Socialism should not be a scare word in the U.S. Were it not for socialists like Eugene V. Debs and the labor movements organized around his presidential campaigns in the early 20th century, reforms like the 8-hour workday, worker safety protections, women’s suffrage, minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, and vacation and sick time would likely never have made it into a major party’s platform. The legacy of this strain of socialism in the U.S. endured, Jill Lepore writes at The New Yorker, “in Progressive-era reforms, in the New Deal, and in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society,” all widely supported by self-described liberals.
Yet while socialist policies are broadly popular in the U.S., the word may as well be a writhing, high-voltage wire in mainstream discourse. The same was true in the Reagan 80s, when so many progressive reforms were undone: military spending ballooned, social spending was cut to the bone, and homelessness became a major crisis, exacerbated by the A.I.D.S. epidemic the administration mocked and ignored. In 1989, at the end of the president’s two terms, Ted Turner lobbed the charge of “socialism” at Carl Sagan in a CNN interview. The astrophysicist and famed science communicator refused to take the bait.
Rather than denouncing or distancing himself from socialists, he made it clear that the label was less important to him than the material conditions under which millions of people suffered as a result of deliberate policy choices that could be otherwise. “I’m not sure what a ‘socialist’ is… I’m talking about making people self-reliant, people able to take care of themselves,” he says, in an echo of Debs’ praise of the virtue of “sand.” But this sort of self-reliance is not the same thing as the kind of mythic, Old West rugged individualism of conservatism.
Sagan acknowledges the reality that self-reliance, and survival, are impossible without the basic necessities of life, and that the country has the means to ensure its citizens have them.
I believe the government has a responsibility to care for the people…. There are countries which are perfectly able to do that. The United States is an extremely rich country, it’s perfectly able to do that. It chooses not to. It chooses to have homeless people.
Sagan mentions the U.S. infant mortality rate, which then placed the country at “19th in the world” because of a refusal to spend the money on healthcare needed to save more infant lives. “I think it’s a disgrace,” he says. Instead, billions were allocated to the military, especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, called Star Wars: “They’ve already spent something like $20 billion dollars on it, if these guys are permitted to go ahead they will spend a trillion dollars on Star Wars.”
Is objecting to a vast waste of the country’s resources and human potential “socialism”? Sagan doesn’t care what it’s called—the word doesn’t scare him away from pointing to the facts of inequality. The problems have only worsened since then. Military spending has grown to an obscene amount—more than the next ten countries combined. The figure usually given, $705 billion, is actually more like $934 billion, as Kimberly Amadeo explains at The Balance.
“Monopolies have risen again,” writes Lepore, “and income inequality has spiked back up to where it was in Debs’ lifetime.” Newsweek reports that in 2018, “America’s Health Rankings found that the U.S. was ranked 33rd out of the 36 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for infant mortality.” We have only just begun to reckon with the devastating policy outcomes exposed by the coronavirus. As Sagan would say, these problems are not accidental; they are the result of deliberate choices. We could have a very different society—one that invests its resources in people instead of weapons, in life instead of death. And we could call it whatever we wanted.
“Correlation does not equal causation” isn’t always a fun thing to say at parties, but it is always a good phrase to keep in mind when approaching survey data. Does the study really show that? Might it show the opposite? Does it confirm pre-existing biases or fail to acknowledge valid counterevidence? A little bit of critical thinking can turn away a lot of trouble.
Authoritarianism—defined as enforcing “group conformity and strict allegiance to authority at the expense of personal freedoms”—seems vastly more prevalent among those with only a high school education. “Among college graduates,” Elizabeth Redden writes at Inside Higher Ed, “holders of liberal art degrees are less inclined to express authoritarian attitudes and preferences compared to individuals who hold degrees in business or science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.”
The “valuable bulwark” of the liberal arts seems more effective in the U.S. than in Europe, perhaps because “American higher education places a strong emphasis on a combination of specific and general education,” the full report speculates. “Such general education includes exposure to the liberal arts.” The U.S. ranks at a moderate level of authoritarianism compared to 51 other countries, on par with Chile and Uruguay, with Germany ranking the least authoritarian and India the most—a 6 on a scale of 0-6.
Higher education also correlates with higher economic status, suggesting to the study authors that economic security reduces authoritarianism, which is expressed in attitudes about parenting and in a “fundamental orientation” toward control over autonomy.
