Friday, November 16, 2012

Teresa Margolles: Death in Mexico and the War on Drugs

“According to the Mexican press,” writes Mexican curator and art critic Cuauhtémoc Medina, “More bullets were fired in 2008 than any other year of the country’s recent history.”  According to statistics, more than 5,000 people died in connection to drug trafficking, almost twice as many victims as the year previous.  The United States Department of Defense published a report promoting the idea that Mexico’s sudden upsurge of violence was due to its gang population.  This report was refuted by Mexican diplomats, and the United States developed a more placatory statement, acknowledging greater North America’s role in the violence.  Even after Mexican troops were sent to the border to quell the violence, over 1,900 died in executions, decapitations, and shoot-outs at the beginning of 2009. Writes Medina, "…What Richard Nixon called the 'drug war' has proved to be the most ineffectual campaign in history. Its sole achievement has been the encouragement of an ever larger market for ever cheaper 'illegal substances' – and, of course, a towering mountain of corpses… As Luis Astorga has pointed out…'the real goal of this alleged war seems to be its own perpetuation.'” 

In 2009, Medina collaborated with artist Teresa Margolles to work on an installation for the Venice Biennale. For decades, Mexico did not have an official pavilion and artists did not consistently exhibit at this international art fair.  It was revolutionary that Medina and Margolles represented Mexico in this year and executed such a politically charged installation entitled, ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? (What Else Could We Talk About?) In What Else Could We Talk About Margolles forces the international audience to face the reality of violence in Mexico.  Using the interior of the Rota Ivancich Palace, Margolles installed a group of cleaners to once a day mop the floors of the building with a mixture of water and blood of murdered people from Mexico. When the viewer enters these rooms, the reason why the area is being cleaned is ambiguous and mysterious, but the act of cleaning itself shows that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.  The repetitive, domestic chore of mopping is to clean up routine and accumulated filth as well as the innocuous accidents of spills.  Margolles’s use of repetitive mopping prompts the viewer to ask, what’s wrong?  What happened?  What is it that is being corrected?  The silence itself is overwhelming. When the viewer realizes that the mopping is a futile attempt at cleaning and that over time these layers of blood are actually accumulating, it is clear that something is not only wrong, it is getting worse. 

Margolles uses fabric impregnated with the blood from victims of Mexico’s violence.  Once the body is removed, and the crime scene investigation is complete, Margolles cleans the blood-stained area with damp rags, absorbing the blood into the cloth.  In Venice, she took this fabric and turned it into flags that she hung outside and inside of the pavilion.  Flags are nationalistic in nature, so hanging this blood-soaked flag outside of the Mexican pavilion is a way of exposing the country’s political violence, and emphasizing the guilt of her country in these ongoing murders. Furthering her act of cleaning, Margolles took these flags and submerged them in the waters of Lido Beach, Venice.  Mexico is saturated with the blood of its dead, but it is at the same time trying to rid itself of the violence, to hide it. 
Teresa Margolles, United States Pavilion, Venice, 2009
Bruce Nauman, Venice, 2009
In direct dialogue with the United States, Margolles took these blood-soaked fabrics, and installed them over the windows of the United States pavilion, at the heart of the Venice Biennale.  With this act, she acknowledges and confronts the United States’ role and guilt in border violence.  Like Macbeth as he vainly tries to wash his hands clean of the blood of his victim, Margolles tells the United States that the country cannot wash its hands clean of this blood.  Inside might be the comparatively whimsical work of Bruce Nauman, who would win the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for his country, but Margolles’s action is a sobering reminder of the nation’s political dominance and corruption.  As Medina said, "…Presenting her work in Venice also seeks to confront the global system's demagoguery, which continues to operate based on stylistic, linguistic, thematic and material exclusions, where the reference point of the center is never absent. In spite of numerous difficulties, and of every kind, that were involved in doing this pavilion, I always had a precise idea in mind: if an artist like Teresa Margolles can't realize her work at the Venice Biennial, then perhaps the Biennial ought not to exist."

