Articles

The Art of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis activists at the North Minneapolis encampment hold up a banner printed with artist Piotr Szyhalski’s printing tools. (photo by Sam Gould)
Black Lives Matter Minneapolis activists at the North Minneapolis encampment hold up a banner printed with artist Piotr Szyhalski’s printing tools. (photo by Sam Gould)

MINNEAPOLIS — A year ago this week, some 2,000 demonstrators converged in the Mall of America rotunda to protest the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other unarmed black men at the hands of the police, shouting, “While you’re on your shopping spree, black people cannot breathe.” This December 23, again under the banner of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, they plan on returning to the mall, this time to protest a cause even closer to home: the killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man who was shot by police just blocks from the precinct headquarters in north Minneapolis.

Clark’s killing on November 15 sparked outrage and a sit-down strike in the entryway to the Fourth Precinct MPD station — one demonstrators said wouldn’t end until police released the names of the officers involved in the shooting as well as surveillance camera footage of the incident. The officers were eventually named, a federal investigation launched, and a grand jury announced, but the footage has still not been made public. The occupation of the entryway ballooned to a protest encampment that for 18 days filled the sidewalk, yard, and street outside the precinct — replete with tents, banners, a dozen fire pits, and, as nighttime temperatures dipped into the teens, a mountain of donated firewood. Police clashed with protesters throughout the lifespan of the encampment: they fired rubber bullets and sprayed mace, aimed weapons at City Council Member Cam Gordon and at Jeremiah Bey, a northside artist and the son of US Rep Keith Ellison. Then, on the night of November 23, four men, some in masks and described in the media as white supremacists, showed up with guns at the camp, shooting five black men.

The camp was dismantled by police on December 5, but the movement is redoubling its efforts and ramping up its goals. At the Mall of America, they’ll again call for the release of the tapes related to Clark’s killing; they’ll also protest the decision to have a grand jury hear the case, demanding a more transparent trial over the secretive process that rarely results in the indictment of police officers. In their ranks will likely be some of the local artists who, throughout this tumultuous year, have directed their talents toward helping grow the movement, unifying and healing its members, and presenting compelling counternarratives to mainstream media.

Black Lives Matter graffiti on the highway (click to enlarge)
Black Lives Matter graffiti on the highway (click to enlarge)

Those artists are many. There’s rapper, activist, and spoken-word artist Guante, who on December 7 released the song “One Bad Cop” (a collaboration with producer Katrah-Quey, it features guest verses from G.P. Jacob and Tish Jones); E.G. Bailey and Sha Cage of the Million Artist Movement; community organizer, educator, and rapper Chaka Mkali (aka I Self Devine); photographer Patience Zalanga; the MAKESHI!T collective (of which I’m a member: we’ve made several banners, including the one hung over the police station door during the Fourth Precinct shutdown); and the anonymous graffiti writers who tagged highway sound barriers with “Justice for Jamar” and “Black Lives Matter.” Their contributions — along with the five discussed in detail below — illustrate the range of creative solutions employed on the movement’s behalf, the diversity of practices and disciplines, and the key role BLM allies can play.

Ashley Fairbanks: Projecting Change

On the night Jamar Clark was shot, Ashley Fairbanks was attending the Creative Time Summit in New York, but her heart was back home: “It was very painful to be separated from my Minneapolis community — and be talking about art and social change instead of doing it.” A graphic designer and artist “doing work that interrupts the status quo,” she began looking for ways to pitch in upon her return. When police ripped down the black-and-white Black Lives Matter banner from the station’s entry, she saw “a great way to reclaim the building.” Using a mobile projector, she and a local projection artist lit the exterior of the station with bold white text: BLACK LIVES MATTER. RELEASE THE TAPES. SILENCE IS VIOLENCE. JUSTICE FOR JAMAR. Ten texts were projected after sundown on November 20 in what Fairbanks calls “the scariest time of night.”