The full report does go into greater depth, but perhaps it raises more questions than it answers, leaving the intellectually curious to work through a dense bibliography of popular and academic sources. There is a significant amount of data and evidence to suggest that studying the liberal arts does help people to imagine other perspectives and to appreciate, rather than fear, different cultures, religions, etc. Liberal arts education encourages critical thinking, reading, and writing, and can equip students with tools they need to distinguish reportage from pure propaganda.
But we might ask whether these findings consistently obtain under actually existing authoritarianism, which “tends to arise under conditions of threat to social norms or personal security.” In the 2016 U.S. election, for example, the candidate espousing openly authoritarian attitudes and preferences, now the current U.S. president, was elected by a majority of voters who were well-educated and economically secure, subsequent research discovered, rather than stereotypically “working class” voters with low levels of education. How do such findings fit with the data Georgetown interprets in their report? Is it possible that those with higher education and social status learn better to hide controlling, intolerant attitudes in mixed company?
Let’s say you go home for the holidays. Anything’s possible, who knows. It’s a wild world. Let’s say you get there and someone starts laying on you that trip about how Q Continuum said mail-in voting was orchestrated by satanic cables from Anarchist HQ. Let’s say you overhear something more down-to-earth, like how if mail-in voting happens, billions of people will vote illegally… even more people than live in the country, which is how you’ll know….
Maybe you’ll want to speak up and say, hey I know something about this topic, except then maybe you realize you don’t actually know much, but you know something ain’t right with this talk and maybe it’s probably good to have a functioning Postal Service and maybe people should be able to vote. In such situations (who can say how often these things happen), you might wish to have a little information at the ready, to educate yourself and share with others.
You might share information about how mail-in voting has been around since 1775. It has worked pretty well at scale since “about 150,000 of the 1 million Union soldiers were able to vote absentee in the 1864 presidential election in what became the first widespread use of non-in person voting in American history,” Alex Seitz-Wald explains at NBC News. Since the federal government has managed to make mail-in voting work for soldiers serving away from home for over 150 years, “it’s now easier in some ways for a Marine in Afghanistan to vote than it is for an American stuck at home during the COVID-19 lockdown.”
“Some part of the military has been voting absentee since the American Revolution,” Donald Inbody, former Navy Captain turned political science professor at Texas State University, tells NBC News. Inbody refers to one of the first documented instances, when Continental Army soldiers voted in a town meeting by proxy in New Hampshire. But history is complicated, and “mail-in voting has worked just fine so shut up” needs some nuance.
In the very same election in which 150,000 Union soldiers mailed their ballots, Lincoln urged Sherman to send troops stationed in Democratic-controlled Indiana—which had banned absentee voting—back to their home states so that they could vote. The practice has always had its vocal critics and suffered accusations of fraud from all sides, though little evidence seems to have emerged. Absentee voting helped win the Civil War, Blake Stilwell argues at Military.com, in spite of a conspiracy theory alleging fraud that might have unseated Lincoln.
There are several remnants from the time of careful record-keeping, like the pre-printed envelope above that “contained a tally sheet of votes from the soldiers of Highland County the Field Hospital 2nd Division 23rd Army Corps,” notes the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. (The drawing at the top shows Pennsylvania soldiers voting in 1864.) And this is all fascinating stuff. But soldiers are actually absent, which is why they vote absentee, right? I mean, if you’re at home, why can’t you just go to the polling place in the global pandemic in your city that closed all the polling places?
It’s true that civilian mail-in voting often works differently from military absentee voting. While every state offers some version, some restrict it to voters temporarily out of state or suffering an illness. Currently, only “30 states have adopted ‘no-excuse absentee balloting,’ which allows anyone to request an absentee ballot,” Nina Strochlic reports at National Geographic. State laws vary further among those 30.
“In 2000,” for example, “Oregon became the first state to switch to fully vote-by-mail elections.” Things have rapidly changed, however. “In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, voters in every state but Mississippi and Texas were allowed to vote by mail or by absentee ballot in this year’s primaries.” If you live in the U.S. (or outside it) and don’t know what happened next… bless you. It involves defunding the post office instead of the police.
Voting by mail has expanded to meet major crises throughout history, says Alex Keyssar, history professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “That’s the logical trajectory” and “we are not in normal times.” If a highly infectious disease that has killed at least 200,000 Americans on top of ongoing voter suppression and an election security crisis and massive civil unrest and economic turmoil aren’t reasons enough to expand the vote-by-mail franchise to every state, I couldn’t say what is.
Should only soldiers have the ability to vote easily? I imagine someone might say YES, loudly over the centerpiece, because voting is a privilege not a right!
