Activism | Interviews | Visual Arts

Room by Room, Project by Project

Kristiana Rae Colón discusses the origins, history, and upcoming projects of the #LetUsBreathe collective

Xavier Paul

Kristiana Rae Colón is a poet, playwright, educator, and one of the founders of the #LetUsBreathe Collective

We are an abolitionist alliance of artists and organizers coming together through a creative lens to imagine a world without prisons and police. The #LetUsBreathe Collective [was] formed in 2014 in response to the Ferguson uprisings after the death of Mike Brown. We drove down to Ferguson—we actually sent several caravans of artists delivering supplies to the resistance effort in Ferguson. But then our intention was to go down there, drop off supplies, figure out what organization was doing good work, and then write them a check with the balance of what we had raised.

What ended up happening was: We got to Greater [St. Mark Family] Church off the main thoroughfare in Ferguson, where people were convening and collecting supplies, and they were overstocked. They had like water bottle pallets stacked to the ceiling, they had whole tables of medical hygiene supplies, and they couldn’t accept any more donations. So they sent us around Ferguson to different pantries to drop stuff off, but then they were like “Oh yeah, and if you really want to get the scoop on what’s happening in Ferguson, there are these people that are camping in the protest area. They’re camping out there, occupying the space. You should go talk to them, they see everything. They’re out there twenty-four hours a day.”

So we’re like: “Yeah, if it’s folks living outside, those should be the people that we rock with first. They obviously need some supplies, some reinforcement. Let’s go check them out.” My stereotypes… whatever…like when I heard it was folks camping in the protest area, I envisioned more of the Occupy crowd, the granola crunching crowd—definitely white people is what I thought it was going to be. But, in fact, it was young Black folks, Mike Brown’s contemporaries, mostly folks who had some kind of contact with the criminal justice system, and their intention was not to come outside and occupy. They didn’t set out to launch an occupation.

In the early days of the Ferguson protests, the Ferguson police were doing this very illegal, unconstitutional thing called the [five] second rule, where if you stopped marching for more than [five] seconds at a time, you could be arrested for disorderly conduct. It’s very ableist. And it’s just one of the examples [from] the Department of Justice’s report saying that the Ferguson police are corrupt, like endemically, racistly corrupt—that’s the type of policing that they’re referring to: arbitrary, revenue extracting, policing practices to really economically harass and oppress the Black population in Ferguson. And we came back the next day and started building with the young people who were out there, because it was really like mostly young people, like fifteen to twenty-three, with some older folks as well—some thirty, forty year olds—but it was mostly very young people.

And when we talked to them, we found out that it was Bloods and Crips, who had previously been beefing, who dropped their gang colors to unite against the Ferguson police. So they literally were walking around with these gray bandanas that they were using to cover their faces to protect themselves from tear gas. But they were like: “Yeah, we specifically chose the color gray, because we’re dropping our red and blue flags and we’re uniting under one flag, because the only gang we really need to be opposing is the police. They’re the real gang out here.” And the folks from Chicago, all these artists, who mobilized these caravan supply deliveries, were so inspired by that, especially since this is during the height of the national narrative of Chicago as Chiraq.

I was like, “Man, young people in Chicago need to hear these young people in Ferguson articulate that, because that’s so powerful for young people to come to that political awakening on their own—outside of academia, outside of institutions that they’ve been denied access to.” And so we were really inspired to build with them. And we came back the next week and asked them if we could launch a pop-up gallery on their campsite. So we printed the photos that we had taken the week before, we brought down easels, and we created a pop-up gallery on the camp site—that was sort of the first gesture, the first portal of this loose collective of artists that would later become #LetUsBreathe, using art as an access point for political education and engagement, turning the Ferguson protest’s occupation into an art gallery.

And then we just continued going down to Ferguson almost every weekend, hoping to sustain this campsite and then filming a documentary about these young protesters. Once the documentary was finished, we started programming events around the documentary for them to travel and tell their story with these screenings. And that avalanched into us using art as a portal to galvanize people into direct action—we were curating these political arts events in Chicago and transporting protesters from Ferguson to Chicago. We had them feature at Kuumba Lynx in Uptown. We had them feature at Young Chicago Authors in Wicker Park. And at the end of the show, we would do a film screening, and they would do a talkback. They might do some poetry, and then we would lead the audience out into the street and take the streets and immediately galvanize people into direct action. So you think you’re just showing up to the theater for a show, and the next thing you know, you’re shutting down traffic, and that became our model of using art as this portal to get people who might not otherwise be involved in a march or a protest into the street, and that has been our brand.

