Solidarity, Visibility, and Tactical Activism: Responding to Police Brutality with Art on the Street
“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” —William S. Burroughs
Where do we go from here? It is usually the first question pondered and the most difficult to answer. The Sandtown/Winchester communities are still in the process of healing over three months after what the media has named the Baltimore Riots. Both neighborhood residents and Baltimoreans citywide have been attempting to make sense of the complex and multilayered events that happened back in April. Freddie Gray’s death is a tragedy and no human being should ever be subjected to the neglect and the inhumane conditions that he experienced.
NETHER is a native Baltimorean and a street artist who believes that art is a tool to help draw attention to ignored issues and to tell forgotten histories. His artistic practice relies on the relationships he has in communities and listens to the concerns and stories of passersby. Many of the individuals and their stories serve as the inspiration for his installations and murals. Most recently, NETHER is working with residents and artists to paint murals in Sandtown/Winchester as a way to memorialize, celebrate, and drawn more attention to the area.
The completed Freddie Gray Mural at Mount and Presbury Streets, the site where Gray was arrested. Photo: Samantha Redles
Samantha Redles: We should start from the beginning. The project started within the midst of what people are calling the Baltimore Riots. During the peaceful protests you started brainstorming ideas. At what point did you decide to approach Brandon Ross and talk to him about the idea for the Freddie Gray mural?
NETHER: It really started when I was following the news of Freddie Gray, before he died, when he was in the hospital. I had done a lot of work having to do with police brutality and police brutality in Baltimore. So this type of issue is very much on my radar.
Presbury and Mount are really the beginning of the Gilmore Homes or the split that goes down the middle of them. I know the area and I was originally looking at the vacant property across the street, thinking of doing a wheat paste on the side of that. At that point, I had no idea—nor did anybody else—that the news about Freddie Gray and everything that happened was going to catch as much wind as it did. So that was my original plan. I visited the site and then when he died there was the candlelight vigil protest. I was at that protest and I hooked up with this community activist, Kenji Scott, and he had some deeper connections within Gilmore and he hooked me up with a bunch of his friends, who then led me to Brandon. Everyone in that area holds him [Brandon] in extremely high regards and he makes things happen. I went up to him, kind of casually, and showed him some of my work—he recognized some of it.
The next day he hit me up. From there we started developing a concept before the uprising or riots, whatever the media decides to call this, and it really changed everything in terms of imagery.
SR: Who is Brandon Ross and what is his relationship to the neighborhood and Freddie Gray?
N: Brandon Ross is Freddie's god-brother and his best friend. He has grown up in Gilmore, on the North side right at Presbury, his entire life. He knows almost every single person in the community; he is a really popular guy.
Brandon facilitated everything from figuring out the wall, getting permission for the wall, and starting a dialogue with the owner. Talking to friends, passing concepts through the family, and deciding who is in the mural—every single aspect in terms of on the ground management.
SR: So, the final piece on the wall, that was not purely your imagery and you worked with people in the community to form it?
N: Yeah, absolutely. At first it was only Freddie and some protesters. That was the only content of the mural and then we let it develop—the projects, the mood effects, the sky was added information.
Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and other civil rights leaders (left detail). Photo: Samantha Redles
SR: Who are some of the people in the mural? Both on the [left] side that reflects the past—images from the civil rights movement—and who are the ones from the present?
N: Brandon can probably answer that better in terms of all the people's names—I am putting a lot of people in it [laughs]. But Freddie is in the middle and then on the left side and the right side there is a pretty symmetrical scene of protesters. On the left side there are some [historical] protestors: Thurgood Marshall, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks.
On the right side, it really is the exact same composition and the same movement. And we are trying to say this is the same damn thing and it needs to be treated like that! With the respect and dignity that we gave leaders like Martin Luther King—that was the idea. It is a lot of his friends, Freddie's friends and family—mother, stepfather, sisters, Brandon, his closest friends.
Brandon Ross; Freddie Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden; Gray’s sister, Fredericka Gray; and Gray’s friends and family (right detail). Photo: Samantha Redles
SR: There was one other person that helped with really developing that project: J.C. Faulk. What was his role and how did he help to push the project along?
N: Yeah, well this mural is really in two parts—like most things in Baltimore, it really goes deeper. It is not just the mural. It is not just a pretty picture on the wall. There is a whole story before and, usually, after it. And this is unlike any mural I have ever done. Super true.
As I was painting it, two big things happened that I started brainstorming on. First, people started coming up and offering us their walls, so Brandon started making a list and trying to manage that—just for the future, you know, because Brandon is trying to get set up in the area and this is his job, improving the area and managing things. He was like: "this is my database, right here."
