Freedom Square occupation in Chicago

Every day for as far back as I’m willing to scroll, playwright and novelist Monica Byrne has posted to Instagram a handwritten note with the date and the simple declaration: “I do not consent to this presidency.” Sometimes the message appears on a napkin, a Ziploc bag, a food wrapper, a receipt, whatever is handy it seems, when the time for daily protest strikes. These tiny signs of resistance succinctly capture what so many Americans feel in these dystopian times, with global proto-fascism on the rise and a climate science-denying, white supremacist, sexual predator holding the highest office, representing us on the international stage. When our children and grandchildren learn about this festering wound on the flesh of American history, we hope that they learn of our dissent, our refusal to be silent in the face of hate, xenophobia, transphobia, anti-Blackness, and violence against women.

On Saturday December 9, I will join the Poetry Foundation in welcoming arts activist panelists Bria Royal, avery r young, and Angela Jackson, as well as artist organizers Kush Thompson and Damon Williams, to share their work at Creating Frontlines: Emergent Resistance Art & Performance. This evening celebrating the Signs of Resistance exhibition will culminate with a special performance by We People, a collective who musically interprets experiences lived and imagined through experimental fusions of afro-surrealism, meditative movement, dance, and eclecticism. Their improvisational style mimics the spontaneous and undulating forces of life and its transitions while engaging their audience through participatory action.

Bomba con Buya holds a special place in my heart because as a collective, they made multiple visits to last summer’s Freedom Square occupation. Freedom Square was a protest encampment in a vacant lot across the street from Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) Homan Square black site, where thousands of Chicagoans have been illegally detained and instances of torture at the site have been documented. Buya volunteered free bomba workshops for the children of North Lawndale who lived and played in the tent city, filling the thick air with rhythms of Afro-Indigenous resilience and resistance. They were one of many artist collectives who transformed the political occupation into a free pop-up summer camp for youth in Chicago’s most incarcerated, policed, and socially divested neighborhood. In the literal shadow of the infamous facility which houses tanks, riot armor, and military-grade weapons while disappearing Black and brown people at staggering rates, an organic network of Chicago’s artists, activists, volunteers, and neighbors imagined a world without police for 45 days. A laboratory of abolitionist nation-building, Freedom Square offered free dance and music workshops, zine-making workshops, comic book workshops, journalism workshops, screen printing workshops, science workshops, film screenings, lectures on traditional African spirituality, theatrical performances, concerts, free groceries, free clothes, free books, free medical and hygiene supplies, free book bags, school supplies, and uniforms, and free prepared meals for hundreds of people each day. Bomba con Buya, For the People Artist Collective, and FreeStreet Theater were just a few of the countless groups who joined the #LetUsBreathe Collective in using art and performance not only as portals for political education, organizing, and direct action, but as the very building blocks for the world we hope to install when the systems we oppose crumble, are dismantled, or are forced into obsolescence.

Indeed, Freedom Square was an installation. A lot of protest art, some of which can be seen in Signs of Resistance, was made, displayed, and performed there, but more than that, the site itself was a living art installation, a large scale piece of durational performance art, where the children, organizers, occupiers, volunteers, and even the antagonizing police were actors in an improvised drama of embodying and testing abolitionist politics. Even as we used the site as a basecamp to demand divestment of the $4 million per day the City of Chicago spends on CPD, the vacant lot was canvas, tents and canopies were mixed media brush strokes, continuously contouring what a world could look like if we invested in art, education, employment, transformative justice, mental health and addiction treatment, access to nutritious food, and fair housing, instead of people with weapons who discriminate, surveil, and harass far more than they ever heal, serve, or protect.

Each day that we successfully held the space, we updated a sandwich board at our welcome tent with the count “This is day (37) of standing for love, fighting for freedom, building community.” This declaration, much like Monica Byrne’s, was our daily record of dissent. It was also our daily vow to envision and create the world that liberates us, and not just to oppose the systems that oppress us.  The massive proliferation of resistance art that engendered and sustained Freedom Square was only possible because, in recent years, an emergent wave of radical youth activism has remixed the art of protest, infused marching chants with hip-hop poetics, and redesigned the frontline. And this vibrant emergence stands in the proud lineage of the Black Arts Movement. Indeed, artists have long been the vanguard of revolution. In these dizzying times of fake news, alternative facts, and endless scrolls of death spectacle, we fervently need visionaries to see through the haze. Nina Simone says that it’s the artist’s responsibility to reflect the times. I stand indebted to her legacy as I expand the challenge: as artists, it is our duty to not simply reflect these times, but to imagine, paint, script, sculpt, sing, and perform how these times must change.

Originally Published: December 5th, 2017

Poet, playwright, actor, and educator Kristiana Rae Colón earned a BA at the University of Chicago and an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of the chapbooks pieces of shedu (2008) and promised instruments (2013), which won the inaugural Drinking Gourd Poetry...