One of 10 texts projected on the walls of the Fourth Precinct station by Ashley Fairbanks (photo courtesy the artist)
One of 10 texts projected on the walls of the Fourth Precinct station by Ashley Fairbanks (photo courtesy the artist)

The intervention was inspired by the projections of Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, whom Fairbanks learned of while a member of the Walker Art Center Teen Art Council during high school. “It’s so powerful how he focused on people who were frequently voiceless and amplified their voices,” she says. Wodiczko, a Warsaw-born artist now living in New York, is best known for large-scale projections that transform architectural facades and monuments with moving or still images. Always politically charged, the projects have featured veterans, the homeless, and prison inmates, as well as symbols of political corruption, institutional power, and corporate greed.

It was plenty of work getting the projections up on the building, Fairbanks recalls. “It was cold, like 18 degrees. But when people started reacting to it, it was worth it. It was amazing doing art on that scale and getting instant feedback. The moment we turned it on, people were like, ‘This is amazing…’ The photos have become another tool for Black Lives Matters organizers.”

Before pursuing the project, Fairbanks asked permission of local movement leaders, then tapped the community for appropriate messages to project. Not speaking on anyone’s behalf was paramount.

“I don’t want to go on on stage and speak my support for Black Lives Matter, because it’s their movement,” says Fairbanks. “But if I can support them in a way that makes them feel more powerful, I’d like to use my tools to help them do that.”

The cause, however, is a personal one. Fairbanks is Anishinaabe and a citizen of the White Earth Nation. Her first memory of the Minneapolis Police Department was officers putting a native man in the trunk of a squad car — and that memory, in part, drives her involvement with Black Lives Minneapolis.

“Native men 18 to 24 are the most likely to be killed by police. But when things like that happened in our community, we could never have a loud enough rally cry to be heard. With Black Lives Matter, it feels like now is the time something might be able to happen. This is why I feel morally compelled to act.”

D.A. Bullock: Filming the Counternarrative

In May 2015, the ACLU released an extensive report on racial disparities in policing in Minneapolis. Analyzing more than 96,000 arrests over two years, the report found that African Americans were 8.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for low-level offenses. Native Americans were 8.6 times more likely than whites to be arrested for the same kinds of offenses.

“If you read that whole ACLU report, you should get as mad as when you see someone being abused on camera, but you don’t,” says filmmaker D.A. Bullock. “Because that’s human nature. It’s like: that’s a lot of factual information.”

Bullock grew up on Chicago’s south side, where he personally experienced inequality, violence, and police malfeasance — and witnessed it again as a resident of New Orleans and, now, north Minneapolis. He has plenty to be angry about, but his film work captures something else.

“The polemics are already there” in the protests, he says. “What I think is missing is the alternative narrative: all of this coalescing around social issues is about people. That gets lost in the abstract argument about the politics and all of the issues at hand.”

D.A. Bullock, “#4thPrecinctShutDown”

His short films, shot during marches, rallies, and at the Fourth Precinct encampment, are decidedly atmospheric: some shot in color, others in black-and-white, they forego narration for the faces and words of those come together to protest, often accompanied by swells of jazz music. The films illustrate not only whose lives are at stake, but the kinds of people standing up in support of them — children, families, the elderly, ministers and priests, people of all races, immigrants, and long-time neighborhood residents.

“It’s unfortunate that in a lot of these situations, you do need to reestablish humanity as a baseline. Because people aren’t looking at Michael Brown or Jamar Clark as a person that could be their son or brother or somebody in their family. They’re looking at them as this abstract kind of image, as a ‘thug,’” he says. “I think the traditional media has really let us down when it comes to supplying real nuance and real story to people’s lives.”

Naming Emory Douglas and Spike Lee, Julie Dash and Charles Burnett as his creative heroes, Bullock says his aim is to move people. “That’s where the key is for me: Can I express the emotion and the passion level that I’ve invested into this story? That’s where art transcends the normal recitation of facts and figures over and over again, because I think people get tired of that.”