Medina, Cuahtémoc. Teresa Margolles: What Else Could We Talk About? RM. 2010.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Surveillance, Sousveillance, and Filming the Police

On November 5, 2012, The Humanities Institute and the Hoffman Lectureship presented “Surveillance, Space, and the Public” as part of their Difficult Dialogues series.  The panelists included Dr. Simone Browne of the University of Texas Department of Sociology, Micha Cárdenas, an artist and PhD student in Media Arts and Practice at the University of Southern California, and Ernesto Yerena, a prominent artist and activist.  The panelists presented issues of racial, sexual, gender, and cultural identities in their academic and artistic work and the relevance of these identities to state control and surveillance.

Dr. Browne spoke first on the concept of “sousveillance,” and the connection of historical surveillance to racial prejudice and profiling.  She noted how certain populations, such as African Americans, are tracked, policed, and discriminated against both in public and private spaces, and how their personal data, privacy, and security are compromised.  This is true both with the New York Police Department’s Stop-and-Frisk policies, and in the history of Lantern Laws. To resist this surveillance and control, Browne discussed “sousveillance,” and how victims endure by adopting, subverting, resisting, and complying with existing institutions.

“How can the past allow us to ask questions about our present?” Asked Browne.  Our social locations and our categories of identities help frame how we think about surveillance.  She quoted John Fiske discussing the technology “of whiteness that draws lines that blacks cannot cross and whites cannot see.”  To understand our present surveillance system and issues surrounding racial profiling and oppression, Browne suggested we look at slavery and laws that framed Black life, such as the Lantern Laws that appeared after a slave revolt: "No Negro, Malatto [sic] or Indian slave shall be found in any of the Streets of this City… without a lantern and lighted candle in it so as the light thereof may be plainly seen… in such case it shall be lawful for any of his Majesty's Subjects within the said city to apprehend such slave or slaves not having such lantern and candle."  Those that were discovered were punished with public whippings if they failed to light themselves at night.

At a time when New York City was second to Charleston, South Carolina for it’s urban slave population, newspapers ran Runaway Ads to describe runaway slaves.  Browne used these advertisements to examine how slaves were described and how the public was taught to track them down. Browne also identified the success of Ellen Craft, a runaway slave who dressed in drag to pass as a man, and used her light skin and additional make-up to pass for white.  She told people that her husband, who had much darker skin, was her slave, and thus they were both able to subvert these systems of surveillance and hide in plain sight. 

Today, activists subvert police surveillance, such as the NYPD’s discriminatory Stop-and-Frisk, by filming the police and noting instances of police abuse and misconduct.  Over four million stops have been made by the NYPD to randomly search civilians, and 90 percent of the people stopped were Black and Latino, when Black and Latino New Yorkers are the minority in many of these communitiesBrowne introduced the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Stop-and-Frisk Watch App, which New Yorkers can download on a smartphone to record and immediately report stops.  This technology empowers civilians to perform “sousveillance” of police in their communities.

Micha Cárdenas, a media artist and activist, introduced Michel de Certeau’s theory of “la perruque” to analyze theories of subversion, “We’re given something, but we don’t have to do what we’re supposed to do with it.”  To understand surveillance, she argued, we need to think about who is watching whom and how surveillance is continually used to watch and control indigenous populations.  She argued that not only are racial categories necessary in understanding surveillance, but gender is also integral in understanding race.

One of her collaborative projects, the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, released Poetry, Immigration and the FBI: The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT). This five year project distributed recycled cell phones to people trying to cross the border, who needed to find water sources.  Recipients had the option of listening to poetry related to surviving in the dessert while they were guided to appropriate water supplies.  The project ended up being investigated by the government, and Cárdenas quipped that the government wasted far more money trying to see if they broke the law, than the $8,000 grant they completed TBT with.

