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Activism Imitates Art in London’s “Three Billboards Outside Grenfell Tower” Protest

Organizers used visual language to highlight the lasting damage caused by the devastating Grenfell Tower fire.

“Three Billboards Outside Grenfell Tower, London” (courtesy Jeff Moore and Justice 4 Grenfell)

This week, activism imitated art when Justice 4 Grenfell protesters drove three provocative signs through the streets of London. In a clever nod to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the Oscar-nominated film directed by Martin McDonagh, the billboards were bright red, with black letters that read:

71 DEAD
AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
HOW COME?

The signs were designed to revitalize public outcry about the deadly fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower, the London public housing project that has come to symbolize bureaucratic neglect of the poor. Hundreds of former Grenfell residents remain displaced, and although police considered prosecuting negligent officials for manslaughter, an eight-month investigation has offered few developments.

Film still, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (via Fox Searchlight)

In the film, a mother played by Frances McDormand responds to the rape and murder of her daughter by questioning police inaction on three billboards. (McDonaugh based the story on actual billboards he saw during a trip through the US.)

Tasha Brade, a Justice 4 Grenfell organizer, told Hyperallergic that her group decided to create the billboards at the suggestion of an advertising agency that approached them. “We don’t want the story to die down,” Brade said. “Yesterday, everyone’s eyes were on the campaign.” They chose their central question — AND STILL NO ARRESTS? — after discussing a range of issues that could appear on the billboards, such as the urgently needed renovation of 297 towers similar to Grenfell.

The age of online activism and viral memes has offered protesters a powerful new visual lexicon. Last summer, feminist activists dressed up like characters from The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu TV show based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, to protest rollbacks in reproductive rights. In April, dozens of US movie theaters criticized President Trump with a coordinated screening of 1984. In 2011, during Occupy Wall Street, protesters donned the same style of Guy Fawkes mask that appeared in V for Vendetta.

All these visual references use a similar rhetorical strategy: they compare activists to Hollywood heroes, or they compare contemporary reality to dystopian fiction. They’re a helpful reminder that protest is performance: protests lend physicality, and visual interest, to abstract words and policies.

At the same time, activism never maps perfectly onto art. Brade said that at first, her fellow organizers worried the reference wasn’t appropriate, because the film’s central question — AND STILL NO ARRESTS? — is never answered. Three Billboards isn’t a film about activism defeating authority. It’s a film about how we carry on with the painful knowledge that victory may never come.

Still, the group liked the conviction of the film’s protagonist. “We’re a group of women who run Justice 4 Grenfell, and that was very strong for us,” she said. “We thought, yeah, this is something that people will respond to.” No billboard will capture the agony felt by survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. But these three seem to have restarted the conversation.

Film still, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (via Fox Searchlight)
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