The January 20, 2017 inauguration ceremony in the US marked a transfer of immense military, financial, social, and legal power to explicitly white nationalists. Highly formalized and symbolic, ceremonies such as these are geared toward fixing power into place. That is why Occupy Museums felt it necessary to call for a counter-ceremony on #J20 that would unfold simultaneously at an American museum. While the ceremony down in DC empowered a figure with an unquenchable drive to dominate and pillage, we felt it was important to inaugurate an era of heightened solidarity and resistance.
More than thirty artists spoke out at the Whitney Museum on #J20. Artists and activists long committed to struggling toward greater justice spoke, sang, and read statements and poems proclaiming values forged through protest and organizing and art-making. These values are not an academic matter: without question we’ll be fighting in the streets to defend them in coming years. They are a beginning.
We have compiled many of these statements and now offer them as tools in our common work ahead: a collective manifesto containing both contradictions and the wisdom of the art community. Starting this week, we will release them in groups and propose themes to help uncover connections between them. This week’s statements are by: Gina Beavers, Aruna D’Souza, Avram Finkelstein, Naeem Mohaiemen, Aaron Burr Society, Pamela Sneed, and Dread Scott.
We begin this series thinking about the value of citizenship. How can we accept citizenship in a nation that now officially targets its most vulnerable? Should we think about reclaiming or reframing patriotism? Was American identity ever something that we in the art community and beyond could be proud of, and if so, in which moments? Is there a citizenship of resistance? And what is our intellectual role as citizens: Can we become more discerning with our news consumption, more strategic with our organizing and protesting? How might we position a notion of artist-citizen in the Trump era? How do we on the left connect ourselves to affinity groups, connect affinity groups to larger communities of resistance, and on to the larger picture?
Hi my name is Gina Beavers and I’m an artist. I wanted to wear a “I was alright with the status quo” t-shirt today but I couldn’t get it made in time.
The truth is of course that I’m not, there were always things I wanted to change or things that were not improving fast enough: police brutality, the disenfranchisement and oppression of black, brown, and immigrant communities, how easy it is for men to rape women and get away with it, the endless toying with women’s health care as a political pawn, the lack of protection against discrimination for LGBTQ people in the majority of our fifty states …
But … there is improving on what we have and there is fighting to get back to where we were on November 8, 2016.
Occupy Museums asks, what can cultural producers do to oppose facism? Whatever kind of work you MAKE, cultural producers need to become better THINKERS. We need criticality, not only for institutions and the quote-unquote “1%” but also amongst ourselves.
How many artists with master’s degrees forwarded me blatantly false “news” items during this election? People who were moralizing and vehement about Haiti or Honduras because they read a single article on the internet. If you had asked them about the state of affairs in that region twenty-four hours earlier, they would have had nothing to say. That is dangerous. Both because they don’t care about the developing world until it suits their narrative and because their passions can be turned on and off like a faucet, by master con-men.
Artists! We need to learn how to read skeptically, need to learn about our history, what is happening in the world even when we might not have a stake in it, read opposing viewpoints, analyze different leaders’ motivations for ourselves. We need to study how our mechanisms of government function, need to read up on what our Constitution says, a Civics 101 for artists.
This is not a joke, we got played by our ignorance of all of these issues, by our inability to think constructively and analytically and our inability to focus on the big picture. We got conned. Science writer Maria Konnikova, who wrote the book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It … Every Time, says, “the more we want something to be true, the more skeptical we need to be.” If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are no shortcuts, no purity, no easy paths.
We stand here looking at what we face from the afterglow of the relative safety of an Obama presidency. Sadly, I think it’s still hazy to us how severely we have shot ourselves in our collective foot. But this will become way too clear in the years to come.
The truth is that we need to become better thinkers to become better citizens and better citizens to become artists who can resist fascism.
Today is January 20, a day that many of us will have been anticipating with dread since November 9—indeed, we may have been trying to stave off its arrival by starting to organize, by taking part in protest, by becoming engaged, by becoming enraged. By dreaming of emoluments, by imagining recounts, by poring over intelligence reports, by analyzing voting data, by writing, signing, emailing, phoning, tweeting. By trying to deploy shame against the shameless. By groping for the reset button. By clinging to hope.