As a transgendered woman, Cárdenas spoke of her desire to start working within her own community, revealing that she “didn’t feel safe walking home most nights.”  Her latest collaborative project is called Local Autonomy Networks (Autonets), and is developing networks of communication to link women, LGBTQI people, people of color, and other vulnerable groups. Using hoodies, people can transmit signals to others wearing these hoodies whenever they are being harassed.  Cárdenas listed prison abolition and avoiding the police and further surveillance as vital to protecting and empowering these communities.  Currently she is experimenting with these garments in performance art pieces.
Ernesto Yerena, another artist in this panel, discussed his work in terms of humanizing immigrant populations, and resisting police authority. His posters depict politically charge portraits juxtaposed against images of war and accompanied by illustrative captions.  One of his posters was designed in response to Occupy Wall Street, and depicts a Native man with the caption “Decolonize Wall Street,” in response to the oppressive, colonizing concept of an occupation. Another image boldly declares, “No Somos Immigrantes En Nuestra Tierra!!!!” 

Yerena discussed his negative perception of the police, recounting how in his community, they would never stop and aid during something even as serious as a drive-by shooting.  Another one of his works Alto Arizona, is a response to the Arizona law SB 1070, which would allow police to have access Federal databases of people, which would lead to racial profiling and more surveillance issues.  For this image, he used the image of a thumbprint to illustrate the shape of Arizona State.

There were major underlying themes in this panel, such as concern with the prison industrial complex and its link to slavery, racial, and sexual oppression.  Each speaker presented how issues of racial, sexual, cultural, and gender identities were integral in their academic and art work. The way in which our contemporary culture considers state repression must take into account how the history of the politics of identity frame surveillance issues.  Who is being controlled, and why? The links between surveillance studies, sousveillance activism, and art as intervention are inextricable and all equally vital in catalyzing radical social change.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Strength to Love: The Legacy of MLK, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., PhD, an unbeatable leader in social activism, embraced contradictions.  He was frequently put in positions of power and influence, but he sought to be humble and to use his words to heal and empower.  He was revered, and his word taken at face value, but he never stopped pushing his intellect and educating himself to draw conclusions. He had every opportunity to become a self-obsessed, egomaniac, or to consider himself a martyr, but he spent his time in self-reflective thought and repentant prayer.  I cannot envision a more ideal leader in the activist community, than someone committed to nonviolent direct action out of love.  To be nonviolent in the face of opposition takes so much courage and takes a greater understanding of the merits of love.  I use this entry to re-publish  MLK, Jr.'s words as compiled in his book, Strength to Love.

My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

To our most bitter opponents we say: "We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Response to My Arrest on September 21st, 2012

I was arrested early morning on Friday, September 21, 2012 and charged with "Interference with Public Duties" for filming the arrest of a comrade attempting to film an Austin Police Department investigation and arrest.  Although my primary focus in activism is on the Occupy Wall Street movement, I've been increasingly involved in the Peaceful Streets Project, an organization dedicated to holding police accountable for their often violent and unlawful actions. 

After witnessing first-hand instances of police brutality against activists and the lies police departments spread to the mainstream media and in the court system to justify their unlawful and unethical behavior, I became involved in citizen journalism.  My job?  To film, photograph, and disseminate on social media the actions of my fellow activists and their arrests, in case they need this documentation.

Filming the police is integral in protecting the legal rights of activists, and it levels the playing field.  In an arrest, the police hold all power, and we must submit to the arrest, to the police brutality, to the devastating effects of the prison system on our humanity, and then we pray that we have enough money and a decent enough lawyer to get us through the legal system.  The right to film the police is the least of what we could and should be asking for. There will never be justice on scene or in the media again if we are not free to document and film those in power and to hold them accountable. What we are doing in the Peaceful Streets Project has intersectional implications, all of which rely on our First Amendment rights to free speech and to freedom of the press.  How our court cases play out will affect free speech and free press rights for all.

