Early in the morning of June 21, commuters on Interstate 80 were greeted by an unusual sight. “We make kids disappear,” read an altered billboard over Shellmound Street in Emeryville. The message was signed, "—I.C.E."
The billboard responded to President Trump's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) enactment of that policy, which separated 2,800 or more children from their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border since last summer. Trump later reversed the mandate of family separations, and as of July 27, the federal government says it has met the court-ordered deadline for reuniting "eligible" parents and children. But 711 children deemed ineligible to reunify with their parents—the parents of 431 of those children were seemingly deported without them—remain in federal custody.
The message, which was removed by midday, struck a chord in the Bay Area, where many people are part of mixed immigration-status households and have personally witnessed or gone through the trauma of separation and deportation.31
The American activist collective INDECLINE claimed responsibility for the billboard, which originally read “We make junk disappear,” next to the face of a shocked blond-haired child, an ad for 1-800-GOT-JUNK.
The collective, a group of filmmakers, graffiti artists and photographers, worked on the billboard overnight, and by the following day, it made the local media rounds. Even the mayor of Emeryville, John J. Bauters, tweeted about the billboard. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t condemn it, instead saying the message “reflects our community’s belief that #FamilesBelongTogether.” (Mayor Bauters often uses his Twitter platform to support prison reform, and the need to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.)
Clear Channel Outdoor, the billboard’s owner, sent INDECLINE a letter, asking the collective to “cease and desist from taking any further and future action to interfere with CCO property.” An INDECLINE spokesperson (the collective maintains anonymity) says the billboard was their way of asking, “Where’s your moral compass? How can Clear Channel care more about a billboard that can be easily painted over, rather than the countless families that have been separated.” The letter was a first for INDECLINE.
Why did INDECLINE pick the Bay Area, and specifically Emeryville for their action? “We were in town working on a video for [the band] Rise Against," the spokesperson says, "and we saw this as an opportunity.”
It wasn’t the first Bay Area project for the collective. Last year, INDECLINE teamed up with graffiti writer PEMEX and writer NEKO of Madrid to work on A House in Oakland, a joint effort to bring awareness to the Bay Area's homeless crisis.
While the collective often uses existing billboards for their work (as they did last month in Emeryville), they took a different approach with this project. The team went on a dangerous and illegal hunt for plastic billboards that they cut down and stretched over PVC frames to create shelters. The collective then delivered the newly made tents to homeless encampments around Oakland.
INDECLINE might be best known for one of their most ambitious projects, unveiled on August 18, 2016 across five U.S. cities. Naked statues of then-Republican-presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared in public spaces in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Cleveland and Los Angeles. The statues drew mixed reactions: some blissfully took selfies with the naked Trump, others were horrified, and many heavily criticized the project for the implicit body-shaming in Trump’s sculptural physique.
The Emperor Has No Balls, as INDECLINE named the stunt, was a project six months in the making, and one that required the help and resources of not only the collective's core group of 12, but of fans and supporters of the protest work INDECLINE does. “You don’t have to be working with the founding members in order to participate,” the INDECLINE spokesperson says, “we work with all sorts of creatives.”
The founding members of INDECLINE met as young adults in 2001. They were, the spokesperson says, “teenagers not entirely politically developed struggling to express their feelings."
Those feelings stemmed from the turbulent events of 2001: 9/11, President George W. Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Agreement on Climate Change, Enron's bankruptcy and a series of anthrax attacks across the United States.
The group gained notoriety for their 2002 video Bumfights: A Cause for Concern, depicting footage of high school fights and homeless men performing stunts and skits. The backlash was immediate. The U.S.-based National Coalition for the Homeless argued that the video dehumanized the homeless population. The video was banned in the U.K., Canada and New Zealand, the producers faced felony charges and jail time, and they were required to pay settlements to the homeless men depicted in the video. Indecline Films ceased to exist, and the group rebranded as INDECLINE, protest art collective.
Their self-admittedly misguided early work doesn't prevent INDECLINE from courting controversy nearly two decades later. As political turmoil increases under Trump’s presidency, their protest art gets more and more confrontational. As if naked statues of Trump weren’t enough to raise eyebrows, last year the collective put together an installation in Richmond, Virginia—a month after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville left 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer dead.
For this particular installation, the collective took over Joseph Bryan Park, where they hung dummies dressed as clowns wearing Ku Klux Klan robes from the branches of a large tree. One of the dummies carried a sign that read, “If attacked by a mob of clowns, go for the juggler.”
But INDECLINE’s projects can also involve heartfelt messages of support—particularly for the undocumented community. While the collective was still in the Bay Area last month, they worked on a mural in Downtown Oakland called Dear Immigrants, located off 15th Street and Franklin. Made by INDECLINE and ten other artists, the colorful piece simply reads, “Dear Immigrants: Without U there is no U.S.” Monarch butterflies, a symbol often used to depict migration, decorate the mural.
“As we were working on the mural, Mexican construction workers who were working close by came by wanting to help,” the spokesperson says. While the artists were hard at work, curious bystanders, local business owners and residents gathered around the mural until it turned into a block party-like gathering of people who shared the mural's sentiment.
INDECLINE isn’t a non-profit collective; they aren’t eligible for tax-deductible donations or grants. So in order to fund their projects, which often involve flying the group's members across the country, renting hotel rooms, paying fabrication costs and buying hundreds of gallons of paint, they rely heavily on merchandise sales (including “emperor” figurines).
Their notoriety, fed by controversial, high-profile stunts like The Emperor Has No Balls, also helps pay for their projects. And those projects, in turn, show a surprising amount of range—confronting governmental entities one week and offering up messages of support to those suffering at the hands of that government the next.
INDECLINE’s focus isn’t just political, they also care about bringing awareness to the social, economical and ecological injustices brought by corrupt government institutions, the damage done by greedy corporations and the abuse of power by law enforcement agencies.
“Being older, we’ve seen so much politically, it has helped to solidify our beliefs,” the spokesperson says.