Radical Culture: Art That Inspires Fighting Injustice
As a political activist, I have organized and attended many street protests. I often wonder how many people in the public we influence as we march by them brandishing our signs and shouting our chants. And when we post our articles, events and memes on Facebook, are we preaching to anyone besides the choir? Maybe there is a better way to change hearts and minds and inspire people to action.
In a 2013 article, the radical intellectual Chris Hedges wrote: “The resistance needs a vibrant cultural component. It was the spirituals that nourished the souls of African-Americans during the nightmare of slavery. It was the blues that spoke to the reality of black people during the era of Jim Crow. It was the poems of Federico Garcia Lorca that sustained the republicans fighting the fascists in Spain. Music, dance, drama, art, song, painting were the fire and drive of resistance movements.”
Manifest Justice, a ten-day art exhibit and social justice fair that just opened in LA, attempts to make us feel the emotions that inspire us to act. As event organizer Yosi Sergant told me, “There’s a potency in the way that artists are able to take super complex ideas and make them really, really simple. They’re able to take the many issues and distill them down into the most simple and refined brushstrokes or lyrics or language.”
Whether it is the Robbie Conal work of a burning police baton with the words DIS ARM or an assemblage called “Protect and Serve” which consists of a neon sign with the letters CHKE HLD with a rope noose in the middle of both words forming the O, the message is clear and the emotions powerful.
The show features 275 works of art by 150 artists on subjects including the lack of health care for undocumented immigrants, police brutality, the criminalization of poverty, extreme fossil fuel extraction and more. But more than just an art exhibit, the show is a social justice fair, with space given to 30 organizations to educate the public on issues, get signatures on petitions and letters to politicians and sign up people for services and programs. The organizations include SCOPE, Homeboy Industries, Amnesty International, the Worksource Center, LA Trade Tech and more.
I asked Sergant, who commissioned the Shepard Fairey poster “Hope” that was prominent during the 2008 presidential campaign and then served as director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts, what inspired him to become an organizer. “I was raised in a household where social justice and Tikkun Olam was at the core of who were are as people. I am the son of a kibbutznik and a public school teacher who was transferred from school to school for standing up for the rights of her students in a system that was slowly being degraded and defunded.”
He said he was inspired to join his activism with art when he saw the 1992 Robbie Conal poster of Supreme Court Justice and anti-abortion advocate William Renquist that said “Gag me with a coat hanger.” “I was impressed by the ability to take a complex idea and challenge it in your face and on the street.”
Sprinkled throughout the ten days are panels, conversations, films, music, spoken word and theatre. The day I was there, I attended a panel on Prop. 47, legislation passed in California in 2014 that allows people with low-level, non-violent felonies to have them turned into misdemeanors. By not having to report felonies on applications, people can get access to jobs and housing that they would otherwise not get..
The panel was moderated by US Rep. Tony Cardenas, who informed us there were 22 prisons built in California but only one University of California, that high school campuses have plenty of probation officers but no money for counselors, that we are one of the few countries to have solitary confinement for children.
After he spoke, a panel of young people from various anti-recidivism programs talked about how they turned their lives around and were now giving back to others like them. One spoke of how their schools are gated with police all around. Essentially their communities have been militarized. Their comments were gut wrenching. “It’s not our fault we grew up in poverty. If we could, we would grow up in Beverly Hills.”
Another young woman recounted how she ended up in the system because she stole underwear for herself and her sister. She was sexually abused as a child. She said she didn’t have a program to go into. She became pregnant at 18 and that motivated her to turn her life around.
Another young man shared how he started using drugs and entered prison at age 17. Once in prison, he said, “if no one puts any care into them, they learn to believe that no one cares.” They develop a “convict mentality” where the worse they behave and the higher security prison they get transferred to, the more confidence they develop.
“I was told I was worthless and crazy since I was 12. I grew up angry and didn’t care for myself or others. People would reach out and I didn’t care. I would think, if my own parents don’t love me, how could you. The only thing I planned on was going back to prison.” He was saved by a church program and turned his life around.
In the next panel, Paul Song, Chairman of the Courage Campaign, spoke about fighting Governor Jerry Brown’s prison expansion program, because no money was going towards mental health. He explained that every $1 invested in mental health saves $16 in health care and public safety costs down the road. He said that the state has a $1.6 billion surplus and $4-5 billion coming. He said that the Governor likes to keep it in a rainy day fund. “But for the people in this room, it has never stopped raining.” Song suggested that the Governor restore cuts that have been made to health and human service programs before we invest in things like bullet trains.
Next Joseph Villela, Senior Policy Advocate at CHIRLA spoke about the 2 million people deported by Obama, more than any other president, and the 4 million people who have been put in detention centers with no charges, no lawyer, waiting to be heard by a judge.
Winston Peters, Assistant Public Defender for LA County, provided very moving testimony. He said when his lawyers interview kids charged with crimes, they often break down and cry. For many, it was the first time they had ever confided in anyone about drug abuse, absence of family support, difficulty in school, self-mutilation and suicide attempts. “I realized I had to be more than a lawyer.”
Lenore Anderson, from the Center for Safety and Justice, told stories of kids being sentenced for 20 years for .15 grams of drugs. To put that in perspective, she said a paper clip weighs 3 times that. She talked of another boy who got 15 years for attempting to steal a pair of gloves. Because of Prop. 47, these people can be released.
4000 people have been released since last November and 10,000 more are eligible. One million people will benefit from having their records changed. And the state will save $100 million a year in prison spending. 65% of that will go to mental health and drug treatment, 25% to the schools and 10% to trauma treatment.