My favorite chant in the Occupy Movement is, "We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!" We need to continue investigating the history of municipal police forces and to not be afraid to examine weaknesses in our current judicial systems and prison industrial complexes.  We need to ask ourselves if there is a better way to form our communities, to love our neighbors, and to care for the most vulnerable and suffering among us. When we are positive that those in power are accountable to The People, only then can we call them public servants.

In jail, I wrote invisible prayers with my finger on my cell wall, asking for my freedom because writing is at the heart of how I understand life and our human pursuit of truth.  In the same way, I feel compelled to document situations of oppression and abuse of power in order to restore the feelings of love and community in our world.  I write to communicate the necessity of anti-oppression work and of the need for the activists in the Peaceful Streets Project and in activist movements worldwide, dedicated to the empowerment of all human beings and to the restoration of our humanity. Please bear witness.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Being an Ally (under construction)

Let me preface this by saying I don't feel 100% qualified to teach anybody on how to be an ally.  I still make mistakes and piss off the people I love.  If you're coming to a place where you realize things are messed up and are starting to see for yourself that "privilege" isn't just an insult people are hurling at you, but a real, personal obstacle you're facing in fighting for a more just society, it's a great time to start reading the basics of being an ally.

"How to Be an Ally if You Are a Person with Privilege"

"How to Be an Ally"

Or a quick check-list from

How to Be a Strong Ally to People with Marginalized Identities

  • Assume that oppression in some form is everywhere, everyday.
  • Notice how oppressions are denied, minimized, and justified.
  • Read books and articles to increase your understanding of, and sensitivity to, the needs, aspirations, and concerns of others.
  • Understand and learn from the history of racism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, etc.
  • Understand the connections between oppressions, economic issues, and other forms of injustice.
  • Take a stand against injustice.
  • Be strategic. Decide what is important to challenge and what is not.
  • Intervene when someone disrespects or demeans another because of their race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, economic status, etc.
  • Support the leadership of people who have historically been oppressed.
  • Don’t do it alone. Build coalitions and networks, work with already established groups.
  • Talk with your children and other young people about oppression.
  • Work to bridge differences rather than insist on similarity of views.
  • Learn as much as you can about the shifting tactics of hate groups.
  • Don’t assume you know what’s best for an individual or group.
  • Listen to the stories, experiences, and voices of others.
  • Reflect on the impact of your own background and challenge your own cultural assumptions.
  • Notice who is the center of attention and who is the center of power.
  • Eliminate outdated and unhelpful terms such as “minority, oriental, handicapped, homo, etc.”
  • Write letters to the editors and management of newspapers, television and radio stations expressing support for efforts to reduce prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.
  • Notice and name dynamics of privilege and oppression that occur in coalitions.
  • Form partnerships with communities and congregations of color.
  • Work with advocacy groups for bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender people’s rights.
  • Connect service efforts with advocacy for economic justice.
  • Create accessible spaces and communities.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Another World Is Possible: An appeal to the American people

At a recent panel in Cambridge following a screening of “Addiction Inc.,” a documentary on tobacco corporations’ scandals, I asked if anyone felt there were parallels between how the tobacco giants and more recently, corrupt financial institutions, fended for themselves in Congress.  A representative from Corporate Accountability International on the panel acknowledged some parallels but then added that “that’s what the Occupy movement is addressing.” I was flattered a major nonprofit thought we were doing just fine, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy. I’m sure folks at Occupy Wall Street are happy to address these issues of economic disparity and corporate greed through mass incarcerations, and Occupy Oakland is happy to take one for the team by repeatedly being doused with teargas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades, but I can’t help but think that from Boston to the Bay, we could use some help.

