The PEN Pod: Tough Questions About a Critical Week with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of the forthcoming Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about the ongoing protests in response to the killing of George Floyd; police violence against Black Americans, protesters, and members of the press; and PEN America’s response.
It’s been an incredibly critical week for free speech and free expression for more on how we might navigate these crises. We’re all trying to figure out what to do during this difficult time, and I’m wondering, what do you see as PEN America’s role as the country is swept up in this wave of police violence, particularly against Black citizens?
It’s a very unsettling moment in our country and in our democracy, and we share a sense of alarm at the naked racism and brutality that people, and particularly Black Americans, have experienced—obviously the murder of George Floyd and then the excessive use of force by police organizations across the country and beatings and harsh treatment of, in some cases, peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
For us at PEN America, our response is focused on a couple of different levels. We have a long-standing mission to elevate and amplify the voices of those who are lesser-heard—writers, often of color, immigrants, those who are cut out of the literary community. So we’ve tried to do that in terms of the resources that we’re sharing and what we’re elevating and amplifying on our platforms. We also play the role of fostering discourse across difference and engaging with difficult topics. So we’re involved in all sorts of conversations, convenings, and events to process these occurrences in our country and what we’re grappling with, and to engage with and talk with others in our chapter cities across America, in Washington, and elsewhere about how we can mount an appropriate, effective response.
Finally, our mission to defend free expression worldwide has really been tested right here at home with affronts to rights of protest and assembly. We just released a major report on protest rights last week, and have been active in debates and interviews about the violations of those fights. We’ve seen this week over a hundred attacks on the press and media covering the protest, and that’s an issue we’ve documented going back to 2014, when we released a report on press freedom violations in the context of the Ferguson, Missouri protests.
“It’s a very unsettling moment in our country and in our democracy, and we share a sense of alarm at the naked racism and brutality that people, and particularly Black Americans, have experienced—obviously the murder of George Floyd and then the excessive use of force by police organizations across the country and beatings and harsh treatment of, in some cases, peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment rights.”
We’ve become very alarmed in recent years at President Trump’s denigration of the media. We really see those fears come to full fruition this week as it’s become evident that law enforcement organizations all across the country do not recognize the role of a free press and feel no compunction about, in some cases, arresting members of the press, detaining members of the press, simply pushing and shoving and clobbering members of the press—be it local press, national press, or international press. We’ve sent a number of letters to top political officials at the state level with partner organizations this week, to outline how those attacks violate the First Amendment. We are in full mobilization mode around the defense of those free expression rights that are threatened in the U.S., at a level that really goes beyond what we’ve seen in the past.
How can we play a role in helping to center Black voices as an organization, both now and moving forward?
This is not a new issue for PEN America, although I won’t claim that it’s an issue we’ve necessarily gotten right yet. For many years, there has been a push within PEN America to diversify and expand the canon and do so through a wide range of programs. In recent years, if you look at, for example, the PEN Literary Awards, one of the things we’re very proud of and that people often comment on when they participate in that program, is just the incredible breadth of voices that have been honored and recognized through those awards, and they are catalytic for careers and have helped catapult writers forward to greater recognition and opportunity.
“Finally, our mission to defend free expression worldwide has really been tested right here at home with affronts to rights of protest and assembly. . . We are in full mobilization mode around the defense of those free expression rights that are threatened in the U.S., at a level that really goes beyond what we’ve seen in the past.”
We also have a series of programs where we’re working to develop individuals as writers— whether there are people who would otherwise be locked out of the literary community; or a program for workers who are in various fields of laboring but want to work to hone their writing skills (and some of them have actually gone on to enter MFA programs and develop careers as writers); our Prison & Justice Writing Program, where we mentor incarcerated writers and celebrate their work and give out the country’s only awards for prison writing. So we have a series of programs and activities that are focused on that. We also try to be thoughtful, in the context of all of our programs, panels, and festivals, that we represent the widest range of voices, and that Black and Latino writers play a prominent part.
Do we always get it right? No. The fact is, in the literary world and in PEN America and so many other organizations, there are legacy forces that are at work. These organizations—our own included—were created in a different era where it was essentially all white men who dominated. There have been many debates over the years within PEN, over the role of women, writers of color—I think and hope people would say there has been progress, but there is space for more progress. So we are pulling together with members of our Board, with writers of color, to continue to look at this hard and ask ourselves the difficult questions and figure it out—what we need to do as an organization to really force ourselves forward to the next level.
“I really hope we see some more leadership across the aisle in Congress, in state houses, in governors’ mansions, reminding people and upholding these values of free expression, open discourse, freedom of assembly, protest rights that underpin our country. They were the driving forces behind the revolution that created this country in the first place. And if we turn our back on them, we are in big trouble.”
One of the most extraordinary things that’s happened in the last few days was the tear gassing and use of chemical agents, at the direction of the president, against demonstrators in front of the White House to clear the park for a photo op. With that level of just sheer unbelievable action, what do we do to protect the First Amendment right now? What can activists and advocates do right now?
I think we have to speak out forcefully. I think we have to share these videos that show what is happening on the ground and the reality of it. I think we have to call upon leaders to speak out forcefully, including people from improbable and unexpected quarters. It was quite remarkable to see the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, putting out a statement reminding our armed forces what they stand for, that they’re there to stand up for the U.S. constitution, including the First Amendment and free assembly rights, that that is essential. I think we have a president who is trying to confuse those under his command about what it is that they stand for. And it is essential for everybody else to come together and be resolute.
I really hope we see some more leadership across the aisle in Congress, in state houses, in governors’ mansions, reminding people and upholding these values of free expression, open discourse, freedom of assembly, protest rights that underpin our country. They were the driving forces behind the revolution that created this country in the first place. And if we turn our back on them, we are in big trouble. And so, I think we’re at a pretty delicate moment in this country where we have an unpredictable president, and it really falls on the rest of us to keep our heads together and remember what we stand for and try to come together behind a defense of our democracy at a time when it is imperiled.
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