Ferguson and the Art of Protest
There is a quote commonly used within The Movement (as we call it) that reads, “They wanted to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” It’s a Mexican proverb that activists in The Movement in the United States share with our counterparts in Mexico, where tens of thousands of people continue to protest the actions of Jose Luis Abarca, the former mayor of Iguala, Guerrero, who directed local police forces to kidnap and murder 43 students in September, 2014. (Abarca and his wife are currently in jail awaiting trial for their involvement in these heinous crimes.) Citizens in both countries are combating corrupt and violent police forces that have become militarized public enemies, rather than public servants.
To me, the proverb means that when unscrupulous authorities attempt to destroy the very people they govern, the oppressed are not actually eliminated; instead a fire has been lit. The effort to suppress has the exact opposite effect—it starts a revolution. It’s the way of nature: when something dies, something else is reborn.
A full-fledged movement bellowed out of the combined throats of the buried (unbeknown) martyrs in Mexico, the dirt rising into dust, blowing in the air like a sandstorm. Some artists have been called to build sandcastles from this storm.
Instead of building sandcastles in Missouri, artists used mirrors to insist that police officers reflect on the role they play in the incidents surrounding the death of Michael Brown. (The incident in Ferguson, Missouri sparked protests across the United States and continues to inspire artistic responses). One group of artists (DeAndrea Nichols, Marcis Curtis, Damon Davis, Derek Laney, Sophie Lipman, Elizabeth Vega, and myself), collaborated to produce a mirrored coffin, which costumed pallbearers carried through Ferguson in a candlelight vigil. We delivered the reflective casket directly to the police at the Ferguson Police Station, the object itself confronting the violent force behind the shooting death of Brown.
My own work with artist and activist Derek Laney and others through the public art project #ChalkedUnarmed involves drawing chalk outlines of bodies in public spaces, with dates, locations, and names of unarmed black men and women who have been killed by the police in the United States using extrajudicial force.
Artist Damon Davis’s All Hands on Deck project features oversized black and white photographs of the hands of Ferguson-activists pasted on outward-facing public spaces, often in a row. The conceit directly references the “hands up” pose adopted by protesters across the country. The gesture, though simple, indicates solidarity and strength.
In St. Louis, we saw other group efforts, like the Carnival of Injustice, a sardonic celebration/anti-celebration of protesters’ frustrations, mockeries of ineffective political figures and systems. Artists De Andrea Nichols, Sophie Lipman, and Mike Pagano, in collaboration with Nine Network for Public Media's NineLab, are creating a documentary film, United Story: Ferguson Beyond Today, that features residents of Ferguson and their responses to the Michael Brown case. Countless poets, like Cheeraz Gormon, Aja La’Starr Owens, and Darius Simpson have countered the injustice with their poetry.
These artistic responses to the events in Ferguson and elsewhere play the role of reclaiming power not by waiting for systems to change, but by ripping off scabs concealing festering wounds, and performing change. They are a model of transformative action among fear and complacency, and are coupled with the people-power of protests. Furthermore, these works— and nearly all those that sprung out of the ashes of Ferguson—positioned themselves in front of audiences in public spaces. They declared their roots to be in physical and cultural spaces, where residents and the historically disenfranchised affirm that they, in fact, have a home here; they are more than relevant—they are fundamentally members of the community. The art asserted into public space integrates itself into St. Louis’s daily dialogue, without the need for anyone’s permission. Its aggressive contextualization performs its exigency.
In art there is an act of “do,” though sometimes in the art world we attempt to hold our “dos” at bay. There is an artistic currency to a certain level of non-doing, or of ennui. Social justice-driven artwork, like that which rises out of Ferguson, instead, is do-driven. It seeks to bring about change and is interested in a means to an end.
I see the power of the post-Ferguson work to instigate conversations and to direct the gaze of the people in places where it may have been lacking. For example, after drawing a #ChalkedUnarmed piece, I can stand aside and watch myriad reactions on the faces of passersby. I’ve watched as schools have washed away chalk drawings on college campuses overnight. These reactions—any reactions—are the point. They demand a confrontation, and that confrontation is vital for moving forward.
Art can shift culture. It has the potential to change the way people feel, which changes the way people act. Art is a key point of transformation. Yet, art falls short of total revolution. It is not the solution alone. Other powerful components of change include the revision of laws, policies, and law enforcement procedures, a more equalized distribution of resources, education that reinforces the quickly evolving landscape, and finally, cultural evolution. Art, born out of culture, is best fit to “treat” that noxious culture, like a farmer who, at the turn of a new season, tills the land to plant more seeds.