Six months ago, Occupy Boston held its first General Assembly (GA) in Dewey Square, attended by a conservative estimate of 1,000 people, and immediately pitched tents that night. The encampment was both beautiful and riddled with problems, but I couldn’t stay away.  There is something shockingly isolating about American culture and society, particularly in New England, but through the encampment and through nightly General Assemblies, Occupy Boston was building a community where people who shunned by society were lifted up, and spoon-fed populations were forced to confront their privilege.  We yelled at each other, we fed each other, we marched through the streets together, and around 2,000 people danced with us in the streets the night we faced eviction.  At 5:00 AM on December 10, 2011, our Dewey Square “Tent City” was evicted, and 46 protestors were arrested.
A group of Occupy Boston protestors who weren’t arrested stood outside of jails with a banner that read “We’re not going anywhere,” waiting for the release of their comrades.  Did we follow through with that statement?  Yes and no. We hosted GAs four times a week since then and held regular Working Group meetings.  The media largely lost interest, and now Occupy Boston is being discussed at academic conferences like an extinct species or sociology case study. Over the past few months of hibernation, we faced weak moments of activist cannibalism, in-fighting, unidentifiable frustration, and exhaustion.  We lost some major activists who were burnt-out, and the few of us who stuck it out are continually questioning our participation in the movement, which leads me to wonder:
Where are you?
“You are part of a global uprising,” read the first slide in a series of images the Occupy Boston Women’s Caucus projected on the side of a building in Copley Square on First Night, “A cry from the heart of the world.”  Currently this world is facing impending war on Iran, daily massacres in Syria, protesters being shot in Egypt’s uprisings, and our own President, who I voted for, signing into law inarguably unconstitutional legislation like the National Defense Authorization Act. Additionally, how did it slip under the American radar that the G-8 was moved from Chicago to the private, secret location of Camp David?   Before Occupy Boston, I thought the word “fascism” was needlessly thrown around by “anarchists,” but my six months of protesting have forced me to confront the reality that fascism in this country is no joke, and I’m sure the power-hungry, merciless sociopaths of the 1% are only relieved to watch Occupy let its guard down.
Occupy Boston is tired, and we are doing our best, and like any other activist throwing their heart into this movement while simultaneously working three jobs, I too am exhausted.  We are not some abstract group that claims to represent you, Boston, you are part of us.  You are the 99%.  Part of me wants so badly to crawl back into my college-educated, white girl privilege and ignore the injustices plaguing my neighbors, but what happens when those injustices come to my door with FBI badges and handcuffs?  Knowing that I’ll only have myself to blame keeps me fighting for this movement, but I and my dear Occupy Boston friends cannot do it alone.  Unless you and the 99% around the world take responsibility for this movement, I question Occupy’s ability to sustain itself. Protesting is the only act of resistance and power we as citizens of the United States of America still have, and it’s time for an American Spring.  Are you ready to join us?
**Originally published in the Weekly Dig, Boston and on March 21, 2012**

Monday, April 23, 2012

Wishlist for the Occupy Movement

Context: I originally wrote this in response to an Occupy Boston Women's Caucus email request to clarify what members wanted from the Women's Caucus. I realized that this is what I want from the entire Occupy Movement:

" Zero tolerance policy within the Women's Caucus and an official WC stance in Occupy Boston against:
1) Transphobia
2) Homophobia (this includes internalized sexism and making fun of "angry lesbians")
3) Sexual assault and harassment and victim-blaming
4) Racism
5) Ageism
6) Discrimination based on disability
7) Classism & hierarchy (It doesn't matter if you're director of la-di-da, or a writer for bla-di-bla, you have no say above your most disadvantaged peer)

And when these things are violated, the Women's Caucus takes a stance:
1) People are called out on their actions, not for who they are or, more appropriately, who we think they are.
2) We implement methods of restorative justice. We assume goodwill as much as possible, but do not ignore destructive behaviors or let them go.

Support of Women's Caucus members
1) We assume good faith
2) If we question an action, we make the best possible effort of contacting the person(s) involved to clarify.
3) If someone made a mistake or unknowingly did something wrong, we forgive
4) If someone intentionally did something wrong, see above.
5) If someone is being hurt by non-WC members of Occupy Boston, we listen and nurture and refrain from judgement.  We also note if this is a problem many women are experiencing and needs to be addressed. Then, see above.

