The Ferguson ArtRising
When Michael Brown was shot on August 9 he was transformed from a boy becoming a man with an unknown future to a reason for a movement. His tragic death transformed my city of St. Louis into a place of action and connection and serious visualization.
Most of us who were awakened by Michael Brown’s death already knew very well that we lived in a profoundly segregated city where prosperity is nearly impossible to attain for large swaths of people. But not all of us were aware of the entrenched problems of rampant ticketing, fining and jailing of our least empowered citizens. Many of us had not come face to face with the aggressive and violent policing of majority black neighborhoods. We were about to.
Those of us whose hearts were already heavy from the racial injustice we knew to be a complex and fundamental part of our city’s structure were slapped hard with the images of Michael Brown’s body laying on the hot street while his friends and family were coldly told to stay away. Then came the candle light vigil in Ferguson that was met by hostile police with dogs trained to be aggressive. Alongside individuals protesting these actions there was a fire and looting at a Quik Trip convenience store. Peaceful protesting and looting were made one by most of the country. Many news reports discussed “the violence in Ferguson” rather than the civil rights movement that was actually taking shape.
The people at the core of this initial response were largely young people who were tinderboxes of frustrations, now sparked into action. They came day and night, again and again, to offer their bodies and voices as evidence of their demand for justice. Politically minded people began organizing. Bang! There was voter registration, civil disobedience training, legal observation training and the organization of diverse protest actions all throughout the St. Louis area.
Groups gave themselves names like “Lost Voices,“ “Hands Up Coalition,“ “Eyes on Ferguson,” “TribeX” and “Dream Defenders.” Hashtags were used as a way for huge ideas to be encapsulated and communicated: #Ferguson and #MikeBrown became the universally understood tools of tying news and ideas together. #BlackLivesMatter, #DontShoot, #FergusonIsEverywhere, #Justice4MikeBrown emerged. Each of these phrases formed an action. These actions coincided with the communication of what was happening and what was needed.
At the same time that all of these new, latent, and in some cases, long-existent forces popped onto the scene in my city, the artists began to activate. By August 10th, art workers in St. Louis were trying to figure out how they could help join the justice movement coalescing around Michael Brown’s death.
St. Louis’s Regional Arts Commission (RAC) hosted a variety of events where art workers of any stripe could meet and formulate plans of action. Professional actor and theater educator Ed Reggi took a lead role in facilitating fast-paced networking activities between art workers who brought ideas and formed groups to begin their Ferguson support efforts.
The first of these meetings began with an outpouring of story. Black men and women gave the group their very personal stories of being Mike Brown. Quickly, these artists’ stories took root in the white art workers’ understanding of the situation we faced. We listened to the story of a woman who teaches drama to struggling young people, fighting for their survival. She hopes to reach them through her creative energy, her professional skill and her deep empathy. She remembers growing up in a school system that forgave her missteps, including carrying a knife to school in anticipation of using it. She knows what it is to be hopeless and knows that the arts are an avenue out of that depth of misery. We heard a man say that he is tired of being invisible in the art world, and, worse, perceived as dangerous just by his mere existence when he walks into a room or down the street.
The concept of “white privilege” was brought up and discussed. The lack of access to all the arts for the non-elite was decried. This was not a debate. It was a brain-storming of activated art workers. We took notes and began to build an idea of what is wrong so that we could think about how to address it.
The next meeting in this series of discussions was exceedingly productive. Just as some had on the political side of this effort, groups formed and actions were planned. Easily achieved actions like the #ChalkedUnarmed project conceived of by Mallory Nezam could be executed by any and everyone. Chalk outlines of bodies left on sidewalks and streets were marked by the names of black men and women who, though un-armed, had been killed extra-judiciously by police. Here was an awareness effort that could make the comfortable uncomfortable. Passers-by knew something was wrong when faced with an adult tracing the prone body of another adult, creating a crime scene. The name of the killed man or woman and the date instantly called up the context of Mike Brown’s recent shooting.
Jelani Brown is one of the artists whose work visualizing and expressing the important messages of the movement has shaped the movement. His message banners, spray painted on king sized white sheets, were part of many protest iterations. We held them at Busch Stadium, at Powell Hall when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra played and from bridges at dawn. At the time Michael Brown was killed, Jelani Brown was already working to support local youth as he studied graphic design. He had long been a member of the St. Louis chapter of the Organization for Black Struggle. He did not need to listen to others describe the problems faced by black men and women in St. Louis city and county.
Artists have been at the center of this movement. Artists of every sort. Including artists who never considered themselves as such.
