Young Artists Creatively Protest Against Police Brutality
By Ester Alegria in News on Jan 24, 2015 7:00PM
Photo Credit: Xavier Ramey
About five months have passed since a shooting incident in Ferguson, Missouri re-opened the wounds of America’s racial tensions. In the weeks after the death of unarmed Micheal Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, protests and acts of civil disobedience exploded across our country.
For a short time I thought the thickness of anxiety and rage surrounding the anti-police brutality movement had calmed. But, after joining the #LetUsBreathe collective and the 4 Mile March—a call to reclaim MLK, I felt differently.
The protests against police brutality haven't been quiet, retreated, or lost any fervor. They became more advanced.
The basic premise of #BlackBrunchChi was to disrupt the normal flow of everyday life of those in positions of privilege—a moment to tell a short narrative of the plight of people of color in America who are constantly refused agency and have been killed while their police officers who took their lives aren't charged with any crimes.
Monday I followed Kristiana Rae Colón, a poet, performer and organizer of the #LetUsBreathe Collective and co-producer of The Lost Voices’: A Ferguson Story, during the #BlackBrunchChi action. Standing beside Colón was her brother, Damon Williams who serves as Co-Director, Chief of Operations Xavier Ramey and a closely knit group of fiery co-organizers.
The day was carefully planned. We met briefly in Wicker Park, then headed out on foot to restaurants during peak brunch hours. All marchers had a powerfully written script which took 4-1/2 minutes to complete. Unfortunately, restaurant managers asked the mass to leave some establishments. Statistics were quoted on the imbalances in incarceration rates, prison labor-for-profit, ill-prepared schools, higher arrest rates and how a person of color dies at the hands of a non-civilian every 28 hours. This was followed by a cathartic vocalization, with brown, tan, and white fists in the air, of the names of several POC killed by non-civilians. The action ended at the Water Tower just in time to catch up with the 4 Mile March.
The feelings of camaraderie were elating. Stronger than any spiritual connection I had ever thought I'd felt, for this was true wholeness of heart. We all wanted one thing; justice.
An especially memorable instance was at Milk & Honey. As we silently filed into the moderately busy café, the first MC began the reciting the script. A woman stood next to me waiting for her food. Her small child was at her knees and as we made eye contact, she attempted to cover his entire body with her arms, hands and coat. It was at this establishment that we met a confrontational patron, unhappy with our presence there; she let out an outburst for us to “just stop”. Her companion seemed rather embarrassed, and tried to quell her anger.
So why did we interrupt a bunch of stranger’s meals?
I spoke with Kristiana about her role as leader of the #LetUsBreathe collective, the focus of #BlackBrunchChi, what it means for her and what lies ahead in the future.
Kristiana Colón: In terms of activism, it’s still really new for me, actually organizing, and being on the streets, I’ve always been very politically engaged, and my ideology has always been, very with the people. I performed at my first anti-police brutality rally at the age of 16, so these have been issues that I’ve been thinking about and writing about for a long time. But, it was really the protesters in Ferguson in mid-August that inspired me into action. You know, going from being an ideological activist to activist in deed was just a matter of getting set up and sitting behind a computer, and expressing my rage through Twitter rants, and needing to actually do something. And that’s how #LetUsBreathe came into existence. And when I organized the first fundraising trip, I thought it would be just the one time thing; we’d raise our money, we’d bring our donations, and I would feel like I had done something. But the young folks in Ferguson, particularly—The Lost Voices—they just were so magnetic, and so inspiring in their commitment, and it seemed that they weren’t going anywhere, it was more than just a moment, it was the beginning of a movement, I couldn’t just go home and stay home and not do anything else. So, I ended up going back the very next weekend. So, five months later, the fact I’m still organizing, is a function of that. At the end of a successful action, you can go home and feel accomplished for all of twelve seconds and then you know that there’s still so much work to be done.
So, in terms of what’s next, I think that progress that has been made. Is that folks’ passion is being harnessed into tangible actions. And the special thing about #BlackBrunchChi that was different from other actions that have been organized, the disruption of the status quo, the act of civil disobedience, the interrupting of the flow of daily life. It wasn’t just about a publicity stunt, or a media stunt, or messing up the flow of people’s day. It was also really a point of engagement. One of the successes of [Monday] was that we got a bunch of people that we interacted with throughout the day to sign up, be involved in the next action. And for me, the organizer, that means I have a responsibility to engage those people, and pull them into the next thing. That’s not the only thing we asked people to do, we also gave people nine other ways to get involved. So, I’ll be continuing to engage people who are like I was 5 months ago, filled with a lot of good ideas, and good intentions, and good heart. But not having a tangible thing to do. And as an artist, I think the benefit is that I’m able to harness my talent and my cultural resources in the artistic community to engage people in creative ways. So folks that ordinarily wouldn’t see themselves in activist movements are able to do so because of the connection to the artistic engagement, and the cultural engagement. And I think that that is what is gonna keep this movement alive. Because it’s not over; and it’s not going to be over. I think, every time we step outside, more and more people are encouraged to step outside of their daily routine and do something that is bigger than themselves.
