The city of Baltimore exploded in April. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody precipitated an all-out urban rebellion that shook the city for a week. Any notion that Ferguson, Missouri was somehow a fluke, an aberration, was thrown out the window. Of course, the rebellions in Ferguson since the death of Mike Brown and the protests that followed the non-indictment of the cop who choked Eric Garner to death revealed the real nature of "post-racial" America and gave birth to a movement; nobody who is not in complete denial can look that in the face and say that racism is a non-issue. What was proven the events in Baltimore, which unfolded an hour's drive from the nation's capital, is that the combativeness of Ferguson, the willingness to fight back by any means necessary, was and is widespread.
Red Wedge approached several artists and cultural workers — visual artists, writers, musicians and poets — and asked them their thoughts on the rebellion. We focused heavily on artists of color and anti-racists, for reasons that should seem obvious. Some of these thoughts were written specially for this piece. Others were appeared elsewhere, either on an artist's blog or social media, and are republished here with permission. Not all of them agree with each other, and some say some things that we on the editorial board may disagree with. But we wish to publish these artists' thoughts to show, in a small way, that the ramifications of Baltimore will be far-reaching, and will in the long run impact the worldview of any creative expression concerned with humanity's future.
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B. Ra-El Ali (formerly known as Byron Taylor), visual artist:
With the recent murder of Freddie Gray April 19th, 2015, the city of Baltimore has been in a complete uproar. With 350 business affected including two CVS pharmacy stores, at least 250 people have been arrested, thousands of police and Maryland Army National Guard troops have been deployed, a state of emergency was declared in the city of Baltimore. Baltimore has not experience an event such since the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Baltimore is only the most recent headline concerning police brutality, with the protest and riots that rose in the names of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Gardner it seems as though the killing of black men by law enforcement has become a trend. Isolating these incidents cause a false perception, the true reality African Americans live in everyday is the killing of black people is a culture of the United States. Looking back in the days of slavery and Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan historically killing black people in America has not only been accepted at one point in time but also celebrated. It was even found in the court of law that the United States “Government Agencies” were guilty in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The United States of America has set the tone for the killing of Black men so it is the United States of America who must change this is ongoing issue.
Technology is revealing the true culture of the United States to the masses. The cell phone camera is finally bringing the issues to the surface. Hopefully during an age where it can create and actual shift in getting this manner solved the right way. A Psycho-analysis is needed of every police officer to judge if they are fit for duty. Body cameras for every officer and clearer laws that outline when excessive force is needed and when it is not. The police have a tough job to do. Especial in cities such as Baltimore where 23% of people are under the poverty level and unemployment is high along with the crime rate, 5th highest in the nation. These are also government issues. If the issue of police brutality is not addressed nationally, soon the tension between citizens and police will keep increasing and it is clear that there will continue to be protest and riots similar to Baltimore, New York and Ferguson.
Protests and riots are the people making one statement and one statement only. “Power to the People”. The people are demanding justice and are demanding their rights. By destroying property the people are letting the police and the world know that we allow you to protect us and we are dissatisfied with you service. The people are sick of the oppressive nature that many not all police officers have against the citizens. The City of Baltimore itself has paid an outrageous 5.7 million dollars in court settlements for police brutality cases. While at the same time many of the officers who were accused of excessive force in the settlement cases still work for the police force. It is needless to say that no amount of money can make up for a dead mother, father, son or daughter.
Yvonne Osei, visual artist:
My Ghanaian friend once said:
When you put a black-feathered hen in a coop full of white hens, the black hen will be pecked to death. Similarly, when a white-feathered hen is put in a coop full of black hens, that white hen will not survive to see the next day.
The killings and protests in Sanford, St. Louis, New York City, Baltimore, and across the country are not happenings of the moment. These events are shadows of history that haunt the present and our potentially bright futures. We, as people, have fallen short of protecting and honoring ourselves as human beings.