Jayanthi Kyle: Singing the Struggle

On December 13, 2014, Jayanthi Kyle struck a defiant pose: wearing a red dress with an American flag scarf draped over her hair, she raised a clenched fist to the sky. And then she sang: “The day’s gonna come when I won’t march no more / The day’s gonna come when I won’t march no more. / But while my sister ain’t equal and my brother can’t breathe / Hand and hand with my family, we will fill these streets…” As she continued, the crowd of hundreds assembled in Minneapolis’s Government Center Plaza joined in, as if they already knew the song. They couldn’t have: Kyle wrote “Hand in Hand” with Wes Burdine for the event, the Million March MN rally (co-organized by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, and the Million Artist Movement), held in solidarity with national protests of police killings of African American men. A year later, having been sung by Kyle dozens, if not hundreds, of times, the song has become the unofficial anthem of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. She says she sang it a dozen times at the Fourth Precinct shutdown alone.

Describing herself as “a vocal artist specializing in arrivals, departures, and other struggles and celebrations in life,” Kyle is a frequent singer at funerals and births, as well as a member of eight Twin Cities bands, including Romantica, Black Audience, and Gospel Machine. She says “Hand in Hand” arose from the feelings she and Burdine were experiencing at the time — “of being tired but still wanting to carry on, still wanting to do a call to action, still wanting to stir people up and get them moving, but at the same time expressing that this is so much, and I hope for a day when I’m not having to continue doing this.”

The song mixes the cadence and spirit of Civil Rights–era ballads with contemporary references — including the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police. But less contemporary influences — the music of Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Marvin Gaye, Odetta, and the Staples Singers, for instance — also drive Kyle’s creativity: “The art that we create out of these moments continues to live, and that’s what’s so powerful,” she says. “They do it all the time, bury our history — they put Frank Sinatra up, put Elvis Presley up, get the greatest hits of these people who didn’t change shit…. I’m looking for music that changes things.”

Kyle is part of the core organizing team for the Million Artists Movement, which is headed up by, among others, poet-activists Sha Cage and E.G. Bailey and singer, actor, poet, and teacher Signe Harriday. “We’re interested in how art can dismantle oppressive systems, and we don’t believe we’re creating something new. We feel like we’re following in the footsteps of great people who went before us, like James Baldwin, like Nina and the Staples.

“In all kinds of movements there has been the presence of art, whether it’s the details on the sword and shield or the NAACP’s postcards of lynching that they passed out or Suffragette posters,” she continues. “And how that can be used in the movement is really important and beautiful to me. To remind people of how powerful they are is a big, important thing.”

Piotr Szyhalski: Proletarian Printing

Shortly after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, artist and educator Piotr Szyhalski went with students in his class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to a solidarity demonstration. Unpacking the experience days later, one student, a woman of color, said she felt uncomfortable seeing so many white people at the protest, especially as the “hands up, don’t shoot” chants began. “She pointed out: white people always find ways of making it about themselves. It really gave me pause,” recalls Szyhalski, who emigrated to the US from Poland in 1990. “I was taken aback by this, mainly by my own ignorance. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about different ways I can be productive but proceeding in a way that I don’t muddle or create those complexities again.”

Piotr Szyhalski’s “insanely dysfunctional letterpress setup” in the Soap Factory exhibition 'Three Factory Pieces' (photo courtesy the Soap Factory)
Piotr Szyhalski’s “insanely dysfunctional letterpress setup” in the Soap Factory exhibition ‘Three Factory Pieces’ (photo courtesy the Soap Factory) (click to enlarge)

One way presented itself last month. As news of Jamar Clark’s killing broke, Szyhalski was preparing to open a solo show at the Soap Factory, in which he continued his years-long work under the Labor Camp moniker. Looking at worth, labor, and what he terms “the vile reality of economic inequalities, and the perversion of the 1%,” the show featured, among other elements, an entire gallery converted into a makeshift printing studio. On the walls were giant banners, printed on site, bearing phrases like, “They live and profit. You die in debt.” and “They will beat you if you speak out about them.” And at the center was what Szyhalski calls “an insanely dysfunctional letterpress setup.” To create the banners, he used “proletarian materials”: gigantic letters cut out of insulation foam with a hot knife and then used like rubber stamps to transfer letterforms onto rolls of white medical sheeting with acrylic paint. He could’ve cut only the letters he needed to print the three banners on display, but instead prepared an entire alphabet’s worth. Within a few days, Szyhalski found that decision useful. As protests over Clark’s killing mounted, he wrote a Facebook post inviting movement members to print protests banners in the gallery.

