Art Against the Nightstick '98
By Virus X
Revolutionary Worker #980, November 1, 1998
October 17. Walk from the evening downpour into the warehouse space beside the train tracks and the message connects right away. Yellow caution police tape on the ground. A long line of human silhouettes run like a broad stripe down the walls and around corners. Every twelfth man is behind bars--reminding us of the situation facing young Black men in America 1998. Posters from the "Maximum Security Democracy" series on the U.S. prison industry cover another wall. The face of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal looks out from a painted banner, as if to ask "Now what are you going to do about all this stuff?" The crowd is dense, lively, engaged.
Welcome to the second annual opening of "Against the Nightstick"--works of art exploring the faces and facets of police brutality and resistance. Tonight, the art is backed by a booming sound system and the words of a half dozen Chicago poets.
The artworks are as diverse as the artists who created them.
In "The Murderer Wears Blue," by Paul Catanese, a faint blue looks-like-an-ink-blotch in plaster and fabric emerges as an anonymous, menacing, silhouette. By contrast, the officers in Jeff Zimmerman's "Move Along" threaten to walk right off the canvas. The flaming nightstick in Robbie Conal's "Dis Arm" poses a solution.
In "Victimization," the face of Jorge Guillén, murdered by Chicago police, appears repeatedly placed in an installation--suggesting a violent confrontation. Danny Chan explained how he used cardboard, metal, wood and glue to create a space that was empty and sad--testimony to the crime committed against Jorge and countless others. "Hole in the Head" by Steven Michael Glabman confronts us with that split second when a life is stolen by police murder.
In José Guerrero's tribute to Damián García--a member of the RCP murdered in the street in 1980 by police agents in Los Angeles--fanged snakes and demons crawl from a crumbling Alamo, its walls split apart by the figure of Damián holding the red flag.
As Mao pointed out, a work of art is a product of society reflected in the mind of an artist. The art at this show illustrated just how strong that reflection can be. In Iris Pasic's woodcut entitled "No!" a brutal real-life police assault becomes a skull-faced army facing off against a crowd of young people--as the statue of liberty hovers over the scene like a witch of death. "I was inspired by what happened at the Million Youth March," Iris told the RW, "how police came out to just blatantly take away people's free speech because they didn't like what they were saying. And I also wanted to get another message across, that people of all colors have to come together and say no to police brutality."
Josh McPhee examines the criminalization of youth from another angle--as the hands and faces of young men emerge from layers of colors and images--bars, guns, targets.
Hanah Diab's influences were expressed in her piece "The Fire In My Mother's Eyes." "This is about stone throwing," Hanah says. "For me it's about being Palestinian and throwing rocks because you have nothing else. But I've taken the idea of throwing rocks as just any way of the underclass to stand up to their oppressors." The painting is an web of images--rocks, human figures and recurring photos of her mother. Directly below the painting is a sling with golden rocks, "The color gold shows how precious this one little weapon can be--how much you can actually get done," Hanah explains. On the floor sits a pile of rocks, along with an invitation to join the struggle. "These stones ain't for soup, take 'em," the sign reads.
Enthusiastically hosted by Casa Guatemala, the show had a decidedly internationalist flavor. "Over 450 Mayan towns and villages were completely wiped off the map." explained Casa Guatemala member José Oliva, referring to the brutality of the U.S.-backed Guatemalan military during 36 years of civil war. "Over a million people were killed, disappeared, tortured or exiled. One-third of the entire population of Guatemala, either themselves were victims of psychological/physical torture or have had a family member disappeared, killed or exiled."
Fragments of news photos--soldiers firing guns, political police, a group of peasant women--are buried under a layer of coins in "The American Nightmare," a collage by the artist Gelashio. Gelashio talked about "the contradiction of what is supposed to be the American dream. Usually all the cultures around the world, they come to this country to make possible the American dream of freedom and happiness. And when you got here, you find a different point of view. Things are not as people think. Then you find out about that your freedom is not respected here."
Living in the Mexican community of Pilsen, Gelashio has seen this firsthand--police brutality justified by labeling the victims as "gangbangers." Gelashio said, "It's not about being a gang member. It's more that people don't respect you as a human being. Sometimes they use that excuse to arrest people--`This guy looks Hispanic or African-American. He must be related to a gang.' Sometimes those people are students, or hardworking people--but the cops don't respect their rights. I think we should stop that."
The opening for "Against the Nightstick" was a night of sound, as well as sight. Beginning with DJ Esperanto mixing reggae one-drop, hip-hop, jazz, punk, African and then some--and continuing with some of the baddest poets in the city.
Maria McCray took the listener on a travelogue of U.S. history--from Native American genocide to Japanese-American concentration camps."Look back/ then look out/ hearing the sneering siren shout of police/ bombing beast/ eating donut feast/ obese pig grease/ where is the peace/ all power to the PEOPLE!/ not the police!"
"I just fucking hate police officers." Anachron's words came from hard experience. Not even three years in Chicago, this hip-hop artist/poet has been arrested nine times by the cops, the last one immediately following a vicious police beating in an alley. As "Curbstory" tells it:"A car door slammed/ and here I stand damn/ one block away from the crib/ I hope I'll be going to the pad/ with all my ribs intact."
Poet/singer Mars explored the contradiction of a man who is in the people's movement against police brutality but abuses his lover--see his freedom songs disgraced/ as he puts his hands in the face/ of his lover...."
Carlos Cortéz Koyokuikatl, introduced as an honored elder of the poetry scene, was greeted with cheers as he rose to read. Reading first in Spanish, then English, Carlos' "Sisters Beneath the Concrete" dreamed a future written in the universal language of the oppressed."On the streets of Prague/ and on the streets of Chicago/ yes on the streets of Tlatelolco and Beijing/ on streets too numerous to mention/ where linger yet the blood stains of those nameless but unforgotten ones/ who have consigned their oppressors/ to the eventual oblivions they so richly deserve/ geography is but a chronicle of distances/ and nation is but a word/ the differences of skin and tongue are but delectable condiments of a well cooked repast..."
On a wall nearby is Carlos' poster of the infamous police attacks on working people at Haymarket and Republic Steel. "This is a mind blowing thing for me, said host and poet Mario, "To think when I was young, this was going on. I'm 31 years old. It has not changed. It has only gotten worse." Especially active in the fight to save Mumia, Mario brought that issue front and center. "It's really just time to act. I'm going to try to say one thing: `Free Mumia and free him now.' And the only way that's gonna happen, is if we do everything within our power, no matter how limited or how great, to get this brother's name on the lips of everybody....That's my poem."
Marlin Esguerra and Dennis Kim, together known as I Was Born With Two Tongues took us on an electrifying journey of brutality past and hopes current set against the melody of a Bob Marley song:"...saying a bruised blackened eye was an isolated incident/ saying a dead body doubled over was an isolated incident/ saying screams and cries are an isolated incident/ saying to serve and protect themselves from us is an isolated incident/ beat 1-2-3/ beat 1-2-3/ beat 1-2-3..."
All art has the choice of serving as a weapon for either the oppressor or the oppressed. On the night of October 17th, a few more rounds of ammo were provided for the people's side.
Against the Nightstick will continue at Casa Guatemala Gallery, 3731 N. Ravenswood in Chicago until November 20. 773.348.8979.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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