The Gentrification of Protest

We Hear You

We Hear You. Photo by Callen Harty.

Madison, Wisconsin has had six consecutive days and nights of protests since George Floyd’s murder became the latest episode of a black man killed by police. The last several nights have been relatively peaceful. The first several nights saw windows smashed out of 75 or so buildings on State Street, looting, and other damage. Most of the windows and doors along the entire street are boarded up–many because of damaged windows, some to try to protect from damage.

In the last couple days many of the boarded windows have been covered with art, much of it very striking and beautiful. Today I went to see it myself and was transfixed by a great deal of it. I ran into a friend, Jenny, and we talked about our feelings about it. There were many African-American artists, particularly women, working on different pieces all along the street, and it was amazing to see the works they were creating. There were also a lot of white folks working on pieces, too. At least a couple of the pieces were done by Latino artists in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The protests have been a really nice mix of races, ages, and other characteristics, so the mix of artists is perhaps a good representation of the protests and the city as a whole.

At one point my friend said something that struck me. She said all of the beautiful artwork reminded her of gentrification and it blew me away because I was enjoying the art, but also feeling somewhat ambivalent about it and she nailed it for me with that. Many of the boarded windows had signs on them that indicated that the works were commissioned pieces. In some ways it felt like the gentrification of protest. You’re covering up the anger with flowers and rainbows, ignoring the underlying passion and demands. If you hide the harsher, more direct messages and cover the boards with appealing artwork, people may want to come downtown again and do a little shopping. It seemed likely that a lot of the original graffiti was being painted over with lovely images about peace and love. There’s nothing wrong with promoting peace and love, but it’s also important to hold onto the messages being conveyed by the protesters.

I found myself drawn to the boards that were not yet covered with beautiful images, but with the rawer graffiti and tagging, with messages like “Open Your Eyes,” “Arrest Matt Kenney,” “BLM,” “Fuck 12,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Community Control,” “Defund the Police,” “Latinos Stand with You,” “Cops Kill,” “Breonna Taylor,” “Justice for Tony Robinson,” “Justice for Floyd,” “No Cops in Schools,” “Change the System,” and “Do You Hear Us Now?”

It’s great that the city is paying artists, particularly black artists–who tend not to be very valued in this country–to create art in the midst of destruction. It is beautiful and profound and conveys important messages to a hurting city and a hurting nation. But please don’t cover all the gut-level feelings and statements that were there first and from those on the front lines. Those messages are just as important, or more so. Those boards and buildings were marked by the protesters with their own feelings, needs, and desires. They are messages that the protesters are trying to convey to the world and we need to listen.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s