Reading between the Thin Blue Lines with poetry

This is the fourth in a series of artist profiles featuring the work of artists around social justice, policing, and activism. Click on the links to read previous stories on Detroit’s Allied Media ConferenceTheatre of the Oppressed NYC, and Philadelphia’s People’s Paper Co-op

If you were to casually ask your friends and peers what they think about police officers in America, there is a pretty good chance that you’re not going to get very flattering feedback (unless, of course, one of your informal pollsters happens to be related to an officer). Some of the stereotypes and misconceptions about police officers that exist in the American consciousness paint them as overly-macho, power-drunk, misogynistic, racist – “killer cops;” men encouraged to be MEN in all of the negative ways that could possibly entail.
Americans have a difficult relationship with those sworn to serve and protect, and vice versa. Performance artist and activist Marty Pottenger sought to shift some of these perceptions – the public’s perception of the police, the officers’ perception of themselves – when she started the project Thin Blue Lines through Art At Work in Portland, Maine.
In 2003, Pottenger was president of the board of the American Festivals Project when they organized a national conference called “Arts and Democracy.” One of the panels she organized explored, “What if art making and creative capabilities were integrated into municipal governments as one of their tools for dealing with such exciting times locally, globally, and nationally, when political, economic, and social institutions are pretty much guaranteed to break?”
She says she got a glimpse into the power of creativity through a project she did about Americans and money called “ABUNDANCE.” “I really saw the impact and potential of very simple art making on the part of people who did not identify as artists,” she explains. Over four years she facilitated work with 5,000 people, through which they created poems recalling their own experiences with money growing up and examined their own relationships with money growing up to compare to the relationships they have with money today.
“They had dramatic insights,” she recalls. “Money is a scary topic for everyone. The way they felt before and afterwards was undeniable: here’s this element of human nature – [self expression through poetry] – that isn’t used that often by most of us and was certainly not being used where social services break down. Without knowing any of the details of what was coming – this was 2003, [a few years before the Great Recession] – I knew this could be almost the missing element.”
And so poetry became a powerful instrument of arts-led social impact in her arsenal.
“That’s how Art At Work started,” Pottenger says. “Fortune smiled on me resulted on me having an art relationship with Portland as a playwright and activist. I had the mayor, the fire chief, and the president of the city’s NAACP in a play I wrote from their workshops. I accidentally-on-purpose found a city that would let me be a part of their infrastructure for eight years, from 2007 to 2015.”
Pottenger is founder and director of Art At Work, a national initiative first piloted with the City of Portland departments, unions and elected officials to improve municipal government through strategic arts projects.
Knowing that there would be a lot of on the ground work required of her in order to work with city departments, she immediately got started building relationships. “People don’t want to tell you what their issues are right away; they want you to see how great they are,” she says. “After a little while I learned the police department had historic low morale. I learned the departments are more siloed, more in competition than united, so I continued to meet officers and challenge my own acquired (by experience) and learned fear and trepidation around the police, and I talked to them and I thought, ‘What would be an art form that would both be challenging but also powerful for them?’ Making good art is supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be challenging and take you to hard places. Writing poetry is a really demanding activity, but it’s clear that it’s inherent in us; it’s a natural thing.” She pauses. “They obviously were not excited about writing poetry at all.”
Her goal was to help the police improve their morale. She explains, “That’s going to show up in the likelihood that they’re going to be disrespectful to the public, to their families, to each other. It will show up in substance abuse and depression. This is a community issue. This is on behalf of the most targeted among us. To have the police feel like they have some respect – that will change everything. That was a key concept from the beginning.”
Furthermore, “There is a very complicated relationship between what they do every day and how they psychologically handle it. The common perception that poetry and homosexuality are connected – and possibly contagious –  was another less visible but very real issue. In describing it I’ll sometimes summarize by saying that ‘Once  it became clear that writing poetry didn’t turn anyone gay unless they were gay already….three times as many officers volunteered to write poetry for the next poetry calendar.
To bridge that gap, she wrote a poem called “That’s Fine,” about people in Starbucks stepping away from officers but going up to firemen and slapping them on the backs and thanking them, all the while acting like the police are to be reviled and avoided. She posted this along with other poems around the station. She introduced them to the idea that “certain kinds of men” did write poetry, using the US soldier poet Brian Turner as an example. She learned more about their power structure and who they respected, identified the leaders of the police staff and built relationships through those power frames.
Still nobody wanted to write poetry. A year into her efforts she was asked, “Does it really have to be poetry?” “I really wanted to say, ‘Yes, it does,’ but instead I said, ‘No, it doesn’t. You could do photography, but poetry demands a kind of internal vigilance, alertness, and observational skills; a keenness of the writer that I think best matches good police work in what is required to be an effective officer.’ That spoke to them enough that they agreed to do it. So we were one step in a direction but we weren’t quite there yet.”
