In This Episode
Protests in response to the murder of George Floyd at the end of May have sparked nationwide rallies that continue all across the country today. To understand how this moment became a movement, Phil talks with artist, filmmaker and activist Tourmaline. Tourmaline shares a tarot card reading with Phil, and they speak about the role spirituality plays in attempting to dismantle power structures.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. If you’ve been listening to the past few episodes, I sure hope you’ve gathered by now that I’m in search of spiritual meaning in my life. Attending protests and rallies over the past few weeks, I realized there’s something intrinsically spiritual about gathering together in solidarity and rebellion.
[crowd chanting] Will never be divided. The people will never be divided. George Floyd. George Floyd.
Phillip Picardi: Soul searching, I’ve learned, is at the very heart of movement work. How we show up is crucial, but we show up both physically and mentally. So what could it mean to show up spiritually too? What does it mean to allow ourselves to be connected to not just a moment in time, but an entire movement, to notice or observe just how spiritual it is to hear stories of sorrow and triumph and demand righteous, earth-shattering change? To help me answer some of those questions, I wanted to consult someone I am both honored and lucky to call a friend. The incredible Tourmaline. Tourmaline is a Black transwoman who’s an artist and director, best known for her film “Happy Birthday, Marcia.” Marcia P. Johnson was a legendary Stonewall activist, and Tourmaline’s film helped bring her historic activism to the mainstream consciousness.
[clip of Tourmaline] If I wanted to be a saint, I would sleep when it was dark. I’d be a loyal to the law and not the queens in the park. If I wanted to be a saint, I’d just pray to the pigs, I’d say “Yes, Mr. Officer” instead of “Fuck you, that’s my wig.”
Phillip Picardi: Just this week, Tourmaline’s film “Salacia” was officially acquired by the Museum of Modern Art as a part of their permanent collection. But before Tourmaline was an artist, she was an activist and an early adopter of both prison and police abolition, aka the dismantling of the police and the prison industrial complex. At the core of her work, be it in her movement or in her art, is a focus on the spiritual. After all, how can we change the world if we’re not willing to change our own hearts?
Phillip Picardi: Tourmaline, it’s an honor to be here with you and it’s an honor to hold space with you as always. Well, we’ll get more into your art and the art that you put into the world and how that’s all connected to your spirituality. But first, I still want to go back to your origin story. I guess I’d love to start by learning a little bit more about your spiritual origins. So what did faith look like to you while you were growing up?
Tourmaline: While I was growing up, faith meant a lot of different things. My family had a religious practice. And so my parents, you know, my dad really grew up, and both my parents grew up very religious, and my dad grew up in a Black Baptist church in Memphis and life was about the church. But they were also, or and they were also organizers of [unclear] around a lot of different things. But, you know, my dad was part of this group called The Invaders, which was basically the Memphis counterpart to the Black Panther Party. And my parents met in Detroit during labor organizing during the Detroit riots. And so to me, I grew up in this kind of rich legacy, this rich lineage of people doing, you know, my family doing activist and organizing work. And I could feel its power moving through me and I knew that it wasn’t separate from spirituality.
Phillip Picardi: I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about your activism work, because I’m sure many of the people who are listening know you as an artist and a director. But I’m curious about your, what you worked for, or what you work towards, with your community organizing work?
Tourmaline: Yeah, absolutely. So I moved to New York in 2002 and I got, as soon as I came here, I started getting involved in activist organizing work around issues of police violence and gentrification and prisons, around issues of like Black liberation and queer liberation as being always connected.
Phillip Picardi: I mean, if only you had a crystal ball and could see at this current moment, right? But it feels so, it feels so encouraging to know that this was spiritually motivated, you know, and that there was a spiritual component of all of this because to know that you felt called and to know that your spirituality is what kept you compelled to doing the work, is really powerful. And so when I think of when we first met, which was through your work on Happy Birthday, Marcia, your film, where you introduced really the world to Marsha P. Johnson, and people all of a sudden started this groundswell of: let’s honor Marsha P. Johnson, let’s honor the origins of Stonewall—you know, this this movement started bubbling and Marsha P. Johnson became a household name, at least in queer households. But to think that so many people who are listening to this probably have no idea that you are more than partially to thank for Marsha P. Johnson’s entering or reentering into our mainstream consciousness. And it’s massive. So, first of all, thank you for that. If I say nothing else today, I just want to say thank you.
Tourmaline: Thank you.
