Last Friday I attended “Art Tools for Environmental Justice”, an event put on by People of Color Sustainability Collective (PoCSC), with the goal of snapping a few good photos to use for an article in Issue VIII of our printed magazine. I spent a few hours with PoCSC interns, staff from the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) and Porter college, and the event attendees. The vibe throughout the night was inspiring and relaxed. Until the CSOs showed up.
The evening’s event began in College Eight’s Red Room with a slide show displaying different works of art inspired by environmental issues and movements, followed by a discussion led by PoCSC interns. Julie Roberts, the Coordinator for Residential Education at Porter, transitioned the group from an atmosphere of learning to one of creating. A total of two people in the room studied art methods, so Julie began with instructions for us to create a simple gingerbread-man-shaped person on a sheet of paper. Blank figures were then filled with words — goals, intentions, feelings, thoughts. Then came the more ambitious art activity. Cardstock, cardboard, chalk spray paint, and x-acto knives filled hands and the group got to work. The goal was to take the stories we’d heard as inspiration for creating stencils to chalk-spray the pavement at Porter’s apartments.
We marched over to Porter from College Eight with stencils and chalk-spray in hand and smiles on our faces, accompanied by music from West Fest — which as PoCSC’s Adriana Renteria pointed out, made it all feel like a movie. Then one student we passed asked, “What are you guys protesting?” I laughed in shock, because I just spent almost three hours with this peaceful group of students creating art. This wasn’t a protest. Was it?
As spray hit the pavement within the stenciled boundaries, for lack of better words, shit got real. Our impromptu pop-up art gallery caused quite the stir in the apartments, and CSOs were called on the scene within a few minutes. That’s when the vibe flipped like a switch. They demanded to see our IDs and “whoever is in charge”. Students were on the defense and refused to show IDs. Adriana calmly approached them and informed them that we had permission to be here, that this project was approved by Porter. The CSOs backed down but lingered for a few minutes, since the police had already been called and they had to stay on the scene.
This whole ordeal was shocking and frustrating. Why did these students get harrassed for an event that was permitted, that was clearly peaceful? Why did no one ask us questions before calling enforcement?
I can understand that the non-permanent chalk-spray might have looked like the permanent kind. I get that the large stencils might have looked like protest signs. I get that my flashing camera and our loud, excited voices might have called for extra attention. But none of that called for CSOs, police, and the concerned and judgemental faces that peered out of every apartment window and balcony. I just couldn’t shake from my head the question of whether or not this would’ve happened if the crowd was white.