Police | Politics | Visual Arts

Stories of Reform and Resistance

For the People Artists Collective chronicles a history of police violence in Chicago

Kiran Misra

Do Not Resist?,” For the People Artists Collective’s 2018 exhibition closed last Friday, February 9 after nearly a month of interdisciplinary generative installations and events across the city. From a training in the basics of cop watching to panels about topics including the abolition ofolf the prison industrial complex and reporting on police violence, the programming engaged thousands of Chicagoans in a conversation about the history of police violence in the city and alternatives to policing in Chicago.

“The police can’t be reformed. You can’t reform something that was never meant for us to begin with,” explains organizer Monica Trinidad of the thesis at the center of the installations. “So when you think about ‘we just need police to get better training,’ or, ‘we just need police to get body cameras,’ it doesn’t change anything. We have to think about alternatives to keeping communities safe that don’t involve police.”

The earliest police departments in the United States grew out of slave patrols in the south and Indian Constables, who policed Native Americans on their own ancestral lands after settlers arrived, in New England and the Midwest. The function of these early police officers was to protect private property and, by extension, the system of capitalism by assisting wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves and seizing control of Native land for private ownership. Fast forward a couple of hundred years and Black and Native populations still experience disproportionately high amounts of policing and incarceration across the country and in the city of Chicago, a reality that has sparked artistic resistance like Do Not Resist?

The multi-site, interdisciplinary project was inspired by Black and Blue, a series of events about police violence, resistance, and the prison industrial complex put on in 2013 by Project NIA, a grassroots organization working to end youth incarceration. Following the series, in 2015, Mariame Kaba and other Chicago activists created an art installation in City Hall, to which artists from around the city contributed pieces that highlighted specific incidents of police violence as a part of a campaign for $5.5 million in reparations for survivors of the police torture in Chicago. For Kaba, the Reparations Ordinance of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials was fundamentally abolitionist for its ability to center and address the needs of those who were most targeted by systemic violence. “To me, if you’re talking about abolitionist organizing, solving and addressing the material needs of people who are most harmed by the systems we are trying to dismantle should be the center of your work. And if you can’t answer that question, you’re probably not doing abolitionist organizing,” she explains.

Trinidad contributed a piece to the installation on the Memorial Day massacre of 1937, a day during which the Chicago Police Department shot and killed ten unarmed demonstrators in the city. “That sparked a lot of research for me, looking more deeply into police violence, so it was from there that I applied through the Propeller Fund for a grant for the For the People Artists’ Collective… we started planning [Do Not Resist?] in spring of 2016, so we’ve been planning for a year and a half now,” says Trinidad. In many ways, the installation reflects the moment of its inception, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which sparked a national discussion about police brutality as a systemic issue rather than a series of isolated incidents.

After a round of fundraising and securing an additional grant through the Crossroads Fund, Trinidad and other organizers including Ruby Pinto, Deb Kim, Sarah-Ji Rhee, and Serena Hodges put out a call to artists across the city, canvassing in every neighborhood in Chicago to solicit pieces. “Having all these different neighborhoods represented was a real success for us because it meant a lot of people were being represented. We had artists from the far far far South Side to the far far far North Side to the West Side to the East Side,” Trinidad said. Over 40 artists contributed to the exhibition from a staggering 25 different neighborhoods in Chicago.

Intended to be a play on words of the police’s command when making arrests, “do not resist,” the intention of the exhibition was to point out the inherent contradictions between policing, increasing public safety, and working against violence in this city. As Trinidad puts it, “How can you not resist all of this violence in our communities? Do not resist? Really? After 100 years of police violence and impunity?”

Kiran Misra

Kiran Misra

The opening night of the exhibition drew a crowd of nearly 600 Chicagoans ranging from experienced abolitionists to curious newcomers to history of police violence in this city. Trinidad states, “We were trying to be in conversation with everybody. I think anybody that walked into that space could take something away with them. Even just learning one more piece of that history could really change your perception or theory of change. So that’s what we were trying to do, use art and history to change peoples’ minds and open peoples’ minds.”

Trinidad wants the exhibition to provide people with more than just knowledge, spurring on a new mode of thinking. “There are people right now who are living without policing, right? People that are in upper-class white communities that don’t see or interact with the police on a daily basis. So that goes to show that people can exist without having police. [So, through the exhibition], I want people to think for one second, ‘how can we follow a different way of living? What is an alternative to policing?”