Phillip Picardi: But secondly, I want to point out that I feel from the outside looking in that your discovery of Marcia and your desire, your deep desire to bring her to our world again feels divinely ordained. And I don’t even know if I believe in that shit, you know what I mean? But I feel it when I hear you, when I hear you talk about her. Do you agree?
Tourmaline: Yeah. I mean, Marcia is, you know, I have a very deep spiritual relationship with Marcia Jackson. It’s amazing how much the world has come to value her legacy. And I, when I take a kind of wide and out perspective, I’m just like, this is amazing. This is amazing that more and more people are feeling this person’s power and knowing that she was shaping the world while she was alive, [unclear] here and well, after, you know, through many of us who channel her spirit, who line up with her vision. And so it’s powerful to have a role in bringing that forward to the world. And it was important to share someone’s spirit with the world who really in many ways kept me going. The like feeling of empowerment, the lessons of empowerment and power that I learned from Marcia are: you can feel power regardless of anyone really knowing about your worth or your value or recognizing your labor. That is the story of Marcia. So many people didn’t know about who she was when she was alive, and yet she moved with tremendous power. And so to me, I think that is an important way to look at it all.
Phillip Picardi: And also, I mean, talk about full circle moments in more ways than one, I mean, on the 51st anniversary of Stonewall, there was no corporatized Pride parade and instead there was a queer march for the Black Lives movement that was extremely well attended. Over 50,000 thousand people strong. And in fact, the NYPD, just like they did 51 years ago, came out with their batons and started beating the shit out of protesters, indiscriminately, repeating the same ills of their past that they did.
Phillip Picardi: You know? And it felt, on the one hand, it feels like, yes, yeah, you know, we have Marsha P. Johnson’s legacy that is very much alive and well, in its calls to defund the police and its calls to abolish the police. On the other hand, it’s like, look how far we haven’t come, you know? And it can feel, it can feel really disheartening. And I wonder, you know, rather than what I felt, I wonder what you felt like witnessing this moment as someone who’s been, who’s been trying to bring her legacy in prison abolition and police abolition to the forefront for over a decade.
Tourmaline: I feel amazed. I feel like we all went through a portal where now we live in a world where 15,000 people show up at the Brooklyn Museum chanting Black Trans Lives Matter, and I’m just so thrilled to be alive for that.
Phillip Picardi: And one of the things that you’ve been saying, which I love, is you’re not just calling for the abolition of the New York City Police Department. You’re also calling for all of us to abolish the police that are in our hearts and in our minds. So you’re saying that there is a spiritual element again, to abolition in particular. Can you elaborate on what that means?
Tourmaline: Yeah, absolutely. You know there’s a great, Angela Davis, who was one of the people who started the organization that I work for, Critical Resistance, you know, she talks a lot about recently how we as people who want to dismantle structures, it’s really important to think about our interior condition and the ways that these systems have shaped how we feel about ourselves and how we think about ourselves and how we treat each other. Meaning if we want to have a world that’s free of police, we have to think about the ways that we reproduce the logics of police, meaning punishing people or policing people’s behavior or policing people’s, you know, gender and even more than that. How are we doing that to ourselves, right? How have these systems, you know, moved through us and shaped the ways that we feel about ourselves, right? You know, this kind of violence doesn’t just affect our material condition, but it shapes the ways that we we feel about ourselves and our relationships to spirituality. That’s part of a long history of colonialism. And so to me, that part when I was organizing in that particular way was always on the forefront of my mind is our interior condition. Right? So it’s not just about stopping institutions. It’s not just about stopping interpersonal harm. It’s not just about making sure that we’re not so isolated from each other, but it’s about thinking through the ideologies that, of policing and how they are affecting our interior condition. And that’s what we call the five eyes of repression: ideological, institutional, interpersonal, interior and isolation. And all those issues, all those realms are important to organize around.
Phillip Picardi: Wow. OK, because I, I just think that that is incredibly profound. I have never thought about that even the way that we use the term policing like to to police someone’s body or to police someone’s behavior. I’ve never actually made a connection of how the physical police are also a manifestation of those kinds of same things and how they reinforce those same things in society. It is fascinating and mind boggling to think of it that way.
