Chicago: Art "Against the Nightstick"

Revolutionary Worker #935, December 7, 1997

Chicago, October 17, 1997: Opening night of the art show, "Against the Nightstick." Five days before the October 22nd National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, close to 200 people come to view the 50 art pieces submitted by 42 different artists. And poets and musicians step out to lend their support to the cause. Different types of artists are represented--from older, well-known figures to those having their art shown for the first time. From art school students to youth whose work appears more times on street walls than on canvas. People at the exhibition are struck by the intensity and emotion of the pieces. The issue of police brutality is clearly something many artists feel very strongly about. There is anger. There is humor. There is outrage. There is sadness and poignancy.

"Starry Night in Humboldt Park" by Gamaliel Ramirez, done for the show, takes you back 20 years when the artist was beat up by the police at a Puerto Rican Independence Day celebration. A piece by Carlos Cortéz Koyakuikatl, titled "Antes de la Desaparición" ("Before the Disappearance") shows death squads in Latin America. "He Never Came Home That Night" by Palestinian-American artist Hanah Diab-Davis, remembers how her father was dragged off by cops and framed up, changing the family's life forever. Notorious "Flag on the Floor" artist Dread Scott has sent a new poster, "Plunged," inspired by the New York police torture of Abner Louima. When you look up close at "The Beast," by young graffiti artist Timothy Janda, behind the whitewash you see pages of different kids' police records, citations, school suspensions and "rules for house arrest." Another young artist, Brad Beutler, submitted a piece titled, "Dirty Cop." The cops had slashed this young graffiti artist's hands last summer after they arrested him. A sculpture by Michael Dominick, "The Stolen Lives Memoriam," stands over 13 feet tall with over 300 names of people killed by the police all over the country. And there is a striking juxtaposition: Up on one wall is a large painting, "Move Along" by Jeff Zimmerman. Three huge, mean-looking cops stare out at you with the words, "Is there a problem, officer?" And directly underneath this painting there is an poignant installation to 15-year-old Angel Castro featuring one of his drawings--Angel had wanted to become an artist before he was murdered by the Chicago police in 1996.

There were many other powerful pieces, and many people remarked on how great it was to have an art show on this political theme. And the artists were glad to help bring out and expose this huge problem through their work in the cultural sphere of society. As RCP Chairman Bob Avakian has said, "A work of art must be more intense and concentrated than life itself: it cannot passively reflect life; a play, novel, song, etc. cannot just reflect the minute-by-minute life of someone--there would be no point to it. Art must concentrate and intensify life, must raise it to a higher plane."

Theresa, a middle-age Black woman whose friend's son was killed by a cop, volunteered to help with the opening night. She expressed herself on the art: "I keep saying profound, because it was riveting, very in-depth, thought-provoking, very deep. It was nothing that you could just glance and walk. You had to stop and it just like pulled so much... It was just so provoking of everything, of thought, of emotion, of feeling."

When the organizers of the show went out to talk to people, many artists already had pieces they had done about police brutality. And organizing for the show prompted lots of discussion about the nature of the police, the importance of the national movement to stop police brutality, and how artists can contribute to this struggle. One of the organizers, who also submitted a piece to the show, said, "It was amazing, it's sort of like six degrees of separation. You talk to anybody on the street and they'll either have been a victim or know somebody that's been a victim, or have a friend of a friend. It's so interconnected, it's so widespread.... Every day I spoke with somebody new. Every day, and not just one person, but every time I was on the bus, every time I took a cab, every time I stopped on the corner of the street, all my friends, I called them up and, I mean we had really long discussions about it."

Spoken Word
Against the Nightstick

With jazz band Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls in the house, the poetry readings added even more power and entertainment. Through spoken word, the poets gave the audience their artistry, passion and insightful word play, speaking out on police brutality. And there were many memorable and moving moments. Some of those who read were well-known veterans in the spoken word scene. Some poets who read and listened in the audience were from the Lit X crowd--the heart of the Black poetry scene in Chicago. And one poet, "JD," who read his poem "Cops Beating Artists Beating Cops" was there representing the hip hop youth who are harassed, beaten and arrested by the cops day in and day out.