For all those who weren’t able to make it to any of the four sites, a virtual exhibition space and a documentary film by filmmaker Tom Callahan chronicling the process of creating and displaying the exhibitions will immortalize the series online for the years of abolitionist organizing that is to come.

The exhibition’s fourth and final opening, at In These Times, featured a panel and discussion with Kelly Hayes of Truthout, Maya Dukmasova of the Chicago Reader, Trina Reynolds-Tyler of the Invisible Institute, and Alex Hernandez of In These Times. The panel was moderated by activist, organizer, journalist, and City Bureau fellow Charles Preston. The panelists’ discussion explored the complexities of reporting on police violence in Chicago.

In following stories about Chicago violence in mainstream media, Dukmasova noticed a trend in stories of police brutality in Chicago being more frequently covered by outsiders to the city.  In Hernandez’s eyes, this strange reality is part, “toxic professional pride because someone scooped you on your own beat in your own backyard,” and part outsiders’ advantage. “Something like Homan Square is like, ‘oh that’s the evidence lockup, the big evidence lockup, it always smells like weed on a summer day, like whatevs,’ but you never think to ask additional questions like, ‘that’s a really big facility for evidence, though. That’s huge and you always see tactical guys coming out of there and that’s interesting.’” When a reporter from outside the city approaches the context with a fresh set of eyes, it may be easier for them to pick up on clues of cover-ups and corruption. “The inverse of that is that they might not have a lot of the nuance that someone from here needs,” explains Hernandez.

According to the panelists, further exacerbating the problem of police violence in the city are issues including widespread societal conditioning to trust and believe the police, extremely effective FOP lobbying to decrease transparency, and a lack of proactivity on the behalf of the city government in addressing the many shortcomings of policing in Chicago. Because of an opaque and misleading police misconduct classification system that leads to staggering underreporting of criminal sexual assault and the fact that sexual assault complaints against the police are investigated through the police’s internal affairs division, issues of sexual assault perpetrated by the Chicago Police are nearly impossible to bring into the public eye as well.

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Listen to an interview with attorney and photographer Larry Redmond about his solo exhibit at Pilsen’s Uri-Eichen gallery as part of “Do Not Resist?” on the January 16 episode of SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio hour on WHPK:

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However, throughout the panel discussion, Hayes highlighted the fact that the first step to staring unflinchingly at the violence of the police state is to develop a shared vocabulary and understanding around state violence, citing the sexual assault and entrapment of Standing Rock water protector Red Fawn Fallis as an example. Accused of discharging a firearm and attempting to kill a police officer, the only evidence against Fallis was a gun found in proximity to her that belonged to her boyfriend at the time, who was an informant for the police. “When we have an agent by the state that invests themselves in the community under false pretenses, who adopts a false persona, that was state violence. That was rape at the hands of the state,” explains Hayes. “We need to be able to talk about things like what happened to Red Fawn as takedowns that are orchestrated against activists. [We need to understand that] violence is definitely more expansive than what we were told as children.” 

And in Hayes’ eyes, the key to a shared understanding of violence is an orientation around the framework of harm, which is often simpler to conceptualize and discuss than issues of legality and the police’s monopoly on state- sanctioned violence. Utilizing the framework of harm-reduction rather than punishment in conversations about accountability and justice also has the advantage of not replicating the logics of the carceral system, a system that has historically been weaponized and mobilized against marginalized groups.

However, even with all the right tools and vocabulary for addressing police violence, Hayes and the other panelists are skeptical that change will be led by mainstream journalistic outlets and reporting. “The media is more than 90% corporate owned right now and I think that’s one of those things with the internet becoming more and more compromised, that we’re going to have to look to things like zines more, we’re going to have to look into our past more about how we proliferate news and knowledge and analysis,” explained Hayes.

The use of this nontraditional media was the focus of Do Not Resist?’s February 3 events, The History of Policing thru Zines and The Aesthetics of Abolition in the 21st Century. While the In These Times opening reception looked back at the history of police violence in Chicago, these two events looked forward towards an abolitionist vision on the horizon.