Tourmaline: Stonewall was in part a uprising against the NYPD policing people’s gender. Right? At the time there was a moral code in New York City but the NYPD enforcing the moral code said if you were a trans person, you had to wear, and you are appearing in public, you had to wear three articles of clothing with the gender you are associated with at birth. Meaning, if you were a trans woman, you could be arrested and put in jail if you weren’t wearing three articles of male clothing, quote unquote “male clothing.” And those still actually exist in prisons and jails and detention centers. And then it’s also really important to think about the legacy of something like an anti-cross dressing law, meaning when we are, when internalizing ideas about beauty and what does or doesn’t look good on us or what we can or cannot leave the house in, or when we’re holding a tremendous amount of shame about how we want to aestheticize or fashion ourselves, that’s the legacy of anti-crossdressing laws moving in a spiritual realm. In an immaterial realm and interior realm. And that’s the work that I seek now as an artist and filmmaker to to transform, right, how we feel about ourselves.
Phillip Picardi: Listen, if fashion and beauty were not powerful, they would not try to police it all of the time.
Tourmaline: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.
Phillip Picardi: Oh, it’s like, it’s like a salve for my soul to hear someone as brilliant as you talk about fashion and beauty and such a reverent and spiritual way.
Phillip Picardi: Let’s take a break right now and come back after this.
Phillip Picardi: Now, let’s pick up our conversation with Tourmaline.
Phillip Picardi: So I guess one of the things I would love if you, if you wouldn’t mind, I have never had my tarot read before. And for a while now, we’ve been talking about maybe we’ll do a tarot reading, maybe we’ll get on the phone. But I finally have you on the phone. For those of you who are listening, tourmaline is very hard to get on the phone lately because she’s a big MoMA star now. OK?
Tourmaline: [laughs] Hey MoMA.
Phillip Picardi: [laughs] So should we do, should we do some tarot before we let you go?
Tourmaline: Let’s do it, let’s do some tarot.
Phillip Picardi: OK, OK, so tell me what tarot is, and tell me how tarot would go if we were not social distancing and over a Zoom call recording a podcast.
Tourmaline: So tarot is just a tool like astrology or other tools to get deeper with ourselves and move in the direction of our desire. So what I thought I would do is I would, I’m going to shuffle a little bit and then I’m going to pull three cards. But if we weren’t social distancing, I would have you shuffle the deck and then, while thinking about a question that you have. And then I would look at the cards and, you know, use it as a way to help you get deeper with that question and move towards the answer. So, is there a question that you have that you’d like to . . . .?
Phillip Picardi: Hmmm. I mean, I think my big question is: what is next for me? But I don’t really have a particular framework for the question. Is it, this like a kind of an astrology thing where I need to tell you, like I’m thinking of career, I’m thinking of love, or I’m thinking of spirituality, or can I just be, like, super vague?
Tourmaline: You can be as vague as you want to be.
Phillip Picardi: I will be vague and I will say, what is next? What is next? That’s my question for the deck.
Tourmaline: Love that. OK. Before I start shuffling, the question that is helpful is: what is getting to the feeling place of what’s next? Meaning how do you want to feel in what’s next?
Phillip Picardi: I want to feel, I’m so afraid of the word “powerful” lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about power and the ways in which I have occupied power and therefore have been complicit in abuse of power. And so I guess I less have a desire to feel powerful than I guess just connected to and aware of my power. And I guess what’s next is, you know, I really want to feel intentional, like I want to feel like there is a purpose and I know and have clarity about my intention, and that that is what I need to do and go forth with in all aspects of of my life. You know, I mean, it’s no coincidence that we’re here in a podcast and I’m trying to figure out my relationship with God. But it does, it does apply to kind of all elements of like what a crisis of faith means that has permeated all elements of my life.
Tourmaline: So it’s not about feeling powerful, it’s about knowing your power, maybe knowing that you’re moving with a lot of intention so your actions are intentional actions. They’re informed by the fact that you do have power, that you know that you’re powerful and you’re doing actions from that place and you’re moving forward with clarity, and you feel clear about that.
Phillip Picardi: Yes, exactly. Yes.
Tourmaline: OK, so I’m going to shuffle a little bit.
Phillip Picardi: OK. Am I supposed to be saying the question in my head or something, or do I just watch you?
Tourmaline: Yeah, you just do whatever feels good. The best part about tarot works the best when to feel really good.
Phillip Picardi: Got it. OK.