Many times, I have heard people associate uncivilized behavior with indigenous African practices such as eating so called “bush meat” and practicing animism. Also, people associate uncivilized behavior with the lack of western education and technological advancement to keep abreast with current times. I contend the shallow, inaccuracy of these descriptions and propose a new one. For me, being uncivilized, if that word is even appropriate to begin with, is being like the chicken in the coop that pecks on its own species because of its inability to comprehend color difference. Cannibalism in poultry is just like racial discrimination. When we cannot think past our differences in complexion, we reduce fellow humans to objects that lack human value in our eyes.
If humans can build skyscrapers and go to outer space and back, then the ability to comprehend physical human differences and foster opportunities for collaboration and co-existence seem effortless. Transcending racial tensions in the world is not just about noticing difference and coming to terms with it. It is about seeing difference and embracing it — being global is not about diversity but about pluralism.
The implications of racism and utter distraction of life, precisely of young black males in the United States, cannot be captured through mere words. Whether we care about racism or not, whether we are active/inactive in preventing racism or perpetuating it, we all suffer from the consequences of racism, and the murder of young black men. Whether we are or stand for white, black, red, orange, or green, whether we eat in gold bowls or scavenge in trashcans for food, we are all influenced by the system we have created — race.
As an artist from the Ashanti culture of Ghana, I would like to end my statement with a visual proverb (an Adinkra symbol) from my culture. Its title is Funtunfunefu Denkyemfunefu and it portrays Siamese crocodiles.
The symbol is a reminder that infighting is harmful to all who engage in it. Such are the racial divides that foster enmity and reduce our limitless abilities. Unless we rise to embrace humanity, our behavior towards each other based on our physical differences will be no different than the chicken confined in coops.
Boots Riley, poet and rapper:
I support looting, whether a riot's going on or not. Will it change the system? No. But it's poor people working together to get a temporary benefit. It's a reform. It's not a reform that, left on its own, will build a movement. But it's the job of revolutionaries to see what that's about and organize around it.
What it's about is that people are poor and they want some change to that. This is how people come into contact with capitalism in their daily lives. The struggle to survive. This is why rebellions very often turn to looting. People need shit. Even if they loot expensive shoes, most often, they're selling that shit afterward. Looting is not the protests going off topic- it's addressing the thing that was the topic in the first place. The one that people aren't talking about.
Communities of color have interactions with the police on the pretense of the illegal economies that many of us must engage in to have an income. This need for the illegal economy is ordained by the structure of capitalism and it's necessity for unemployment. When people say "Fuck The Police" it's not only about the daily harassment they receive, it's also that the police- even if they aren't being brutal and are arresting someone in accordance with all laws- are further impairing people's ability to pay bills, to pay rent, to buy food.
The radical left has been missing a key piece of the puzzle for the last 50 years. Radical is the key word here. Not center left, not liberals. They can get involved and we'll radicalize them. But-
Revolutionaries need to be organizing a radical, militant labor movement.
FJ (Fernando Romulo), poet:
Throughout decades the police have and continue to specifically target black people in this country. However, just recently Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a negative entity that targets brown people, murdered a black male. This proves that it is not just the police that are killing black people but other institutions as well. Building bridges of solidarity with other marginalized people in this country is crucial if we ever want to see our black brothers and sisters gain their liberation. From a Latino point of view we need to start breaking the cultural barriers that separate us and realize we are in the same struggle as black people in this country.
As we have seen in Ferguson and now in Baltimore gangs that have had a rivalry for decades are coming together to organize against these racist institutions. If gangs, who for decades have inflicted deep wounds through violence, can come together during times of distress then grassroots organizations should have a smoother transition in tying up our loose ends together. Whether you’re fighting against police brutality, deportations and abuse of migrant people, gentrification, a minimum wage increase, or womyn's rights all of our struggles have the same master. Victory is improbable if we don’t start unifying our struggles into one and showing solidarity in all protests/actions.
As a spoken word artist my main focus is to create pieces of art that expose the realities of this imperialistic regime.