This day has arrived anyway, despite our best efforts and our moments of magical thinking. Its arrival doesn’t mean the hope was misplaced or those efforts wasted. We need hope more than ever—the irrational, quixotic, desperate hope that things can get better, even if we know that for so many of us, this moment is just another point in the long march toward the worse, not the beginning of the decline.
The 2016 presidential campaign—the misogyny, the crassness, the silencing of voices, the gaslighting, the violence and the hatred, the racism and the xenophobia, the claims of corruption that obscured actual corruption, and did I mention the misogyny?—was traumatizing. I heard someone compare it to holding one’s breath underwater for too long and then rising to the surface on election day to finally take a gulp of air—only to find the surface frozen. We are caught, collectively, in this impossible, paralyzing, airless state. Our only choice is to adapt, to evolve—or maybe to devolve, to learn again to breathe as we once did, back before we emerged from the water and the mud eons ago. To learn from those artists and activists and citizens who have been declaring “We can’t breathe” for a long time now, and to recognize—too late, but still—that their plight is ours, too. To learn to write and make images and create sounds and forge ideas that provide oxygen in an atmosphere that is choking us.
I speak out today and I march tomorrow not because I want to declare my opposition to what will come to pass. I do it as an acknowledgement that everything we fear has already happened—for people of color, for women and queers, for immigrants, for the poor, for Muslims here and abroad, for victims of our wars, for victims of our economy, for so many others.
I do it now because I should have done it before. I do it now because the singular threat we face is not that of a single man or a single party, and it’s not even that people will suffer—people have already been suffering. I do it now because this may be the last moment to exercise our freedom to resist unless we resist. I speak out today because speaking out is the most potent weapon in a democracy—and I will use it now. I speak out today because speaking out makes me part of a “we”—part of a collective gathering of souls, part of a messy, indefinable coalition that will, I hope, shamble its way to a better place.
Thank you for being here with me. I’m sorry it took me so long. But don’t worry—I’ll catch up.
According to The Guardian, an art strike today is futile. I get that: I’m a pitchfork-and-torches guy myself. But no political action is futile. Ever.
Analyzing the efficacy of political action might be useful for journalists or social historians, but referring to the ebb and flow of political resistance as a success or a failure is to frame it in the language of capital.
To imagine political resistance as an accomplishment is to imagine it as a “thing.” Resistance is not a thing, or an object, or even an objective. It’s a project, and it can’t be acquired. It can only be activated. It needs no endpoint to express its efficacy. And although it dies when we cease participation in it, it’s instantly reborn when someone else takes it up.
In 1981, the man I was building my life around started showing signs of immunosuppression, before AIDS even had its name. By 1984, he was dead, before Rock Hudson was outed by the disease and died, and three years before the formation of the AIDS activist coalition ACT UP.
The isolation I felt compelled me to form a collective with five of my friends, and propose we do a poster. We had no idea what might happen, but we raised our voices anyway. We knew we couldn’t be the only ones who were enraged.
What we discovered, of course, is that we weren’t. Within weeks of wheat-pasting the Silence=Death poster in the streets of New York, we found ourselves surrounded by a community of AIDS activists, a community we didn’t realize existed, a community in search of its voice as well, one that went on to find it through the activation of our shared spaces.
Our collective designed Silence=Death, but it was actually this activist community that created it. Without this community, the poster could have come and gone in the night and you might never have heard of it. This image, as we currently understand it, is a product of collective political action, which can be transformative.
So, why am I here today? In 1968, when I was sixteen, a student came into the common room at the Quaker school in my town, wanting to copy a poster he’d brought back from the May ’68 Strikes in France. He asked me to help him, and that was the day I learned how to silk-screen. That fall, I designed a political poster of my own, when I was learning to use the printing press in shop class. It’s what gave me the idea to suggest making a poster to my collective eighteen years later.
Instead of staying home and writing about shutting the system down during the art strike, as I had planned to, I’m here in the off chance some other sixteen-year-old, visiting the museum with their family today, might hear me say that political resistance is a project every one of us has a part in, and it might push them to change our world in ways we have yet to imagine.