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Listen to an extended version of this interview that aired on the January 30 episode of SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio hour on WHPK:

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In 2015, we started supporting the Say Her Name campaign. A young woman named Rekia Boyd was killed by CPD officer Dante Servin. He was allegedly responding to a noise complaint. He fired into a crowd of people; supposedly he saw a gun—it was actually a cell phone. He ended up hitting Rekia Boyd in the back of the head and killing her—she was twenty-two years old—across the street from her alma mater, Collins High School in Douglas Park in North Lawndale. A lot of the Black Lives Matter organizers in Chicago were rallying around Rekia and launching the Say Her Name campaign specifically to raise awareness around police violence against Black women and femmes.

Around that time, these different groups started flooding the CPD board meetings at police headquarters every month: this kind of open house where they let you come sign up for however many minutes on a night—maybe it’s three minutes on the mic—to address the board. And every month, we were supporting this Chicago coalition of Black Lives Matter organizers in demanding that the CPD board fire Dante Servin, because, even though he had murdered this young woman, he was still on the CPD’s payroll.

We really wanted to do an action on Memorial Day, because we kind of got into the rhythm of doing an action every holiday once a month. So we wanted to do something on Memorial Day that rebranded Memorial Day as not just memorializing soldiers that are fighting our illegal wars abroad, but memorializing the people who have fallen to the war on Black lives, and we wanted to do something in Douglas Park around the Say Her Name campaign honoring Rekia.

But as we started thinking critically about what it meant to bring that disruptive style of protest to North Lawndale, we really wanted to be self-reflective and self-critical about how appropriate it is to shut down traffic in a neighborhood that is such an over-policed, harassed, socially divested-from neighborhood. North Lawndale is [one of] the most incarcerated zip codes in the state of Illinois. It is the most socially divested-from neighborhood in Chicago; when Rahm did the first round of school closings and closed fifty schools, nine of those schools were in North Lawndale. It’s really disproportionate divestment from education in that neighborhood—similar divestment from mental health clinics, similar illegal housing practices. Wanting to do this in Douglas Park in North Lawndale but really thinking critically about what it means to shut down traffic in that neighborhood, we decided to rebrand, remix the arts protest as kind of our steez. Instead of having a protest march where we’re shutting down traffic, we rebranded it as a service parade. We were marching through the streets picking up trash. We had a Radio Flyer wagon full of books, giving out free books, and a grocery cart full of free food, giving out free food, juice, and water. We were using the rolling sound system that we would normally use at a protest to have a traveling open mic and doing pop-up open mics on the street corner, inviting people to come down off their porches and spit, tell their story, whatever and then use that as an access point for political engagement, spreading awareness about Dante Servin and circulating a petition to get him fired. That organizing model, combining art and service as an access point for political education, became the next evolution of our arts organizing. The purpose of which is to combine the people that are most directly impacted by mass incarceration, artists, and organizers into a format that is more accessible than an organizing meeting or a protest.

So we are acknowledging the limitation that most organizing is structured very similar to academia, corporate America, or the nonprofit industrial complex—institutions that have denied access to so many people, primarily people that are most impacted by the things that we are fighting against. How do we create something that is appetizing, inviting, and accessible to folks that have been denied access to institutions? The Breathing Room event series was our answer to that. It’s formatted like a curated open mic: Everyone has four minutes and it will be a mixture of performance and political education. So you might get a report back from Assata’s Daughters on their most recent protests, a teach-in on Assata Shakur, a teach-in on solitary confinement, or a teach-in on the grass gap. [For example] Tom Tresser came and gave a teach-in on Tax Increment Financing. These micro moments of political education—four minutes or less—you’ve got to make accessible or mixed in with rap, comedy, movement, music, dance, or storytelling: every performance discipline you can think of. After like four months of successfully programming the Breathing Room series, we lost our space. And that timed out perfectly with the launch of Freedom Square. So two months later, we launched a protest occupation very much in homage to our genesis with the organizers in Ferguson, across the street from the Homan Square CPD facility that has illegally detained and tortured thousands of Black and brown people in Chicago over the past several decades.