Richard Wallace, aka EPIC, poet and rapper:
When I heard the news about Freddie Gray, the first thought that came to mind was, “damn, it's happening again”. A feeling of complete powerlessness consumed me, my limbs went numb and tears welled up in my eyelids. These feelings didn’t arrive simply because Freddie Gray was killed, it was because it could have been me. The terrifying lesson I learned from the highly publicized cases of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown and now Freddie Gray, is that due to my race, class and gender I am disposable in the U.S. I walk through life carrying that truth, and it structures my reality. In a very real way, black men have been dehumanized to the point that regardless of the facts, murdering us is justified and reinforced by the institutions that govern our society. Time and time again we protest and demand justices to blind eyes and deaf ears. Murderers go free, mothers cry and black men get buried.
In processing my recidivist emotions around black men being murdered, I evolved from wanting justice to wanting solutions. Justice would call for the arrest of the officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray; solutions would call for reforming the institutions that endorse the officers’ actions. What happened in Baltimore didn’t happen in a silo, police have hunted black men since slavery was abolished. Camera phones have made the lynching of black men visible to a wider audience in 2015, but the process of black men being killed by the police dates back to 1800s and the enactment of Black Codes in the south. Black Codes were institutional practices supported by the U.S government that restricted the freedom of black people and reinforced a system of white supremacy. The Black Codes, slave codes and many other laws did more than just restrict black people’s access to full citizenship; they endorsed the dehumanization of black people. That dehumanization is the foundation for the unrest in Baltimore and across the country. Unless the institutions that govern our country rectify the societal impact of the decisions they have made that structure the reality of black people in America, then Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and countless others will continue to die by the hands of the country they pledge allegiance to. I am not afraid of the police, I’m afraid of the institutions that support and reinforce their behavior.
In search of solutions to this problem, I look toward the main contradiction of my reality today, which is the freedom our country proclaims as an unalienable right verses the reality of being black in America. Only in acknowledging that this contradiction exists can we create a better vision for the future. Our ability to reflect on our past and present experiences to develop visions for the future is what makes us humans.
Lamar Jorden, poet:
It is said that art imitates life. I, as both a creator and consumer of art, have found that when mainstream media is left to the control of the powers that be, life begins to imitate the art that is promoted. For both of these reasons, I feel it is more often than not the responsibility of artists to make art that echoes the struggles of the common people. Especially when that struggle is not pretty, as few struggles are. That's what art tends to do; make the ugly beautiful. more digestible. Translate the screams of the people into something that will last past this moment. Even in this day and age where most mainstream artists are little more than dancing puppets for the evil corporations that run the world, they are often role models due to societal standards of success, and for that reason it is also important that those people make themselves seen in solidarity with the "common" folk as well, even when not in a position to create art that speaks to and for their struggle. that's just how powerful art is. even more powerful than the people in power.
Jesaka Brooks, visual artist and musician:
The notion of Revolution daily becomes more reality than historical fiction to the growing population of young activists of color. Our activism occurs in social media, in the way that we speak and sing and write and hashtag, in the creative endeavors we choose to perform, in our lives themselves. In response to the ongoing protests and civil unrest in Baltimore, many artists have been outspoken in their desire to support and validate the struggle against the white supremacist police agenda, and, indeed, to beckon the greater-public to even acknowledge that this struggle is real.
Overt racism is not as publicly accepted as it once was. However, the struggle of antiracism has been heavily whitewashed, so that even those who perpetuate racism often do not consider themselves, their actions, or their passive support of systematic violence against people of color (often in the form of "colorblindness") to be racist. Judith Butler, in her New York Times interview with George Yancy, refers to racism now as "a way of seeing". The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police was not an isolated incident; it was a product of an ongoing and systemic culture of violence against Black people. The reaction in protest and the subsequent conviction of his killers, the outrage and demand for justice, were a proportionate reaction to both his death specifically and the ongoing systemic problem: in a word, the way that we are "seen". To invent a new way of seeing Black people is to challenge society's casual acceptance of the violence inflicted upon us by the state. Work that does this, such as that of Kehinde Wiley, Adam Pendleton and many others, calls attention to the larger culture of violence. Rather than allowing individual cases of violence and the protests that ensue in reaction to them to be written off as incidental and unimportant, this work humanizes Black people and in doing so, boldly calls attention to the lack of humanity that Black people are granted in the current status quo.
