and he must go to prison.

It’s hard to argue against that. But it’s sad. And that’s going to be difficult for a lot of cops. But if we’re willing to prosecute, that’s a first very tangible step, and that’s part of the sacrifice in a way. I don’t know if sacrifice is the right word; you could also say justice. That’s the conversation that’s happening amongst a lot of police unions and police officers—more on the conservative side of the equation—that feeling that it’s an overreach similar to #MeToo. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult. But we have to have it. #MeToo has had a profound impact on how men think about themselves and how they think about women, and how they think about their power.


TKN: In the wake of George Floyd, I had a big argument with an old college friend, a conservative guy. His son’s a cop, and he was adamant that there’s no such thing as systemic racism in the police or anywhere else—that we’re only talking about a few bad apples, which is the standard dodge. So what do you say to somebody like that?

PN: I think the “only a few bad apples” argument dismisses the point entirely. You could have no bad apples and still have injustice happening because it’s the institution, and the power dynamic of it in connection to the history of the country.

But you don’t have to go too far back to connect to the present to the past. I actually wrote down…..(reads from a family tree) In 1857 my great great grandfather was born a slave, and was owned by the Nix family, n-i-x. This is a child who probably witnessed his father being whipped bloody. So trauma. Then in 1881 my great grandfather was born a free man, his family were sharecroppers, and they changed their name to “Nicks,” spelled c-k-s, which a lot of former slaves did when they became sharecroppers. Then in 1904 my grandfather was born and in 1930 my father was born, and he suffered from alcoholism and died at age 75 from a esophageal cancer. He was the first in his family go to college, faced tremendous racism growing up because he was an achiever and a striver, both in the Black community and in the establishment. Then I was born in 1968. So you sort of realize that the history is close.

King is one of the best at articulating very specific ways that barriers were placed in front of Black people to achieve. Being a slave is Exhibit A. You’re not even a human being. There’s a reality and a history that led to the problems that these communities are facing. And then you intersect that with the police and you’re going to have all kinds of problems, because these are generational trauma leads to trauma leads to trauma. Part of that is violence. Part of that is self-hate. Part of that is apathy.

Are there some bad cops? Yeah. There’s bad cops, bad teachers, bad doctors, bad soldiers. I’m watching “Billions” right now, and it’s like, man, there’s all kinds of like bad people on Wall Street doing all kinds of damage and rape. So yeah, they’re all around—bad people. But those are also systems too.

I don’t know how to get through to folks who don’t see that, like the guy you were talking to. But clearly, we create narratives in our head that are very, very powerful, and that can be very disconnected from the facts. We’re seeing that now with the people who refuse to wear masks. Part of the problem is leadership probably, but leadership’s also just a reflection of the country. It’s frustrating, but as storytellers, all we can do is tell these stories and really try to put the foot on the pedal in terms of exposing each other to different points of view.

And sometimes you have be sneaky, and come in the back door. That’s why I love that Saturday Night Live skit, the “Black Jeopardy” one. I bet you could show that sketch to some conservative white folks and they would laugh, they would get it. Maybe that gets them to think a little bit deeper. So we need to be creative and clever with how we approach this, because nobody’s going to change their mind based on an argument on a social media. So where are there real spaces for dialogue? 

TKN: At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the whole word “racism” is so loaded for white people. Like this guy, we went back and forth and I made zero headway because he just kept saying, “My son’s not racist. My son’s not racist.” And I’d say, “Well, I’m sure he’s not, but we’re talking about something beyond personal prejudice. We’re talking about institutionalized bias, etc etc.”

But what I didn’t say to him— and maybe I should have, if I was braver—was, “Your son probably is racist. I’m racist, you’re racist. We’ve all gotta look at ourselves.” But he was not even close to having that conversation.

PN: Can you separate your individual identity from the country’s identity? I don’t know.

Racism is a virus of sorts: it’s something that been plaguing this country from the beginning, and we’re all on the spectrum. Even Black people, because slavery was enabled by Africans, there was a culture of slavery in Africa that already existed, they enslaved each other. So when Europeans came along, they just sort of went, “OK.” So these are things that I think can maybe get us closer to each other, as opposed to pointing fingers.