You, empowered purveyor of accurate information, understander of absentee voting history, change-maker, will pull out your pocket Constitution and ask someone to find the word “privilege” in amendments that start with “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State,” etc. That’ll show ’em. But if the gambit fails to impress, you’ve still got a better understanding of why voting by mail may not be one of the signs of the end times.
U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death has thrown an unbearably fraught political year into further disarray, a fact that has sadly overshadowed memorialization of her inspiring life and career. Ginsburg was a personal hero for millions of activists and students—from grade school to law school; an icon casually identified by her initials by those who felt like they knew her. “For many women, and many girls,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in a New York Times tribute, her loss is “deeply personal.”
How should we remember such a figure at such a time? If you happen to find the news numbing, full of enervating rancor and alarm…. If you want to bring the focus back to the person we have lost, might we suggest a soundtrack? The suggestions come from Ginsburg herself, from the art form—opera—closest to her heart. “She was our greatest advocate and our greatest spokesperson,” says Francesca Zambello, director of the Washington National Opera, “the ideal attendee… who knows everything but is open to interpretations.”
Scalia v. Ginsberg composer Derrick Wang heard the grandiosity of opera when he read the fiercely opposing written opinions of the two justices. It’s safe to assume that both were listening to their favorite works while they composed. In 2012, Ginsburg gave her list of favorites to Alex Ross at The New Yorker, who points to other Ginsburg connections to the classical world like her son, James Ginsburg, “proprietor of Cedille Records, an independent classical label based in Chicago.” (Read their statement on Ginsburg’s passing here.)
There is far too much to say about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s judicial influence, and about the power vacuum left behind by her loss. But if we want to understand what mattered to her most as an individual, we should turn to the music she most loved. “Her life was about understanding people’s stories,” says Zambello. The kinds of cases “she made her career of are the stuff of opera.” At the top, see Ginsburg’s first appearance onstage, in a non-singing role as the Duchess of Krakenthorpe in the The Daughter of the Regiment at the Kennedy Center. Just below, see her list of favorite works, peppered with occasional commentary from the late, beloved R.B.G. herself. This list originally comes from The New Yorker. If you have a Spotify account, you can stream the music in this 30-hour playlist.
Verdi, “Aida”; Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren, Fedora Barbieri, Boris Christoff, Jonel Perlea conducting the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus (RCA).
Verdi, “Otello”; Plácido Domingo, Renata Scotto, Sherrill Milnes, James Levine conducting the National Philharmonic and Ambrosian Opera Chorus (RCA).
Dvořák, “Rusalka”; Renée Fleming, Ben Heppner, Dolora Zajick, Franz Hawlata, Charles Mackerras conducting the Czech Philharmonic and Kühn Mixed Choir (Decca).
Handel, “Julius Caesar”; Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, Maureen Forrester, Beverly Wolff, Julius Rudel conducting the New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus (RCA).
Justice Ginsburg comments: “Listened to LP recording many times. Production was Julius Rudel’s triumph, opened in the State Theatre the year the Met moved to Lincoln Center. Met opened with the not at all triumphant production of Barber’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ Next, my two best-loved operas.”
Mozart, “Don Giovanni”; Cesare Siepi, Fernando Corena, Suzanne Danco, Lisa Della Casa, Anton Dermota, Hilde Gueden, Walter Berry, Kurt Böhme, Josef Krips conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera Chorus (Decca).
Mozart, “The Marriage of Figaro”; Samuel Ramey, Lucia Popp, Thomas Allen, Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Kurt Moll, Robert Tear, Georg Solti conducting the London Philharmonic and London Opera Chorus (Decca).
Strauss, “Der Rosenkavalier”; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Teresa Stich-Randall, Otto Edelmann, Eberhard Wächter, Ljuba Welitsch, Nicolai Gedda, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (EMI).
Tchaikovsky, “Eugene Onegin”; Thomas Allen, Mirella Freni, Neil Shicoff, Anne Sofie von Otter, James Levine conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle and Leipzig Radio Chorus (DG).
Puccini, “Tosca”; Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Victor de Sabata conducting the La Scala orchestra and chorus (EMI).
Menotti, “The Medium”; Joyce Castle, Patrice Michaels, Lawrence Rapchak conducting the Chicago Opera Theatre (Cedille).
Kurka, “The Good Soldier Schweik”; Jason Collins, Marc Embree, Kelli Harrington, Buffy Baggott, Alexander Platt conducting the Chicago Opera Theatre (Cedille).