We can’t predict the impact of a political act before we express it, so political agency can ever be referred to as futile. Futility is a word reserved for when we do nothing.
I often look to the past as a prologue to the future. Today, I want to think of pairs of years in the past, as bookends and tidal changes. To remember how far people traveled in their bodies and minds, and as a way to think past this moment of reversal.
The first set of years are 1924 and 1967. The United States Racial Integrity Act was passed in 1924, banning interracial marriages. 1967 was the year of Loving vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down the racial integrity act. The 1967 case was brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man. They had been sentenced to prison in Virginia for marrying each other.
In pleading the case, Richard, a bricklayer with a blond buzzcut, told his lawyers only this: “Tell the court I love my wife.”
The Loving case came back in 2013, when it was cited as precedent in court rulings striking down restrictions against same-sex marriage in the United States.
The second set of years are 1924, again, and 1965. The National Origins Act and Asian Exclusion Act were both passed in 1924, restricting immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, especially Jewish migrants. It also restricted the immigration of Africans and banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians.
This was the law of the land for forty years until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally removed the national origin quotas.
We are in a time now when political forces want to return us to 1924, or even earlier. Perhaps the true meaning of that red slogan is: MAKE AMERICA 1860 AGAIN.
This is a time when ethnonationalist forces want to decide who we can love, who is welcome in this country, and who should be brutally expelled.
But it is never actually possible to run back forever to the past, much as some may dream of that.
In this context I remember two recent moments in my own experience. In October 2013, I became a naturalized US citizen. The presiding judge at the ceremony was the granddaughter of a Russian Jewish emigre who came over on boat steerage. Cameras were not allowed so I made a quick sketch, copies of which I’ll leave with you. The room was filled with white migrants and migrants of color, precisely the groups some play fear politics with.
In 2016, a week after the election, I attended a Philadelphia wedding. In the couple’s presence on stage—a South Asian Muslim man and his Virginia-born white male partner—I could see the sum of all fears for those who want to march back to the past.
It is necessary to talk about the past within these times. To remember how far this country traveled, and how it may find its way again.
Remember that while some talk about “again,” we can also dream about “again”—in a very different register. The “again” as a place of return can and must be sharply different for us. Ours can be a place of imagining that is the antithesis of fear. In the coming years our future depends on being able to imagine better.
AARON BURR SOCIETY
I’m Jim Costanzo of the Aaron Burr Society. Our namesake shot and killed America’s first capitalist, Alexander Hamilton. However, the Society is nonviolent.
I am going to read a short text from a work in progress. It’s titled wall street in black & white: fotos & text of an occupier.
generations of artistic aristocratic plunder
divine right of kings
invisible hand of the market
never raising all boats
maximize profits no matter the cost
contemptuous of the other
variations of white supremacy redefined
always extracting from the bottom up
corporate systems of exploitation
embedded in ancient empires
mad king george hamilton reagan
artificial bush(s) neocons neoliberals
clinton(s) obama capitalists all
trumped by fascists turning
consumer against the state
no living wage
loss of identity
red lined credit denied
no credibility no humanity
echoes of genocide slavery
Things are bad, very bad.
But this is not the first time that America has had racists, the Klu Klux Klan, corporatists, and fascists in the White House. Many presidents owned slaves. Andrew Jackson owned slaves and deported Native Americans during the Trail of Tears. Woodrow Wilson showed the film Birth of a Nation in the White House. That film inspired the rebirth of the KKK. Wilson then fired all African-Americans working for the federal government.
Vice President Dick Cheney started a war for oil that enriched his company Halliburton. And remember that both of the Bush presidents owned oil companies.
I know many of you from Occupy Wall Street and other movements. We are here in solidarity to refuse and resist. We will not normalize fascism. We will work harder than ever for a universal common good paid for by the commonwealth.