Kehinde Wiley's portraits are jarring to some because they frame the images of young brown people as heroic. This is a revolutionary act. To place the image of the "other" where historically we have always seen the white ideal of beauty is to challenge our understanding of history itself. Many Black Americans are already aware that the history we are taught, from primary school through higher education, is not entirely accurate. It places the heroism, the narrative itself, in the hands of the writers. The ones who write, who paint, who define history by describing the present, have historically been white. So to challenge this understanding of (art) history is to therefore challenge the way we are seeing and understanding the present. It is a call to action, a visual manifestation of the assertion that Black Lives DO Matter, do deserve to be represented, and absolutely must be decriminalized, normalized, celebrated. Adam Pendleton's recent work serves as a historical record of the current condition of resistance. To put pen to paper, to hang paintings in a gallery that proclaim that Black Lives Matter, he amends the historical record to include the fact that we do not see ourselves and our struggle accurately represented in history.
Tying ourselves to the past in this way helps to strengthen and validate the culture of resistance. When we create a reality in which Black faces and lives overcome the anonymity forced upon them by racism, we completely restructure the way that we interact: with each other, with the police, with the viewer.
In the way that these artists describe the current condition of Black people in America, they offer an alternative to the racist mainstream narrative of the Black condition: that we are criminals, that our mere existence is a threat to the status quo, that we do not matter because our place in history clearly demonstrates our inequity. This narrative is, of course, completely backward. It is more accurate to say that Black people have been systematically excluded from history, except as the deserving victims of white violence. The often cited notion that the "personal is political" is no less accurate here; by doing nothing other than simply placing ourselves in history, we destabilize the racist agenda of our culture and government and deny them our silence- we force society to reckon with our presence in hopes that it will come to finally allow us to breathe.
“No Prisons, No Cops, This Racist Shit Has Got to Stop!” I heard this chant being embraced by hundreds of people in the streets of Oakland this past May Day. I thought about how never in my wildest dreams would I imagine chanting that a couple of years ago at the same May Day rally! I thought about how improbable it felt to be chanting this alongside workers, unions, elders, youth of color, artists, healers, and social justice organizers of all struggles, and yet there I was. No Prisons, No Cops, This Racist Shit Has Got To Stop. Those are not light words. Those words are pure abolition, and the people are fully aware.
This shift we’re seeing in our culture of resistance didn’t just happen overnight. People didn’t just wake up one morning and think that a world without police could actually be possible. It is a result of Black women and youth organizers’ labor who in turn are building upon decades of even more labor by Black women and youth organizers’ labor. Their work to exhibit that the system is working exactly how it’s intended to work, and therefore, needs to be removed, has been critical in the shaping of our current movement, and must not be lost sight of as we move forward.
Our collective histories of struggles and wins are intentionally obscured from us as methods of control, repression and ensuring dependency on a system that in reality does nothing for us. The beauty of an anti-police violence movement being led by those most directly impacted (youth of color) is the corresponding emphasis on the integral role that art and culture play in our organizing efforts. Collective storytelling through illustrations, poetry, hip-hop, dance, digital media and more have always been used as tools, instruments, tactics, and strategies in communities of colors’ efforts in challenging state violence, and so this shift in the movement’s direction has fortunately uplifted that important piece, too.
Recently, Black and non-Black POC artists and activists have been getting their work highlighted through an online space called Artists Against Police Violence, with the goal of making our work accessible and usable for communities organizing against police violence against Black people. It’s been powerful seeing artists illuminating Black women as the backbone of decades of movement work, or illustrating our collective histories, wins and lessons learned, and really just emphasizing the fact that these police shooting of Black people are not isolated incidents, and doing so in every creative and innovate way possible.
Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, visual artist:
In 2002, a graduate student studying studio art completed an amazing thesis exhibition of ceramic work that transcended the tradition of craft. This now established visual artist known as Theartist Serinity, was an advocator of justice through protest art when it was not popular. Her thesis exhibition held at the African American Museum of Southern Illinois was a brave visual statement on the vicious murder of James Byrd who in 1988 was dragged to death by three white men, of whom were his drinking buddies from Jasper, Texas. Byrd was dragged for three miles behind a pick-up truck along asphalt road until his body parts were torn a part. Her central focus point was a ceramic human form of Byrd that was broken upon a dirt road, with her spiritual healing vessels spaced thoughtfully throughout the gallery. Though she was not addressing police abuse, I feel that her creative work addressed the umbrella of white supremacy.
What I found interesting was the memories I had as a youth about some of the racist behavior in the white community, especially polices officers. The current media visibility of the long history of white supremacy by our police officers seems to reflect what the Last Poets called, “God Complex.” The definition of white supremacy is the action of anyone evaluating white figures, behavior, etc. above that of other cultural groups. The “God Complex” of the police departments from California to Baltimore, from West coast to the East coast, has continued to cost African American men their lives in the 21st century. Understand, just because I am not addressing your perspective of this social disease, doesn’t mean this perspective has no merit in a public forum. My mixed-media drawing titled, IN MY was about the Ferguson police shooting and how important it is to communicate with our youth. This drawing was shown in the Alliance of Black Art Galleries’ Hands Up, Don’t Shoot Exhibition, in which a hundred artists were invited to have a creative voice. I am seeing so many artists today coming to the forefront with social and political content, which Theartist Serinity expressed as, ". . . giving insight of my past, present and projected future state[s] of being."
Xavier J. Velasquez, poet and dancer:
A brilliant artist once told me that if you are going to fight, fight with your art; a choice not only courageous, but noble. The Baltimore uprising following the death of Freddie Gray has been quite contentious in recent weeks with the media continuing to highlight those things which perpetuate their own racist agendas. Therefore, as artists we must use our creative talents to fight back and tell the truth, and art is the most powerful medium in the world to do that. Art lends to the archives and the history of human existence. If someone else's art has helped us survive in this world, it is our duty to use our art to help others too; especially those who face adversity and oppression. Let us, then, leave a powerful mark on this earth.
B. RaEl Ali is a visual and spoken work artist and hip-hop dancer from the south side of Chicago.
Jesaka Brooks is a visual artist and musician currently based in Carbondale, Illinois where she plays feminist moody outsider pop with her band Thee Mistakes. She is also an active member and organizer of Untitled Art Collective, a collective of artists dedicated to promoting local visual arts and showing solidarity with various social justice movements.
FJ (Fernando Romulo) writes about his experiences growing up in working-class neighborhoods of Chicago.
Lamar Jorden is a writer, emcee, performance poet, host, and educator from Chicago’s West Side. He is a multiple winner of Louder Than a Bomb and is one of the stars of the 2010 documentary, Louder Than a Bomb.
Richard Wallace a.k.a. EPIC is a poet, rapper, and ambassador for the Chicago community. He is a member of the hip-hop group BBU.
Yvonne Osei is a German-born Ghanaian artist, graphic designer and human rights activist currently based in St. Louis, Missouri.
Boots Riley is poet, rapper, songwriter, screenwriter, humorist, political organizer and public speaker. He is best known as the front-man for veteran political hip-hop group the Coup, with whom he has released six albums
Monica Trinidad is a writer, artist and organizer. She is the co-founder of Brown and Proud Press, a writing collective of people of color based in Chicago, Illinois, and organizes with We Charge Genocide.
Najjar Abdul-Musawwir is a is an internationally acknowledged artist. He currently works as an Associate Professor of studio arts and art history in the School of Art and Design and Africana Studies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Xavier J. Velasquez is a poet, dancer, and student at Hunter College in New York.