The next push came in the form of tragedy. An officer, Rob Johnsey, died in a controversial self-inflicted gunshot wound – the official opinion was that it was “accidental” – and Pottenger attended the funeral. At the funeral it was revealed that Johnsey wrote poetry and his best friend, “a really hard-nosed guy” who had been a very vocal opponent of what Pottenger was trying to do, had no idea. It was after that the officers agreed to her project with the money raised going to Johnsey’s family.
“Their whole culture is about stepping up and being there for each other,” Pottenger says. “Even with poetry, [in this instance] even the fear of turning gay wouldn’t dissuade all of them.”
She decided to make it a calendar. “I don’t even read poetry books!” she laughs. Each month would feature a photograph and poem created by participating officers partnered with local photographers and poets.
“Part of [a person’s sense of] morale is in their relationship to their family. Most officers literally can’t share most of what happens to them throughout the day with their family. It’s scary, it’s gross, it’s disgusting, it’s heartbreaking. It was important to have a calendar that will actually be at home on their walls and integrated into their families, with soccer and little league practices written on it showing this is their job and this is their family. Since policing is predominantly a male culture, I knew if I gave the calendar to the officers, they’d leave it in the trunk of their cruisers and it would never cross the threshold of their homes. As proud as they are of it, I know white working class men. So I mailed it to their homes, and that’s part of the strategy to get it to their partners without making a big to do about it.”
Five officers agreed to write poetry and she found five local poets to partner them with, in addition to five officers who agreed to take photographs paired with five professional photographers. Partner activities including ride-alongs, time spent together at headquarters and over coffee, rhyming and editing suggestions, and swapping stories. She had specific criteria for the artists they would work with: poets had to be published and photographers had to have gallery shows. They had to be people who were trying to inspire in their arenas.
She also had separate training sessions with the poets. “I needed to find poets who would follow my lead and are really good at what they do, but also poets who were able to put their own specialness aside and really devote themselves on behalf of someone else, to really think about what that person needs.” An officer can be in a life-threatening situation in five minutes – having a poet along for the ride who makes it his or her life’s mission not to obey anyone puts both of them at risk.
Pottenger had to work to overcome internalized beliefs and prejudices with the poets as much as with the officers. At the same time, she also wanted the work they produced to be good, and not just a throwaway. “We’re looking to change morale and change their lives but we also want to write something good, for godssakes!” she laughs. “[I told them], ‘It’s okay for this to be hard, to be work.'”
For the first meeting between the poets and the officers, she warned the poets not to quote any poetry at all. It was going well – people were making jokes and getting to know each other. Then, 45 minutes into the hour-long meeting, one of the poets ignored her instructions and quoted poetry. “It cracked the room,” she says. “The next thing you know, emotionally and spiritually there were no more officers in that room. The other four poets saw it too, so they knew that I knew what I was talking about and that it was a real thing and not just me being odd and bossy. Which I am both of those things!”
She also forbade the poets from reading their own poetry to the officers at any point. “The fact that the officers were riding in the cars with poets is traumatic enough! It’s just human nature to want something in return, but the officers are adults – they can look [the poets] up on the Internet if they want to. I also forbade them to mention two words together: ‘poetry reading.’ I had correctly assumed officers would not even think of that.”
That was Pottenger’s next hurdle: getting the officers on board with a public poetry reading. “It was like I was talking to the Grand Canyon and the phone was dropped,” she says of when she called to tell them the great news – that they could do a reading at the public library. “That’s a no go,” was the response she got, along with a quality of silence totally new to her. “If I thought getting them to write was hard, it was nothing compared to reading in public.”
They ended up with a sold-out crowd at the public library. The police thought it was just be them, the poets, and Pottenger – they had no idea how powerful it was going to be to read poetry in public. “It was so unbelievably moving, what a night!” she exclaims. “It changed their relationship with the community. It was huge. The next year they were eager to do it, even in the worst snowstorm of the damn winter.”
That next year 15 officers wanted to write poetry and 15 wanted to take photographs.
In a survey conducted by the Kellogg Foundation afterwards, they found that 83 percent of the officers felt increased morale and the other 17 percent just didn’t like Marty Pottenger. “Which is fine, I get it. I don’t like myself sometimes either!” she laughs.
Pottenger’s Art At Work project with the City of Holyoke, MA resulted in equally dramatic positive relational shifts between Puerto Rican-heritage community, activists and police officers. And though Art At Work has been developed in only two cities to date, it speaks to a much larger issue that affects the entire country. As tensions continue to rise between the police and the public, as stories continue to circulate through national media documenting police abusing power and victim blaming, as the “boy’s club” mentality comes under increasing public scrutiny and comparisons are made between American officers and Third Reich Gestapo, it’s becoming ever more clear that Pottenger is right: institutions such as these are guaranteed to break.

But that doesn’t have to mean that the relationship between the police and the public is beyond reconcile. Strategies such as Pottenger’s show that, as much as the public treats the police as stone-faced merciless authoritarians, they will in turn behave as such, and they face psychological struggles of their own for which there are no social agencies conducting outreach and engagement and a brutally internalized macho mentality that prevents them from reaching out on their own. The faces of police are still human ones, which is something everyone – even the officers themselves – seem to forget. 

For more from Marty Pottenger, view her TEDxDirigo Talk here