For Sandra Bland
I had just begun to relax
celebrate the marriage equality ruling
I had just begun feeling with Obama I was
watching Ali in trouble off the ropes
delivering to his opponents the rope-a-dope
my father’s eyes
I was just beginning to breathe air
feel exhilarated at images of
Joe Biden and President Obama running
down halls of the White House with rainbow flags
like boys with kites-soaring
I was just beginning to forgive deaths of my brothers
there should still be tribunals
for them and every woman abused
by the medical system
I had just begun to turn a corner on Mike Brown, Freddie Gray
Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, The massacre at AME
not think of it all everyday
Then the police kill this young Black girl in custody in Texas
claim she committed suicide
I remember we’re a war nation
in war times
I imagine how James, Bayard, Nina felt
seeing a nation turn its dogs, teeth, gas, hoses, bullets,
on children, adults, humans
I can’t stop thinking about Steve Biko
his battered face
they say he hung himself too
the world’s outrage
who will pray now
16 years old
from the suburbs, Boston
I’d go into the city shopping
with my cousin and friends
We’d venture into Boston Commons, the Park.
There were hustlers there, I didn’t know then
with a set-up table.
They played some sort of game with shells
hid money under a shell or a plastic cup
moved their hands real quick
made it purposefully look so easy
naïve 16 years old, I bet
50 dollars, a lot of money for me then.
They made it look so easy.
You just had to pick the right one.
Of course, it was rigged
sick to my stomach
lost my gaze.
On Tuesday night after this election
I felt the same way heisted in a shell game.
Walking outside on Wednesday, in my neighborhood
a white woman who barely ever speaks was crying
asked, “What do we do?”
I answered earnestly, a teacher, an artist, professor
who always tries, “I don’t know.”
Later, I walked up the street, a white man in an SUV
with the window down drove by.
He wore an expensive business suit
had a big brown cigar
like when babies are born
expensive seen only in gangstah films like Goodfellas
or on the Sopranos after a kill.
He looked happy, smug,
that’s when I realized the Trump Presidency is a hustlers game
Wives with teased hair and lots of plastic surgery
on the white BET.
They made it all look so easy
like a choice
The American Dream was a side hustle for big businessmen
with all their ugly red white blue striped flag merchandising
available at Walmart and Target, I’ll never buy into again
Freedom was a marketing idea/consumer product
Hallucinatory drug cooked up in some Rove-ian as in Karl type of laboratory
Maintained by the architects of apartheid
Freedom like air if you’re white and male and rich enough
to keep breathing
Today, I started to cry as I wrote
to my students
knowing that in everything so far, I’ve tried to protect them
and realizing there are places in this world
even my maternal hands can’t reach.
In Poland, the Warsaw ghetto against a Nazi fascist regime
On Southern Plantations, in fields, in Haiti
On shores of Africa,
From Pamela Sneed, copyright 2017.
I’m Dread Scott
(holds up sign and reads from it)
“By Reading this, you Agree to Overthrow Dictators.”
It’s a new conceptual artwork I made. It doesn’t have any particular form, the text can spread via email, via written statements, via hand to hand, via whatever way you want. But enough about art. Actually I want to read something by Refuse Fascism. Refusefacsim.org is an organization that called for stopping the Trump-Pence regime before it consolidates fascism in America and it opened with “No! In the name of humanity we refuse to accept a fascist America.” We must stop the Trump-Pence regime before it takes power. That’s happening right now but we still have a very short time before fascism gets consolidated. And their statement, which is a recent statement, said, “The Trump-Pence regime will be more than the sum of the abuses and outrages it plans to perpetrate. If not prevented from ruling it will be, as a regime, fascist. A blatant dictatorship relying on open terror and violence, committing atrocities against groups of people identified as ‘enemies,’ ‘undesirables,’ ‘dangerous to society.’ A Trump-Pence regime would not only be illegitimate; if allowed to go forward, it could be catastrophic for humanity. Protest is important but more than protest is needed. We must actually go all out now to prevent this regime from ruling. We are, this weekend, hundreds of thousands protesting: through staying in the streets to disrupting business as usual for the next few days and into the next week, it could grow together into millions and bring into being a major political crisis to which all the factions in the power structure would have to react.”