I think that this moment is also about asking the allies to kind of take a step back and allow some other voices to come forward and reframe some of these conversations. That’s a form of sacrifice too. The allies have to continue working, and showing up and just being very conscious of where you’re situated and what you’re telling and how you’re telling it, who you’re telling it with. I even go through that process of thinking about who am I hiring, who am I working with? Everybody’s got blind spots.


TKN: You already touched on this a little bit, but is there anything you want to say about your new film in terms of how these are all connected?

PN: The whole concept of the film was to complete the trilogy by going into the space of education in Oakland. Not necessarily to do an expose on the education system, because I feel like that story’s been told; just to be in that space and see it from the perspective of the kids over the course of one year.

But the whole thing kept iterating. Eventually we decided that it was going to be through the eyes of the seniors. And as we moved along, it became clear that it’s not just the seniors, it’s this one particular senior who sits on the school board who represents the 36,000 kids in the district, and then weave that with the story of other kids who are more at risk, who are not engaged politically, who are not leaders, who are failing out, who are struggling. So we wanted to juxtapose those two perspectives, but keep the film firmly rooted in the kids’ perspective.

This is a school of mostly kids of color: it’s about one third black, one third Asian, and one third Hispanic. Very few white kid—and you could just do a film about them, and that would be a film in and of itself. And as we went, we started realizing that was about kids’ voices and how does this generation that was born in the wake of 9/11 find its voice, in a way. So that worked thematically because it’s a coming of age story and all that.

But then the coronavirus happens and the kids experience this trauma, and things that some of them have been thinking about since they were in kindergarten—like prom, and graduation—all got taken away. And that was a crushing moment for them. But then the Awakening happened and they sort of emerged out of that with a very strong voice and an almost optimistic propulsion into the future, though not all of them are being propelled into the future in a good way, a lot of them still are struggling. So we’re trying to figure out how to weave those two stories together.

And now that the Awakening has happened, our one kid who’s on the school board has become the main storyline, and it’s very strong, so how do we bring in the perspective of the other kids who aren’t political, who aren’t leaders, who aren’t going to college? In some ways it’s just kind of telling itself. All this stuff happened, we didn’t anticipate it—as happens in nonfiction—and the fact that it all happened in the year that we were filming…..I can’t explain it. We’re just trying to make sense of it.

But there’s something about this generation that’s different. Because if you think about, being born in the wake of a national trauma like 9/11, and then coming of age amidst this moment, that’s a pretty remarkable framing. I think it’s relevant to the larger idea of why we’re even talking today, which is understanding and recognizing the impact of trauma. It’s something that is difficult to talk about, but really necessary. I think there are ways that you can do it and allow people to see each other rather than having this continual division persist.

I don’t know what the answer is other than to keep telling these stories. And this story of the kids, I think it’s gonna have a hopeful tone. They succeeded in two huge measures: they got the age to vote on school board members in Oakland lowered to 16, and they got the school police department disbanded, which also happened in Minneapolis. Just the fact that they were able to succeed in these two initiatives is pretty remarkable, for them to have had such vision. In some ways, they are that rookie cop who’s witnessing an injustice, but they spoke up, they actually had the courage at a very young age to make their voices heard. So I think that’s going to be very hopeful and a very powerful idea to put out there right now, as we search for the leadership of the future that’s gonna get us through this very difficult patch I think we’re about to go through over the next couple of years.


Photo: KQED


Peter Nicks is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker based in Oakland, California, and the director and cinematographer of The Waiting Room, The Force, and the forthcoming Homeroom. He received his BA from Howard University and his MA from UC Berkeley’s Documentary Film Program in its School of Journalism. He is a 2015 United States Artist Fellow and the founder of Open’hood, a non-profit storytelling entity dedicated to exploring complex social issues—in particular, the vital yet under-funded public institutions that serve us all.





4 thoughts on “Awakening and Sacrifice: A Conversation with Pete Nicks

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