Justice Ginsburg comments: “Glimmerglass Opera later mounted ‘Schweik’ with perfect-for-the-part Anthony Dean Griffey.”
Stravinsky, “The Rake’s Progress”; Philip Langridge, Samuel Ramey, Cathryn Pope, Stafford Dean, Sarah Walker, John Dobson, Astrid Varnay, Riccardo Chailly conducting the London Sinfonietta and Chorus (Decca).
Britten, “Billy Budd”; Nathan Gunn, Ian Bostridge, Gidon Saks, Daniel Harding conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Virgin Classics).
Justice Ginsburg comments: “Two Lieder recordings I now and then play when working at home: **Schubert, ‘An mein Herz,’ with Matthias Goerne; and songs by Brahms, with Angelika Kirchschlager.”
Art makes a way where politics fail. I don’t mean that in any mawkish sense. Sure, art brings people together, encourages empathy and common values. Those can be wonderful things. But they are not always necessarily social goods. Violent nationalism brings people together around common values. Psychopaths can feel empathy if they want to.
When faced with fascism, or neo-fascism, or whatever we want to call the 21st century equivalent of fascism, those who presume good faith in their opponents presume too much. Values like respect for human rights or rules of logical debate or use of force, for example, are not in play. Direct confrontation usually provokes more violence, and corresponding state repression against anti-fascists.
One might say something similar about the pioneers of free jazz, a product of Black Power politics expressed in music. Coltrane drew on Malcolm X when he divested himself of western musical constraints; Ornette Coleman established “harmolodic democracy” in place of Eurocentric structures. These were inherently revolutionary forms, responding to repressive times in new languages. They were not, as many people thought then, just jazz played badly.
But, as it turns out… free jazz deliberately played badly makes quite an effective rejoinder to fascism, too. So a group of Danish jazz musicians discovered when they began crashing the staged events of far-right politician Rasmus Paludan, founder of the Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party. As Vice reports:
[Paludan] is notorious for organising “demonstrations” in neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations, where he burns, throws, and stomps on Qurans behind walls of police officers. A self-proclaimed “guardian of freedom” and “light of the Danes,” Paludan considers immigrants and Islam enemies of the Danish people, as well as the country’s values, traditions and general way of life.
Does one respectfully argue with such a person? Try to breach the line of cops and knock them out? Hear out their point of view as they inspire acts of violence? Or show up “armed with trumpets, bongo drums and saxophones” and play right in his face, or at least “loudly enough to drown out his voice or draw attention away from him”?
The collective “Free Jazz Against Paludan” takes the magical weapon of Situationist free jazz public and radicalizes harmolodic democracy (done very, very obnoxiously badly on purpose, we must emphasize) for street action. “We’re fighting noise with noise,” one saxophonist and self-described “old man turned activist” says. “I’m of the opinion that rhetoric like his should not be ignored. You have to protest against it, but in a way that is not destructive and violent.” Except that it is destructive—to Paludan’s weaponized ignorance. [Paludan was recently sentenced to jail on racism and defamation.] The revolving collective of activist musicians makes this plain, stating on their Facebook page, “Anyone can join, with the exception of just him. He cannot.”
What gives them the right to exclude him! one might cry indignantly. That’s the game Paludan wants to play. “What he wants is to get beaten up by some immigrants, get some close-ups of a soap eye or a broken arm—that’d be great for him,” says protestor Jørn Tolstrup. “So this is great, because here we have an idiot who won’t shut up, and now we’ve found a way to take his foot off the pedal.” It’s creative de-escalation and redirection. And, we might say, not so much a public “cancelling” as the free expression of opposing ideas.
Trauma is repetition, and the United States seems to inflict and suffer from the same deep wounds, repeatedly, unable to stop, like one of the ancient Biblical curses of which Bob Dylan was so fond. The Dylan of the early 1960s adopted the voice of a prophet, in various registers, to tell stories of judgment and generational curses, symbolic and historical, that have beset the country from its beginnings.
The verses of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, enact this repetition, both traumatic and hypnotic. In its dual refrains—“how many times…?” and “the answer is blowin’ in the wind” (ephemeral, impossible to grasp)—the song cycles between earnest Lamentations and the acute, world-weary resignation of Ecclesiastes. “This ambiguity is one reason for the song’s broad appeal,” as Peter Dreier writes at Dissent.
Just three months after its release, when Dylan performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become a massive civil rights anthem. But he had already ceded the song to Peter, Paul & Mary, who played their version that day. Dylan ignored his sophomore album entirely to play songs from the upcoming The Times They Are a-Changing—songs that stand out for their indictments of the U.S. in some very specific terms.