We need more than protest. I am glad that the Whitney Museum has opened their doors to us, it would have been better if they closed their doors to us. The #J20 art strike called for museums to be on strike—not to have a better version of what museums do every day. We need to disrupt society. If you believe me and agree that Trump is a fascist—and that term has been used a lot today, very thankfully. But if this is fascism, what would humanity have given if people in 1933 said, “Yes, Hitler, the Nazi party was democratically elected and Hitler was democratically appointed to be chancellor but we’ve read Mein Kampf. We know what’s in that book. We don’t give a damn about your democracy and your systems. If your system put forward a Hitler we will ge rid of that regime.” And in that spirit, any system that puts forward a Trump is illegitimate. I’m sick of people saying we have to have a peaceful transition to power. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders are all actually saying we must collaborate with this fascist. We must not do that. We must make choices about where our allegiance lies and what we will do. Perhaps tomorrow DACA will be ripped up and the Dreamers will start being rounded up and deported. There are millions of people who signed up after coming to this country as children, brought here by their parents from different countries who registered with lists to actually protect themselves and now they are facing deportation by a man who has threatened to register millions of people on databases and deport millions of others.
Trump has gone after some of the most prominent culture in the land, targeting Saturday Night Live and Hamilton. He said that people who burn the American flag should not only be punished with imprisonment but should lose citizenship and become stateless people. As someone who has burned a flag on the steps of the capital, resulting in a landmark court case, I feel this very directly. But I also feel more people should burn flags. These are very dark times and again I’m glad to be here today in solidarity with you. I hope that some of you after this event will come out and demonstrate in the streets—we need to be in the streets. We cannot just sit quietly by and think that even just by meeting here we aren’t normalizing fascism. Fascism gets normalized by individual choices that ordinary people make. When people are asked to make a Muslim registry, some of them are going to say yes. Hopefully, some of them will have the courage of the Edward Snowdens of the world. When some people say, “Look, I am coming to that school or that place of worship to round up people who are undocumented,” other people have to hide them or not hide them. That’s a choice. When a museum like this and other museums are asked to go on strike, it is a choice to say, “We will open our doors wider.” I like the Whitney Museum: they collect my work, I’m friends with some of the curators. I really appreciate what it does in society. But we all are making choices with the work we make, the work we show, the conversations we have, the work we write about. I’m speaking again to the arts community right now because that’s who my colleagues and peers are. That’s mostly who is gathered in this room. And what do we do to not just quietly go by perhaps complaining here and there, but actually stop fascism? This is very very serious. We don’t have a lot of time.
In 1933 things were bad but you could still protest. I was talking with a survivor of the Holocaust who actually escaped Germany in 1938 and some of her family didn’t and she told me just two days ago that by 1936 you couldn’t speak out. People couldn’t speak out. People couldn’t resist. Someone earlier said basically same thing: we have the freedom right now, I don’t think its so much freedom that is granted by the constitution but that’s a whole different question. I don’t want to go back to November 8. This country was a nightmare before, it’s a country founded on slavery and genocide and we actually need revolution to get to a society that would actually benefit the majority of humanity but to do that we actually need to stop fascism. And we really need to recognize that the activism that we have done in the past, the art that we have done in the past, the poetry that we have done in the past, the songs that we’ve done in the past, the communities that we’ve built in the past, are not enough. We have to act differently. We have to aim higher, we have to be willing to risk, we have to be willing to go much further. And the final thing I’ll end on is a quote from Pastor Niemöller, not the famous one of “first they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist,” and ending up with “then they came for the Protestants and there was no one left to speak out for me.” But a quote that he said actually after he was arrested and imprisoned and got out of Nazi concentration camps. He said: “Look, if the Protestant church had resisted in the ’30s, it would have cost lives—probably 30 or 40,000 priests would have died. But wouldn’t that have been worth it?” And that’s the question that is before us today. How will humanity look at this time and how will we be judged? Did we do everything we could to stop this regime, including driving it from power. Driving it from power. I don’t want to talk about what we’re going to do in 2018 or 2020. This regime needs to be stopped now. Nixon won by a landslide; he was gone a year and a half later. They can be drive from power. We are millions but we’ll have to act on that with courage. Thank you.
All videos: Owen Crowley, 2017.