Tourmaline: OK, so the hierophant is the ground. And I love this because this is, this is about grounding spiritual questions. You are Ace of Disks, so this is the highest manifestation card. This is about making material your, your connection with spirit. It’s a really good card. It’s like manifesting. The energy above you is the Emperor. That’s the Aries card. This is a trump card. You’re an Aires. This is about moving in new directions. So this is you materializing, making manifest your desire, it’s above, anyone looking out and seeing you move in new directions. Also, leadership, it’s about, and I hate to say it, it’s about power. It’s about moving with power and being all things Aries. You are first out of the gate. You are meant to be in charge. The energy below is the devil. So this is the Capricorn card. A lot of times that can be about work or career. That can be about you laughing at your bedevilments. It means when you’re in a situation that is seeking to throw you off, sometimes the best thing to do is laugh. You’re supposed to laugh at the situation and get back and also into your sexual deviant power. The energy above is about you being a leader. These are two trump cards. These are major. This is like big deal energy, big deal energy. OK, so this is really huge. Let me just flip this. I don’t know if I can flip it. This is you. This is you know, this is disks, this is work. This is manifesting. This is the energy above. This is like you’re, you’re being called and seen by the world as like taking up leadership, Aries, forward-moving emperor energy. And so you have some really great outcomes. And these are your three outcomes, three outcomes. The first one is lust. You are, yeah, I mean, this is a huge reading. This is a way of like Lust is a Leo cards, you’re going to find a way to be with your desire moving forward in a way that works really, really good for you. These are major cards, right? Like this means that there’s something really big about this happening for you. This is like a really big card. And then the second one is Queen of wands. This is about really self-actualizing. It’s about knowing your worth and remembering who you came into this world as, and allowing yourself to inhabit that. And then this one, this last one is Princess of Cups. It’s the dispossessive heart. It’s love that doesn’t seek to own anyone or any situation, but it’s loving with that full knowledge that you lare oved, that you are powerful, that, you know, when you’re loving, all of your channels are wide open. So you are this way moving forward, is powerful. It is lined up with the biggest version of you and it’s spiritual and it’s about work. And this is amazing.
Phillip Picardi: Wow. I, I feel like that was all extremely encouraging actually. Like I actually feel like a weight was just lifted off of my shoulders in a way. I don’t even know what to say. That was incredibly moving. And oddly, I feel oddly like sentimental or something. I very much appreciate that so much. What do I do with this reading, like what is, what is next with a tarot reading?
Tourmaline: So you really don’t have to do much of anything other than pay attention to your thoughts. This is a question about Mercury, thoughts and Taurus, work. And you want to just make sure that your thoughts about work feel good. And when they don’t, slow down, relax, take a bubble bath and massage your thoughts into a better feeling place.
Phillip Picardi: Amazing. Is there anything that the world should know about this movement this time? Anything that you have felt spiritually connected to that you want to give a shout out as a, as a closing thought or meditation?
Tourmaline: I just think that we’re in a beautiful sea change, and as much as we can remember that we’re in a new segment. We’re in a world that now 15,000 have come together in New York City around Black trans lives. We’re in a world where we’re really coming together around our desire for, to be free, to have a good feeling, to move around without violence, to release ourselves of police and prisons and the things that that harm us. Like we’re in a really powerful moment.
Phillip Picardi: Tourmaline, I have to say, your story is inspiring because to me, you illuminate so many different chapters of what this moment means. And what I mean by that is I know that there are a lot of people listening who maybe feel like they are not doing enough in this moment or that they’re not valuable in this moment, maybe because they don’t have the vocabulary, the upbringing, the education, the skill sets to be the people, or be the megaphone that people are listening to. And something that, you know, you’ve shown me, but both by being your friend and by getting to know you even through this conversation, is that there is a place for everyone.
Phillip Picardi: And I think what’s so powerful about it is, you’ve connected to your power in so many different ways throughout your life already, and in each different manifestation of your power, you gave us something different. And now we are just getting to witness the blossoming of the seeds that you’ve been planting all along. So I love you. Thank you.
Tourmaline: Thank you. I love you. This was so enjoyable.
Phillip Picardi: Thanks you. I appreciate it.
Phillip Picardi: You can check out Tourmaline’s work by watching Happy Birthday Marcia on Amazon Prime. Her latest film, Salacia, is available for viewing on the Museum of Modern Art’s website at MoMA.org. That’s MoMA dot org. To get more involved in the movement for Black trans lives, check out a resource document with people to follow, reading material and organizations to donate to, at actforblacktranslives.org. And for more on the growing movement to defund the police, check out 8toabolition dotcom. That’s the number eight, toabolition.com. Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our producers are Adriana Cargill and Elisa Gutierrez with production support from Alison Falzetta and Lyra Smith. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and our executive producer is Sara Geismer. Thanks for listening.