CPD still claims that it’s just an inventory warehouse. But over the course of our forty-five day occupation, people came up to us almost every day from the neighborhood telling us that they had been detained and tortured in there. So we held this space—this vacant lot across the street from Homan Square. We dubbed it Freedom Square. We claimed it as a liberated police-free zone. And we set out to embody the world that we would like to have: the things that we believe the city should be investing in instead of police, the seven resource areas—restorative justice, education, employment, mental health and addiction treatment, housing, nutrition, and art. Those are the things that we believe actually keep people safe, not men with guns who can kill you with impunity. We are calling for a divestment from Homan Square, a divestment from police. Chicago spends forty percent of its [operations budget] on the police. That’s ridiculous. We’ve got potholes to fill,  people to employ that don’t kill people, teachers to pay, and textbooks to buy. There’s no way that we should be spending forty cents of every tax dollar on more guns, surveillance equipment, and men who can kill with impunity. That’s ridiculous. That’s four million dollars a day. So if you can imagine what the city of Chicago could do with four million dollars a day besides giving it to militarized weaponry, surveillance, and people who can kill with impunity—I can think of some creative things for four million dollars a day here.

Yes. In the midst of Freedom Square, we applied for and won this building grant. This property was historically a Franciscan monk friary built in 1898. The monks lived in the main house where Su Casa is now housed, and the building that we’re in now, which is now #BreathingRoom, used to be the press building where the Franciscan Herald was printed. The building before we got in here was uninhabitable—like rotting water damage for like five years—and we basically proposed what I describe as bringing our outdoor style of organizing into a brick and mortar location and having a sustained headquarters for that style of organizing. And we won that proposal.

In January of 2017, we started the rehab: we fixed a lot of the water damaged walls. Su Casa fixed the plumbing. And we have just been slowly, room by room, project by project, trying to get space off the ground. The room that we’re in now is actually the youth engagement lounge and childcare. In a digital media lab/activists and residents lab there’s literacy programming, and there’s the Free Store/gallery space. Coalition conference rooms are another one of the visions of the space: any organization doing resistance work in Chicago can use #BreathingRoom as headquarters for meetings, trainings, workshops, and events, and we provide a space for free or very cheap or an exchange model, intentionally trying to be as anti-capitalist as possible. We also have a library, we’re building a recording studio and have a restorative justice lab, peace/talk it out/conflict de-escalation room, and a mental health lounge, where our aim is to partner with individual mental health care providers to volunteer a certain number of hours. There are four bedrooms that we hope to develop into live/work visual art studios. So that is the total vision of space. We’ve also got some garden beds going in the front courtyard where we hope to develop some food sustainability.

#BreathingRoom is the #LetUsBreathe collective’s headquarters. #BreathingRoom is a Black-led arts, healing, and organizing hub on the South Side of Chicago. It is a coalition-building, consciousness-raising headquarters, where we are combining solidarity work with anti-capitalist, abolitionist artistic production. We also have a monthly rent party called the Black Magic Kickback to keep our fundraising as grassroots as possible—it’s a suggested donation event that folks can come to, to support us out of our monthly expenses. We’re having sort of an open house orientation day called Tribe Day on [March 10 from 2pm-7pm]. Manifest Monday is every Monday [a creative co-working space for the community], but at the Manifest Monday on MLK Day, we announced our envisioning Justice Initiative. We are partnering with the Illinois Humanities Council on a yearlong initiative to use arts and humanities to re-envision the criminal justice system. We’re one of six community hubs in Chicago that will be a part of that program.

We prefer human capital to monetary capital. Our organizing meetings are every Thursday from 6pm to 8:30pm So we encourage people to show up and figure out a way to give their selves, their talents, and their presence, but if they can’t do that, they can donate via PayPal., if you don’t care about a tax deduction. If you do care about a tax deduction then you can donate to Su Casa’s PayPal, which is, with #LetUsBreathe in the memo line, and that will go directly towards our rent costs.

You can visit #LetUsBreathe’s official website to find out more about them, and you can buy t-shirts to further support their work. Follow #LetUsBreathe on Twitter and Instagram to stay up to date on their activity.

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