Ideas: Progressive endorsement of feminism
1) Acknowledgement that Second Wave feminism is not the pinaccle of feminism.
2) Acknowledgement that the concept of "feminism" varies by culture and race etc.
3) Acknowledgement that men are also negatively impacted by sexism and misogyny and that the world would fundamentally be better off with the empowerment of women.
4) Occupy Boston is not just about banks for women, there are many other issues unique to women in this world.

Male allies
1) We allow male allies to be a part of Women's Caucus in some capacity
2) Heck, we start a Feminist Caucus.

Direct Action
1) We are not a Caucus that exists solely for emotional support, networking, socializing, and discussion. We:
2) Plan feminist and women-centric direct action.

-Sarah "

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Regarding Last Week's General Assembly (Occupy Boston)

The reaction I had to the safety proposal not passing last week was
not just about the events of last week.  Since the encampment at Dewey
began, I and countless other women and men have been made to feel
unsafe at the heart of a space we were using to effect positive social
changes.  I experienced small instances of sexual harassment but
acknowledge that I am generally a more assertive and insistent female
when it comes to fending off predators. At one point at the media
tent, a man I engaged in friendly conversation tried to shift the
conversation to what I was wearing, commenting on the neckline of my
shirt, and reaching out as if to grab me, at which point I backed
away, extended my hand to shake goodbye, and left the area.  At
another point, I was headed towards a Women's Caucus meeting at Dewey,
and as I was watching some pretty talented rappers on the front stage,
I started listening to their lyrics about "fucking bitches," and I
yelled thank you to them for all of their empowerment. I too had a
bizarre encounter with Raquelle, the level 3 sex offender in question,
in which she came up to me at a GA, ignored the friends I was talking
to and greeted me.  She asked for my name without introducing herself,
which I found odd, "Do I know you?"  I don't recall her fielding that
question, but I think I was standoffish enough for her to leave me be.
 It was the next week when a member of our community told me who she
was.  I got it. She was ID-ing me and possibly grooming me. The male
allies I had around me at the time agreed.

I may have been the only Women's Caucus member present for every
single General Assembly at which Sarah Barney's safety proposal was
read.  I sat through hours of intense discussion that triggered my
sisters into leaving the room crying more than once.  I spoke to so
many women who were dumbfounded at the height of ignorance in our
community regarding rape culture and feminism and the lack of tact
members of the community displayed when discussing sexual assault and
abuse.  I understood both sides of the argument, although I found the
reformation of sex offender laws side to be more petty than the real
fears and vulnerability of my fellow Occupy Boston women, men, and
children.  What affected me the most throughout this painful process
was not even the proposal itself, but the things that members of our
community were saying in opposition to the proposal.  I wanted a massive
megaphone for women and men who were getting up and talking about
PERSONAL EXPERIENCES of assault, which takes so much courage, rather
than intangible theories of blah blah blah.  I was wondering over the
past few months when we failed to hold destructive members of our
community accountable, if Occupy Boston and my priorities in activism
aligned.  By the time the safety proposal failed to pass, I started to
think not.

I was one of the people who walked out of the room when around 20% of
our community joined Paul Shannon's, a member of the Reform Sex Offender Laws, block.  

I wish I could say that I walked out of that room because I felt ideologically compelled to, but
I can't.  I left that room because I was on the brink of a panic
attack by that point. I left that room because my hands and face were
white, because I was starting to hyperventilate, and because no matter
how strong my will was to try and fight at Occupy Boston, my body was
telling me it was at its limit.  The atmosphere itself of our GAs made
me physically ill.  Leaving that GA was based on principal but also
self-preservation.  I wanted to lie to myself and tell myself that I
felt safe, supported, and cultivated at Occupy Boston, but it's
dangerously clear to me at this point that I don't.