“I didn’t build this apparatus to be part of this demonstration, but when this moment happened, everything was ready,” he says.

A dozen people took him up on the offer, printing 11 messages, one letter at a time over the course of several hours, to be used at a massive rally in front of the Fourth Precinct station on November 24 and in a march to City Hall that afternoon. The banners wound up in news stories nationwide and are sure to reappear in future actions.

For Szyhalski, it was a lesson in being a constructive ally: contributing useful tools without distracting from or diluting the movement’s message.

“I don’t want to take credit for this work the way I take credit for work in my gallery,” he says. “But I feel strongly about it, maybe more so than I do for work I show in a gallery.”

Sam Gould: Opening Up Questions

Being of use also guides the work of Sam Gould, co-founder and editor at the collaborative Red76. His actions in support of Black Lives Matter have ranged from screen-printed posters to, in one case, a direct intervention of sorts: he and a group of community members (including Fairbanks and songwriter/emcee Maria Isa Perez, who recounted the experience in the pages of the Minneapolis Star Tribune) paid an unannounced visit to Mayor Betsy Hodges’s home to ask her to pressure the police to stand down after using “physical intimidation, rubber bullets, tear gas, and mace” — in Perez’s words — against peaceful demonstrators at the Fourth Precinct. Hodges wasn’t home, but her husband met with activists; the next day, the mayor granted a meeting with the group at City Hall. Gould followed that up days later with an open letter to Hodges in the Huffington Post.

“Art’s most productive role within social movements right now is to open up spaces of questioning,” he says. “A lot of the reason things are so fucked right now is that those spaces have been quite deliberately erased. [In] questioning spaces, distance becomes visible. When we recognize our distance and are asked to question why that divide exists, a sort of radical empathetic impulse can materialize.”

Sam Gould (with hat, at right) with demonstrators, including his children, at the Fourth Precinct encampment (photo by the author)
Sam Gould (with hat, at right) with demonstrators, including his children, at the Fourth Precinct encampment (photo by the author)

A poster Gould distributed at the Fourth Precinct occupation was itself formed around a question: “If you shoot me, do I not bleed?” (He later created a 40-foot version to hang on a highway overpass using Szyhalski’s printing equipment.)

With Red76, he also recently launched a new three-year project near his home in south Minneapolis: a small shop in the Midtown Global Market dubbed Beyond Repair. “Bringing histories of the neighborhood, as well as histories from afar that speak to our lives in the neighborhood now, are things that I can do to allow more complex conversations to take place within this moment,” he says. “That sort of mindful, questioning space isn’t something naturally afforded to a moment of crisis. Beyond Repair exists, in part, to create space and relationships within this moment which exist outside of the anxiety of crisis thinking but remain just as energetic.”

For instance, last week he invited Emory Douglas, former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, to Beyond Repair to discuss his role with The Black Panther newspaper. The transcription of the free community talk will be transcribed and published as a booklet for sale in the shop. “Sales from that book,” he adds, “will go to addressing the role of the Third Precinct, the cops within our ward, and how their tactics are affecting the quality of life in our neighborhood.”

Gould, like several of the other artist-activists I spoke to for this story, cited Nina Simone as an inspiration for getting involved with the movement. “It’s the call that Nina Simone spoke of: ‘How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?’ These are the times. And I don’t just mean that in an opportunistic way—these are the times! You’re either on the bus or not.”

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