Finally, Susan Burton, who founded A New Way of Life told her story about how she started drinking after her five-year son was killed by the police. It led to incarceration. When she got out, she started this re-entry program that has so far helped 600 women transform their lives and stay out of prison. Burton mentioned that these women couldn’t vote for Prop. 47, but they could knock on doors.
That was a story I heard over and over the day I spent at Manifest Justice, people who had been given a second chance wanting to give back. One of the exhibits in the show was an installation in which a whole room had been transformed into a replica of a prison cell with a cot, sink, toilet and everything. On the wall was scribbled, “61% of people who get out of jail go back….The system is broken.” When I entered the room, a middle aged man who was wearing a name tag that said Aaron muttered, “It’s actually smaller than this” and marked out on the floor with his foot where the a real cell would have ended.
I asked him if he had been in prison and for what. He said he was in prison for 38 years for murder and he had just gotten out 32 days ago. I asked him how it felt for him to be standing in that room. “It hurts my stomach,” he said. “Memories of what it was like to be in there. I’m happy to be out. I’m grateful for a second chance. This reminds me of where I was. I don’t ever want to go back there.”
He told me he is in a re-entry home that is providing him with housing, help in filling out job applications and finding employment. “It’s a guide to freedom for six months, and then I go to get a home and start off.”
At the home, they asked him if he would volunteer some time at the art show “It’s a way of giving back…When I went in I didn’t care about nothing. It was all about me and getting high and doing what I wanted to do. Now I understand the wrong of it. I changed my ways. I earned my high school diploma. I did some college. I did anger management, family management, working with the children. I looked at triggers. I looked into me and fixed me. I’m a human being now and not an animal as I would be labeled when I went in. I didn’t care about no one, nothing. Now I care.”
That was the key emotion I felt while looking at the artwork and talking to the panelists and the artists – caring. These were people who deeply cared about other people and the injustices in the world. Even a fellow visitor who was viewing the show with his young son was taking the time to carefully explain to the little boy everything he was looking at.
I spoke to one of the artists at the show, Michael D’Antuono, and asked him about his painting. “The Talk,” depicts a mom and dad sitting across the couch from their son in a living room. The mom has her hand on the boy’s knee. In the background, a TV showed the image of a cop and an African American young man with an orange hoody. The graphic at the bottom of the screen read: “NO INDICTMENT IN POLICE KILLING OF UNARMED YOUTH.” On the wall are pictures of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King.
I asked him why he made this painting. He said, “I was inspired by Bill DiBlasio’s talk that he had to have with his son. And it made me realize that I, like many white Americans, never understood that black families had to have that other talk with their sons. It’s shameful to me that in America that any parent has to sit their son down and explain to them that it’s not safe for them to assume that they can enjoy the same rights and privileges as their white counterparts. As a parent and a grandparent, that hit home for me. I want to elicit the same empathy among white people who aren’t aware of what they have to go through, and hopefully that will create change.”
In that same 2013 article, Chris Hedges also wrote, “Culture, real culture, is radical and transformative. It is capable of expressing what lies deep within us. It gives words to our reality. It makes us feel as well as see. It allows us to empathize with those who are different or oppressed. It reveals what is happening around us. It honors mystery.”
As I looked at “The Talk,” I thought of how I took my 17 year old white privileged son to a Black Lives Matter protest at a South LA police station last December to protest yet another killing of an unarmed black youth in LA. When it was time for the open mic, I stood up and said very much the exact same thing as Michael D’Antuono. I was there to show solidarity with African American mothers even though I never worried about my son facing the risk of being killed by a police officer. In fact, I was there because I never had to worry about that happening to my son. It was so inherently unjust.
As Yosi Sargant said to me, “This whole show is about our priorities and what happens when the public is active and engaged and when artists and the community and the organizers come together and when people are empowered by creativity to have real tough conversations about real hard issues.”
That night I came back to Manifest Justice for the performance of “Rodney King,” a powerful one man play by Roger Guenveur Smith. It humanized Rodney King by giving us a glimpse into his life before and after he became “the first TV reality star.” It was particularly moving for me, because it brought back all the feelings I felt over two decades ago when I watched the videotape of the beating, the news report of the acquittal of the cops, the civil unrest that started after the verdict, including the savage beating of the white truck driver Reginald Denny and the slaying of 12 year old Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner.
Those news reports made me feel guilty about my white privilege back then before I even had children and moved me me to get involved. I joined the Communications Committee of Rebuild LA and produced a series of live call-in programs on public access cable on the need for investment in the inner city. The programs showed how nothing had really changed in the nearly 30 years since the Watts riots despite all the best intentions at the time. And today, 23 years after the 1992 rebellion, we can see that still nothing has changed. Our cities are in turmoil once again. Black Lives Matter just last week had a series of events across the country to commence what they are calling The American Spring.
Manifest Justice is up for five more days. On Wednesday night, there will be a conversation with Sybrina Fulton,Trayvon Martin’s mother and Dr. Robert Ross, head of The California Endowment. Following that will be a multi-media production called “Power,” anchored by Patriss Cullors of “BlackLivesMatter.
On Thursday, there is a panel entitled “Art at Work in Social Justice Movements – Past, Present and Future,” followed by a special preview screening of “3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets,” the Audience Award winner at Sundance this year. It chronicles the story of a black youth who was shot after arguing with a white man about the volume of the music. I plan to go back for that.
And I hope that many more people will see this inspiring show before it leaves town. I hope it inspires them to take action about some of the injustices depicted in the art or at least creates awareness and concern about the various social, economic and environmental injustices.
“The role of the artist, then, precisely, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through the vast forest,” James Baldwin wrote, “so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”