No Justice Without Us: The Bay Area's Legacy of Art Activism
Bay Area history is deeply rooted in art activism and social justice organizing. The area is recognized for a firmly entrenched spirit of working towards a just world across an encyclopedic range of issues, including labor organizing, freedom of speech, gender/LGBTQ equality, racial justice and environmentalism, among so many others. The spirit of protest is deeply engrained in this place; it’s a legacy that is among the Bay Area’s proudest contributions to this country’s evolving vision of freedom and equality.
As we look back on this formative homegrown movement, we might also consider the Bay Area’s larger history of art activism. By no means comprehensive -- an impossible task given the range and depth of this history -- this timeline offers notes on our collective history as a vastly influential site of art, protest and change making.
Prominent African-American WPA artist and lifelong communist Sargent Johnson walks off the project before the completion of Sea Forms, a glazed tile mural commissioned by the Federal Art Project for the San Francisco Maritime Museum, after learning that the site would house a private restaurant for San Francisco’s elite. The mural remains incomplete to this day.
Three faith-based organizations pool resources to initiate a new experimental arts organization called Intersection for the Arts, with the objective of using art to engage marginalized youth and providing an alternative space for artists who are conscientious objectors to the American war in Vietnam. Intersection eventually fosters a growing number of influential artists through various programs, while also fiscally sponsoring more than 500 projects.
Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale found the Black Panther Party to challenge police brutality in Oakland. Originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, it grows into a controversial national movement, instituting a number of community programs including free breakfast for children and health clinics. The Black Panther Newspaper, art directed and illustrated by Emory Douglas from 1967 until the party disbanded, provides one of the most comprehensive records of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
Following on the heels of the infamous Santa Barbara oil spill, the largest spill to occur in the waters off of California, artists Joe Hawley, Mel Henderson, and Alfred Young spell “OIL” on the San Francisco Bay near the refineries using yellow, nontoxic uranine marker dye. Later, the same artists orchestrate a traffic disruption by calling 100 yellow cabs to the same destination (the six-sided intersection of Castro and Market Streets) at the same time.
San Francisco’s first pride parade takes place with some 2,000 marchers -- many dressed in togas and some dressed in nothing at all -- and 15,000 cheering spectators. The float for the Society for Individual Rights features a gay wedding. A group from Bakersfield wears Boy Scout uniforms and chants, “We’re everywhere!”
Mark di Suvero’s sculpture Mother Peace is installed in front of the Oakland Courthouse as part of the Oakland Museum’s landmark exhibition Public Sculpture, Urban Environment. A conservative judge takes issue with the antiwar sentiment of the sculpture’s peace symbol and successfully lobbies for its removal. The museum’s longer-term plans to acquire the sculpture dissolve.
San Francisco’s International Hotel is slated for demolition and redevelopment -- 196 low-income Filipino and Chinese residents are evicted amidst a sweeping wave of gentrification and displacement. Artists take part in the struggle by silk-screening protest posters, painting murals on the building and organizing art events and exhibitions. As part of the protests hundreds of artists march down Mission Street with their faces painted white to protest the displacement of people of color, creating a media spectacle that captures international attention.
After initially organizing to found the San Francisco Women’s Centers in 1971, a group of women purchase a four-story building and former meeting hall in the Mission District to establish The Women’s Building, the first woman-owned and operated community center in the country. Fifteen years later, a group of artists complete the MaestraPeace Mural on its façade, one of the city’s largest murals according to the Women's Building website.
The War Chest Tours, a group of punk rockers, disrupt the Democratic Party Convention in San Francisco. Some 100 punks stage actions, interventions and die-ins in response to police sweeps (under the direction of Mayor Dianne Feinstein) organized to remove sex workers and the homeless from the view of convention-goers. Many are arrested; the San Francisco Chronicle covers events the next day with the headline, “Punk Rocker Protest -- 84 arrests.”
The Bay Area Peace Navy (a coalition of tradespeople, artists, filmmakers and 100 privately owned boats) and the San Francisco Mime Troupe stage a dramatization of a nuclear accident at sea. Part of an international campaign to disarm the seas, the performance takes place aboard a specially crafted 100-foot-long submarine in Sausalito’s waterfront.
Initially conceived as a “renegade craft project,” a giant pink fabric triangle is installed on Twin Peaks during Pride Weekend to memorialize the homosexuals who were persecuted in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. The first installation is christened by Mayor Willie Brown with pink champagne. The unfurling of this reclaimed symbol, once used to identify and shame gays, becomes an annual event maintained by The Friends of the Pink Triangle.
Oscar Grant is killed in Oakland on New Year’s morning by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle -- his death sparks numerous protests and creative actions, including the Oscar Grant Memorial Arts Project, as well as inspiration for Bay Area filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station, which wins the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and Best First Film at Cannes Film Festival, both in 2013. Grant’s death, along with that of Trayvon Martin in Florida, is among the events that catapult the Black Lives Matter movement into action in July 2013.
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is founded by a group of artists, activists and technologists to create visual maps of San Francisco’s eviction crisis. The visually compelling maps succinctly data map the city’s housing crisis and draw international media attention to how these shifts implicate new wealth in the city’s revitalized technology sector.
Writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit pens an incendiary essay on the rapid changes in San Francisco for the London Review of Books. The article becomes an international sensation, drawing greater attention to the changes happening in the city and spawning an avalanche of media coverage on the city’s tech boom.
Alex Nieto is killed by San Francisco police in a hail of 59 bullets fired into Bernal Hill Park at twilight. The Mission community, led by several artists, including writer Adriana Camarena and poet and author Benjamin Bac Sierra, organizes Justice for Alex Nieto to undertake a series of creative protests demanding information. The protests include media interventions during the 2014 playoffs and World Series at AT&T Park.
Building on the success of previous tech shuttle bus protests, a group of artists and activists from the organization Heart of the City stage a theatrical demonstration at 24th and Valencia Streets to draw attention to a proposed tax hike on public transportation. Complete with colorful costumes and a walking surveillance camera on stilts, Mother Jones calls the performance protest “the most San Francisco Thing ever.”
Responding to a nationwide call to #ReclaimMLK through 96 hours of direct action over the weekend preceding Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Black.Seed, a queer liberation collective, shuts down the west-bound span of the Bay Bridge to demand justice for Bay Area victims of police brutality. A temporary radio station broadcasts the event and it is live-tweeted by the Anti Police-Terror Project.
What would you add to this list of art activism? Feel free contribute your own memories in the comments section below.