Photographers, along with journalists and legal observers, have been among those facing hostile police while documenting the actions taking place in Ferguson and surrounding St. Louis. Many events go unobserved by the larger public. The only hope for these events to be acknowledged and realized by historical account comes when someone captures the moment particularly well and manages to find life for it to be seen. Some images quickly became iconic. Others gain strength when shown in juxtaposition with other images. We are all primed to respond to messages conducted through the arrangement of images. When used as memes, these visual arguments speak their own language, one that is not held captive by the geographic, social and economic constraints that has confined the young people who rightly named themselves “Lost Voices.”
The messages that activists wear painted on bandanas, t-shirts, hand fans, signs, umbrellas, pumpkins… all of these are efforts to communicate and develop an argument for a complex, nuanced movement. Our messages are a hopeful attempt to bring something into the community consciousness that might go further if the bearer stands behind the words on the sign. We consider the effect of words and presentation as we construct our calls to end the ticket-warrant racket that holds countless people hostage, to insist upon police reform and transparency, and to dismantle systems designed to uphold racist oppression.
Activists talk constantly about the way in which entities hostile to the movement shape the narrative. Shaping the narrative has a vital role on the private and public storytelling that each of us participates in. Everyone has an idea of what is going on. The activists involved in this movement struggle to communicate the narrative to each other with chants. Call and response chants provide a mandate for the moment, tying the participants into their purpose. Activists are energized and focused by repeating words like those taken from Assata Shakur’s Letter To My People, written on July 4th, 1973,
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Other artists work in more private, meditative ways. Richard Reilly is an example of someone who has used his private art practice to sift through the stimuli that he experiences as part of the movement. Daily, after attending public actions, participating in marches and town hall meetings, Reilly creates a collaged page of “ransom poetry.” He makes word collages that provide a connective tissue for the impressions left on him after conversations and encounters. Each is marked by #ferguson. They fill a fat notebook that he is happy to share and talk about. Each ransom poem has deep roots to literary tradition, historical events and Reilly’s own daily experience.
Artist activist Elizabeth Vega has used the tools of her art practice and her training in counseling victims of trauma to meet the demands of this movement. Vega brought giant boards to Canfield Green Apartment Complex, Mike Brown’s neighborhood, in order to provide emotionally fatigued children, adolescents and adults an opportunity to create their own collaged Story Wall. Through Vega, the Story Wall grew and grew each weekend of August and into September.
Vega brought art supplies for the collage project only to find that the people she encountered were starving for opportunities to engage in creative expression. Vega, like Jelani Brown, had long been active in the groups that had stepped up to make sure that this moment became a movement. She contacted artists she knew and those, like me, that she had met while protesting in front of city court buildings across the St. Louis area. The visioning that took root in that context was one of art as healing, art production as an act of community and personal exchange.
Some lessons in the pitfalls of trying were learned the hard way. One Sunday, Vega led a day of art and music that included a benevolent misstep. We installed swings designed from salvaged chairs by Mary Nani Higgins Lhotak. Vega had called the corporate owners of the apartment complex to gain permission, but with no luck. The next morning the manager cut the swings down because of liability issues while ironically leaving a very rickety semi-dangerous picnic table. We settled with the conceit that this had been a pop-up performance and that this was further evidence for the community’s need for a permanent place for art, performance and organizing – a long-term visioning goal that came only on the back of smaller, short-term envisioning.
Many of the tools that have been used to give voice to the voiceless throughout this movement are tried and true. Activists have long held mirrors up to face the line of police that face them. Damon Davis designed and built a mirrored coffin made for an ofrenda altar made in the Mexican Dia de Muertos tradition. The mirrored coffin made its way to several actions including an Amnesty International conference. The gigante paper-maché puppet representing Mike Brown that was built for the Ferguson October weekend (Oct 10-13, 2014) was based on a tradition that has become an integral part of protest across the world. It too found its way to later protest events as the days became months.
As I write this I am planning to participate in at least two actions that will take place in the next few days. One group of activists will attend a pre-Halloween “Fright Night” to present information about the frightening factual history of the local police department’s record regarding racial profiling and lack of accountability. Another event is underway to engage with members of the local newspaper over the lack of integrity shown when legal “leaks” were fed to a public by journalists who should be motivated to open lines of communication rather than fuel hostility. The hope for all of these actions is that they will move us further in our greater campaign to not just tell, but also show the story of racial injustice and oppression that remains a closeted secret here and in so many places. Our first and easiest target is often other artists. We know that because artists are professionals seers, thinkers and empathizers, they are most likely to become activated if the message can just go through.