Chicagoist: How do you feel about the criticisms from people who say the movement is going away, and that they're tired of hearing about the killings?
KC: For those folks that are tired of hearing about it—and this is one of the things that we said in the establishments that we were asked to leave [Monday]—If you believe that an act of protest and civil disobedience in response to police violence is an inconvenience, and you’re tired of hearing about it—imagine what it’s like living it every day. The fact that, we could not get through the entire list of names of un-armed black people that have been killed because there are more people being added to the list, so no. The movement can’t go away until the problem goes away. If folks are upset or inconvenienced, they’re gonna have to continue to be inconvenienced because it is unacceptable for black people to be dying by the scores at the hands of the people that are paid to protect their communities. So, I don’t really have a whole lot of empathy for folks who want to remain silent and complacent.
Chicagoist: What would you say to those who ask, “why don't you protest against neighborhood shootings?”
KC: Black-on-black crime is a myth, and it's a hurtful derailment when people of color express pain over police killings. Crime in black neighborhoods is a function of poverty and black people do organize to reduce the violence caused by poverty; just because the media doesn't cover it or you're uninformed about it doesn't mean it's not happening. When black people kill other black people, they are put in cages. When people, usually white, who are paid to serve our communities abuse their authority and kill black people, they are protected, lionized, and walk away with impunity, and maybe even a million dollars from sympathizers and television interviews. Comparing neighborhood shootings to institutional police violence is ignorant and insulting.
Chicagoist: When protesting, what are your main concerns?
KC: I’m always planning for people's safety. Whenever I get to a call to action, and people respond to it, I feel responsible for those people&mdash:responsible for their safety, and for them feeling like the action was purposeful. Like we didn't just go out into the streets to cause trouble and get attention, and that action was focused and well thought out, and intentional. Those are the things that I'm always trying to plan for—developing protocols, and standard by which we interact with the police. And, for the actions that I've organized thus far, the goal has always been for no one that I'm with to get arrested. And I've been almost 100% successful. There was an action in Wicker Park in October, where two folks who were blocking traffic got arrested. That was just a situation that could not be controlled because the cops were issuing an order for people to get on the street and they did not get on the street. I'm always giving instructions to folks that are with me to comply with police in these instances because, as we know, in the tradition of Dr. King, being arrested is a strategy in the tactic and when the time comes civil disobedience needs to escalate to the point where people will need to get arrested. That is not a time that is not a strategy that is off the table for me, but it's one that is very high stakes and black and brown bodies in the hands of the state have different implications than non-black and brown bodies in the hands of the state. So, when I'm organizing with black people, I'm not gonna do anything that's gonna put them in that situation unless the stakes are high enough to escalate it to that point that are allowing people to get arrested. But, for the most part, I'm always thinking about people's safety, because we want people to come back out and do it again, and not feel like they're being put at risk for no reason. And you know, police are unpredictable. And we know with our actions—the criticism of the police, that can go a number of ways. But I think having done it a few times, and having been on the front lines in Ferguson where police are way, way out of control, and have no restraint, really; organizing in Chicago seems comparatively easy. I was scared when I was in Ferguson and St. Louis, where there were an entire infantry of police banging on their body armor with their batons. That was scary. But now, I have a level of fearlessness that I wouldn't have had otherwise.
The police arrived when the protest reached Caffe Streets, a paddy wagon at the ready. This was a signal the police were prepared to arrest people for trespassing. But there was a contingency plan for that. We had store liaisons whose job it was to make sure that none of the establishments were accusing us of trespassing. So, when the police came in and asked if we needed to leave, we had already talked to the manager, and they were fine with us being there.
Establishments occupied during #BlackBrunchChi:
The Bongo Room - We were asked to leave
La Colombe Cafe
Milk & Honey Cafe
Starbucks - We were asked to leave.
The Signature Room - We were asked to leave.
Upcoming Community Events:
Sunday, Jan. 25
People's State of the Union: Story Circle
1 p.m. -4 p.m.
K.L.E.O Community Center
119 E. Garfield Blvd.
Tuesday, Jan. 27
The Princess Who Went Quiet: Talking to Kids About Incarceration
6 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
637 S. Dearborn St.
Saturday, Jan. 31
The People Could Fly & Other Tales of Freedom
Beverly Arts Center 2407 W 111th St