Some of the poets gave interviews for the RW and talked about why they felt so strongly about reading at the opening. Dennis Kim, who performed a riveting piece on the Philadelphia bombing of the MOVE organization said, "I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to be a part of this event, this happening that was asserting humanity, truth-telling, and the desire to rectify an inhuman situation in the midst of, in the face of institutionalized dehumanization. That was just such an awesome opportunity, who would pass that up, as far as performing, to lend my voice to this chorus of people speaking their piece. It was a really powerful thing...having a chance to get together with people who are telling their stories and share a moment with those telling the truth about what the police are doing--that was just incredible."

Maria McCray, a Black poet who did a great job of MCing the show, talked about how she felt compelled to get involved with this project because of the worsening situation people are facing. She said, "It was important for me to participate in the show and anything and everything else I can do to counteract the imperial, intrinsic, Gestapo-like tactics that are occurring with more redundancy every damned day on the streets in our world, that permeate our being by the so-called police force of this country.... I have so many reasons for wanting to participate. But I was really proud to do my part, to have that kind of cohesion and everybody's voice was heard. And I think it should keep on being heard and anything we can do to strike a blow for people's rights is very important.... Allowing people to have a venue or one of many venues to speak out and have the truth be told, I think it's vitally important, especially now-a-days when things are so separate-- the haves vs. the have-nots."

Avery R. Young, a Black poet who participated in a poetry event around last year's National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality said, "The whole spirit, the whole feel, you had people coming there and they sharing, that's what it was, the sharing of words, the sharing of art, it was a sharing of speaking against something that happens too too much everyday...You've got to let somebody know you stand for something too, so I'm standing against anything that's wrong and police brutality in itself is wrong."

Mario, a Black poet who is active in the fight to free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and read a poem at the October 22nd rally, said, "It was important for me to perform that night because one, I'm on that endorser's list. I felt that that meant something to be on a list with all those great people, you know, Chuck D. is on that list, that's my guy. So I was proud to be on that list. Also, I wanted to be able to use whatever celebrity I might have, cause I don't think I have one, but whatever celebrity I might have, if people see my name on that, maybe that will make them want to see, or look into more what the issue of police brutality is."

Well-known Black poet Reggie Gibson told the audience how he had grown up with the "fear of God" and the "fear of man"--his mother was a Jehovah's Witness and his father was a cop. He talked about how growing up around cops gave him some insight into their mentality: "Most of them won't speak out against any wrongdoing because it's a brotherhood. You know they have this attitude, it's us against them. That's the attitude they have and whatever the people in their sphere does that is foul they won't say a thing about it."

Some of those who have been most directly victimized by the police had a powerful presence at the opening night. Linda Giron, the mother of Angel Castro, came to the opening night with several other family members and friends. And Shirley Alejos spoke at the program, holding up a picture to show what her battered and bruised face looked like after she was severely beaten up by the Chicago cops. This picture was also part of the show along with news clippings of the beating. A woman whose son was killed by an off-duty cop several years ago had submitted something she wanted to share with others--a laminated copy of the RW article about the murder of her son. Before the program was over, a hat was passed around to raise money for the NDP Public Service Announcements on BET and the opening night itself raised several hundred dollars for the local NDP committee. The Rebel Souls closed out the evening with an original piece by Ted Sirota from their CD called "Song for Mumia."

Later, Dennis reflected on the event: "I really think there was this tremendous sense of oneness. There were a lot of crowds there, there were old heads, there were young heads, there were old revolutionists, there were young college students, like punk kids from the Northside came out, victims of police brutality came out. It was nice, there was a lot of energy and it transcended a lot of superficial boundaries."

An article written for a student newspaper by a student who helped on the show said "By the end of the reading [of poetry], a sort of contagious energy had infected the crowd. There was an air of excitement, a feeling of real possibility. Indeed the benefit seemed more like a town meeting than a gallery opening."

For one older Black woman whose son was killed by the police, it was an experience she wanted others to know about. She told the RW "I remember having this distinct thought at the beginning of the performance and I'm just standing there and I'm just surveying this room--I mean here we've got little kids, we've got grandma, we've got grandpa... And I just thought that was just profound. Everybody was there. So many people from so many different walks of life to have a common bond... It's like for that whole week everybody I talked to, I told about it."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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