As protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, artists gathered at the Mayday Space in Bushwick on October 24 to raise funds for Millennial Activists United and Lost Voices, two youth activist groups operating on the ground in Ferguson. Through poetry, graphic art, film screenings and music, the participants explored connections between recurrent police brutality and larger problems of systemic racial inequality and state and economic violence that, in today’s supposedly ‘post-racial’ America, affect communities of color.
The #NYCStandsWithFerguson showcase is part of a growing movement of black youth organizing according to a common experience, a process that has begun in the aftermath of the high-profile killings of unarmed black youth like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Renisha McBride. For the artists, some of whom traveled from Philadelphia and New Hampshire, and their audience of close to 70 people, art functioned as the means to articulate and engage with an experience of systematic racial profiling, mass incarceration, educational deprivation and chronic economic underinvestment.
“Art for us is a vehicle of change,” explained Annis (Rachel) Sands, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College who brought the artists together for the event. “If you think of Motown, the antiwar and protest music of the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of art has been created to oppose racism and to ask how we can get free and build a better world.”
“This event is meant as a signal boost and to show we’re very aware and socially conscious, and that we’re going to create and promote art as a way to respond the climate we’re living in,” she continued.
Sands found inspiration to organize #NYCStandsWithFerguson in Poets for Ferguson, a late September 24-hour livestream poetry collaborative that connected artists and young people throughout the country in a show of solidarity for the protesters in Ferguson. Sands wanted to facilitate a similar display of support that used art to not only react to suffering but also to imagine possibilities for a different and better future.
The event was scheduled to coincide with the Black Lives Matter National Week of Action, a mobilization against state-sanctioned violence. Chris Wise, a local emcee, and DJ Zena led a program that featured poets, musicians and filmmakers. The Mayday Space, a community center devoted to social justice organizing, held additional significance as a venue, since the families of victims of police killings in years past in the New York area have been meeting there in recent months to organize their own advocacy group, Families United for Justice. Local artists also convened at the Mayday Space to create portraits of the slain family members for the families to carry at last week’s October 22 Coalition march against police brutality.
The event promoted art with a social purpose, a theme supported by the many young activists in attendance who used the gathering to share their experiences and get the word out about their organizations.
Asha Rosa, a third year student at Columbia University who is originally from Chicago, read poetry and spoke about her work with the Chicago-based We Charge Genocide. She is also a member of the Black Youth Project 100 and of Columbia Prison Divest.
Rosa explained the forms of violence she believes are directed against black communities in Chicago and across the country:
“The evidences of violence I see are the fact the mayor in Chicago closes 50 schools in a day, the fact that black folks are the victims of a long history of predatory housing policies and the fact that we are disproportionately harassed by the police. Black people have no institutional channels for challenging or defending against these forms of structural violence. We have a situation where giant institutions are targeting Black communities and all that’s on the news is Black people shooting each other. It’s a totally skewed image of violence in Chicago.”
Numerous other #NYCStandsWithFerguson performers engaged with the vast structural obstacles that communities of color experience. They include mass incarceration, which is perpetuated by a prison industrial complex in which private companies have a profit motive to imprison and detain people. The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prison population. The prison population has quadrupled since the mid-1970s, and of the 2.3 million people in jail or prison, 1 million are black.
Violence also takes the form of economic discrimination and underinvestment.
Black communities experience unemployment that typically far outpaces national averages — in September 2014 official black unemployment was 11 percent compared to the national average of 5.1 percent. Low-income communities, which are disproportionately communities of color, also experience significant food insecurity and are often denied access to traditional banking services.
Kavindu Jointe, who traveled to the event from Philadelphia along with other members of the black youth group In Defense of Black Bodies, performed a poem that includes the lines:
Colorblind has become a mantra.
We, the black and brown children of this nation
Are faded into a transparent background.
America is so un-racist they can’t even see us,
Won’t acknowledge the systematic disparities between us.
I wonder if their children will ever sit in classrooms that look like cages,
If their neighborhoods will ever be a police state,
If they will be stopped and frisked,
Stopped and shot.
Jointe elaborated on the significance of his words in an email: “I believe that claiming colorblindness is a form of racism through erasure. It is saying, ‘I do not want to face current and historical realities that make this country a different place for you than it is for me. I do not want to acknowledge how my whiteness informs how I get to navigate the world.’ Claiming colorblindness allows white people to ignore the realities of structural marginalization people of color face.”
Nayo Jones and Imani Rothwell, two other members of In Defense of Black Bodies, also performed. Together the group screened the Blood Bucket Challenge. Set to Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” the video satirically mimics the “ice bucket challenge” as a bucket of fake blood is dropped on each individual young black participant. Statements on the structural inequalities black communities face accompany the footage. The video concludes with the text, “We Charge Genocide,” before the footage of the pouring blood runs in reverse from the individuals back into the bucket, a gesture toward the potential for future reconciliation.
Jones explained in an email the inspiration the group has drawn from the nationwide demonstrations sparked off by what’s happening in Ferguson.
“Philly has a serious issue with complacency,” Jones wrote. “Once we recognize that hashtags means nothing if you aren’t also in the streets, we will be an unstoppable force for change. As a nation we need to show the government that it’s not just Ferguson that’s fed up … Every major city needs to adopt the attitude of Ferguson, and the next step after that is to learn to build self-sustainable communities so we don’t have to rely on an economic system that doesn’t benefit us.”
The anger boiling up in communities across the country over systematic racism and inequality was certainly present in Bushwick last Friday night. It is now being channeled by local youth intent on addressing these problems. Their collective actions sound as a challenge for our society to align its practices with its rhetoric and to live up to its stated ideals of freedom and equality of opportunity.