Dylan played three songs from the new album: “When the Ship Comes In” with Joan Baez, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “With God on Our Side.” (He also played the popular folk song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”) In contrast to his vaguely allusive popular anthems, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”—about the murder of Medgar Evers—isn’t coy about the culprits and their crimes. We might say the song offers an astute analysis of institutional racism, white supremacy, and stochastic terrorism.
A bullet from the back of a bush
Took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game
These lyrics have far too much relevance to current events, and they’re indicative of the changing tone of Dylan’s muse. His refrains drip with irony. The killer of Medgar Evers “can’t be blamed”—an evasion of responsibility that becomes a powerful force all its own.
Dylan revisits the themes of generational trauma and murder in “With God on Our Side” (hear him sing it with Baez at Newport, above). The song is a sharp satire of his historical education, with its inevitable repetitions of war and slaughter. Here, Dylan presents the exponentially gross, existentially dreadful, consequences of a national abdication of blame for historical violence.
Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side
Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side
War had its day
And the Civil War, too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I was made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side
The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side
The Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And then we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now, too
Have God on their side
I’ve learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side
But now we got weapons
Of chemical dust
If fire them, we’re forced to
Then fire, them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side
Through many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.
So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war
Dylan’s race/class analysis in “Only a Pawn in the Game” and his succinct People’s History of Christian Nationalism in “With God on Our Side” stand out as interesting choices for the March for several reasons. For one thing, it’s as though he had written these songs expressly to take the political, economic, and religious mechanisms and mythologies of racism apart. This was radical speech in an event that was policed by its organizers to tone down inflammatory rhetoric for the cameras.
23-year-old John Lewis, for example, was forced to temper his speech, in which he meant to say, “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.… the revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.” As a popular white artist, rather than a potentially seditious Black organizer, Dylan had far more license and could “use his privilege,” as they say, to describe the systems of political and economic oppression Lewis had wanted to name.
Dylan’s performance was one of a handful of memorable musical appearances. Most of the singers made a far bigger impression, like Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, and Baez herself, whose “We Shall Overcome” created a legendary moment of harmony. No one sang along to Dylan’s new songs—they wouldn’t have known the words. But Dylan was never careless. He chose these words for the moment, hoping to have some impact in the only way he could.
The 1963 March’s purpose has been overshadowed by a few passages in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, co-opted by everyone and reduced to meme-able quotes. But the protest “remains one of the most successful mobilizations ever created by the American Left,” historian William P. Jones writes. “Organized by a coalition of trade unionists, civil rights activists, and feminists–most of them African American and nearly all of them socialists.”
Dylan sang stories of how the country got to where it was, through a history of violence still playing out before the marchers’ eyes. Whatever political tensions there were among the various organizers and speakers did not distract them from pushing through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment Practices clause banning discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex—protections that have been broadened since that time, and also challenged, threatened, and stripped away.
Fifty-seven years later, as the RNC convention ends and another March on Washington happens, we might reflect on Dylan’s small but prescient contributions in 1963, in which he aptly characterized the traumatic repetitions we’re still convulsively experiencing over half a century later.
What happens when anti-racist protesters gather in the streets and are not met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons? For one thing, they make art and graffiti. Lots of it, on walls, streets, sidewalks, courthouse doors, the plywood of boarded-up windows, wherever. Public activist art serves not only as a memorial for victims of state oppression, but as a way to imagine what the future needs and visually occupy the space to make it happen. In the intertwining “mutual relations of the political and the aesthetic,” symbols can begin to call real conditions into existence.
The streets of cities around the country have become temporary galleries of artworks that remember victims of systemically racist police violence and call for justice, even as they imagine what a more just world might look like: one where people are not trapped in cycles of poverty by austerity and state violence. Such displays have proliferated especially in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed. There, the “memorial… is constantly changing. In the days following Floyd’s murder by the police, street art, flowers, handwritten notes, and more” appeared.
The project includes in its wider scope a database of COVID-19 street art, with many an acknowledgement of how government failures in response to the pandemic connect to the willful disregard for human life the Black Lives Matter movement calls out. “Artists and writers producing work in the streets—including tags, graffiti, murals, stickers, and other installations on walls, pavement, and signs—are in a unique position to respond quickly and effectively in a moment of crisis,” notes the COVID-19 Street Art site. As we limit our movement through public space, that space itself transforms, responding in direct ways to a multitude of intersecting crises none of us can afford to ignore.
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