“For me, what I mean when I talk about abolition is that I want the end of the entire system of mutually reinforcing relationships between surveillance and prisons and policing that fuel, maintain, and expand social and economic inequities and institutional racism,” explained one of the two panelists, organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba, on the topic of abolition at the beginning of The Aesthetics of Abolition in the 21st Century. “So, the idea, basically, is the dismantling of a whole system that leads to premature death for many many people around the world.”

The abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC abolition), for Kaba and other abolitionist organizers, requires more than just closing prisons. It requires addressing problems of policing, surveillance, accountability, resource inequity, and more.

This dismantling of a system is the central difference in abolition and reform, one of the themes of many of the Do Not Resist? events. “We’re trying to do away with the system, rather than finding a way to make that system ‘work better’ or ‘be nicer’ or be ‘more humane.’ The system is actually built to be inhumane. It’s killing exactly who it targets. So the sort of main framework of abolition is not just to tear down, but to build up the main framework for the world we want to live in,” she explains. “As Ruthie Gilmore has said, abolition is about presence. A presence of something else.”

Given that policing, prisons, and surveillance have been a core part of America since settlers arrived in this country, Kaba sees art as being central to imagining this something else. “I really rely on what Jeff Chang has said over the years, that cultural change precedes political change… I would contend that social movements themselves are a form of collective art-making. We need new chants, which is also artistic. We need new singing. We need new songs.”

This discussion and many others through the night centered around exploring the collective understanding of often nebulous concepts. As Kaba asked Sarah Ross, an educator and the other panelist of the night, to define the name of the event, The Aesthetics of Abolition, Ross speculated, “I think that art that supports and informs abolition is experimental, challenges us with questions, and is collaborative. Art that has an abolitionist framework is also generous. In the demand for freedom for us all, it asks questions publicly and is vulnerable publicly and in that generosity, we move some place together. Abolition is a movement informed by those who are inside prison and who have been inside prison. The abolitionist movement has learned that without the actual participation of prisoners, there can be no campaign.”

Monica Cosby, an organizer with Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration and the West Side Justice Center, whose experience bring incarcerated informs her abolitionist work, explained that art created in prisons is often abolitionist, “maybe not even on purpose,” recounting how, during her time in prison, she and the other women would frequently make art they would share with each other and with their loved ones. “Our art preserved the bonds that we had with each other, it created bonds with people, and it preserved the bonds that we have with our children, our families, or whoever we have out here and it keeps us at least a little bit in community, which is something the whole state would destroy,” she explained.

“The practice of systems of care in a place that’s wants destroy you is an abolitionist project and an abolitionist aesthetic,” Ross agreed.

“Another tenet [of abolitionist art] would be to name peoples’ names. And this room does that. The whole exhibition does that,” Ross added. The installation at Hairpin, to which Ross was referring included audio interviews with Rekia Boyd’s family, a blue patchwork quilt that had written on it the names of people lost to police brutality over the last few years, and a piece of pottery featuring the names of people who had experienced police violence in Chicago among many other audio, visual, and tactile installations.

“Tomorrow we’re not going to tear down all the walls of the prisons, as much as we would like to, but we are all doing this work together, we are all doing it with a vision of ending white supremacy and ending racism and capitalism,” reflected Ross. And this is the reality of abolition as reflected through Do Not Resist?, that is that this movement is a centuries-long journey of millimeter-length steps to create alternatives to policing, prisons, and surveillance.

And, as Do Not Resist? showed, while abolition looks towards the future, it is grounded in the present. “I always tell people the importance of writing yourself into history, not because you are vain, but because somebody should know what you did because it is important,” Kaba advised. “Your work is building off of the work of ancestors and somebody’s work will be building off of yours.” From winning the campaign for reparations for survivors of police torture in Chicago to a reduction in the population of youth incarcerated in Illinois from about 2000 people to 400 to the closure of three youth prisons, organizers have achieved remarkable victories in the past few years upon which future generations of abolitionists will expand and build.

“I don‘t believe in throwing people away. I don’t believe in disposing of them by locking them away like we’re never going to have to interact with them again,” Kaba concluded. “Most people who go to prison come out. So the question is how do we want them to be able to live having come out. What kind of culture do we create for them?”

Update 2/20: This story was updated with additional quotes and information originally cut from the print issue for space

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