Right in front of the mural was patchy crabgrass—it was just really torn up; it was some bad turf. And a lot of people were saying, "This is the Freddie Gray site. We need some landscaping in front of it." Well, J.C. really came down at the right time [laughs]. That’s what’s up. We had all this desire to landscape and we were trying to figure out what we could do. At first one of the neighbors came to the spot and mowed it all down just so my ladder could stay up straight—honestly. J.C. and Brandon went to Home Depot and I was just chillin' there finishing up the painting. All of a sudden they come back with two trucks worth of supplies and then tell me another one is coming tomorrow with some workers. It popped off really quickly. I called up my best friend, Elise Victoria, who is a landscape designer and with the people from the community—some volunteer help, it just all came together. It was really amazing! The combination of murals and landscaping is a great way to make a place.
I think that this is an area that has been completely ignored—well, not completely, but pretty much effectively ignored by the city, ignored by the state. It is not just the mayor. It is the Governor. It is the whole systematic creation of this problem and a lot of it is that the people in the area feel disrespected by this city and state.
SR: So this project has really developed into something bigger. I know that you had two other artists who have some walls in the area—where did they come in and how did they select their imagery? Who are they and what was the relationship between them and the neighborhood?
SORTA’s mural at Mount Street and North Avenue. Photo: Samantha Redles
N: Well, this project in general started off because well we didn't have the chance to raise funds.
SR: It was very DIY.
N: Very do it yourself, throw it together—let's start digging, start a garden, start painting, or anything, like, "Hey, we need to water it. Who has water? Let's start knocking on doors." [Laughs] Just stuff like that, ya know? But as we are realizing, we can really do something here.
The other two installations came in the time that we have been trying to get more organized and more formal. So there was the corner store right at King Grocery—right at Mount and North—two blocks up from my mural. A guy came to us saying, "Hey, we want something painted on the wall." So me and Brandon were talking about it and SORTA, this buddy of mine, he was into the idea of doing something. With SORTA's wall there was an image that he really liked that J.M. [Giordano] took. So, we hit up J.M. and made it happen.
You know this mural project, this movement, and everything. In my opinion, I know everyone has their different opinions, but I think a lot of this has to do with reclaiming the American flag and, also, showing what it means to you by putting it out there. And putting the community's opinions of the American flag out there. A lot of people were asking about the American flag and why it was black and white, why some are the pan-African Flag. Just between mine, Pablo's, and SORTA's we have all three.
Pablo [Machioli] started painting and developing by talking to people—his process is kinda similar to how I paint, a little bit slower, a lot of conversation, and letting it develop. Just between having SORTA's at the furthest north point in that intersection, then the next one down is Pablo's, and the next one down is Freddie Gray and that is the corridor. If you think about the path that people walked on for this movement, it really went from there down to the police station. So Mount is the central corridor of Gilmore, the movement, it is really important. That first protest inspired so much.
Pablo Machioli’s mural at Westwood and Presbury Streets. Photo: Samantha Redles
SR: So, the area and the sites that you are choosing really have a connection to the protests and the peacefulness of the movement, and making sure that people recognize the area here needs more support from the city and state. It seems to be about, "please don't ignore us anymore."
N: Well, yeah! And it is a weird sorta, twisted beautification. The fact of the matter is there are a lot of politicians stepping in right now trying to pretend like they haven't ignored us and there are a lot of people in the neighborhood being like, "My council person just showed up now. Never seen her before. Never seen him before." There is a lot of that and that is fair. We are calling out the issues that led to a Sandtown. We're putting them in people’s faces and then they can pick their sides. They can pick whether or not they are going to continue to ignore places in Baltimore like this or they are going to continue to help them. But every time they are going to drive by one of these murals, it is going to be a reminder about what happens when the state fails its people. That is the heart of the project.
Also, showing the solidarity that has been so evident in the movement: this is Baltimore's best chance at redemption, fixing its problems and I am just so happy that so many people—you know I have been bitchin' and hollering about these problems forever—but for so many people it hit them, like this is important. This is really important and that is a great thing. That is progress.
SR: There really seems to be a political and social activism that runs through your work, both in your past work and, evidently, in this present work. What are some of the qualities and outcomes that will make this collaboration, these murals and installations, be successful?
N: This is a movement that stood up for this neighborhood but let's all remember there is not one Sandtown. This is the hot spot, the spot of attention, the spot that will get attention for all the other neighborhoods.
I think of my artwork as a formula to get attention on important issues. Through radical, bold moves that are able to capture media attention and, as a result, a lot of people hear about those efforts and are inspired by them. Showing a community standing up—people helping out with the imagery, the landscaping—the community stood up and did this. And the community is also the one at the end of that police baton, ya know? That is kinda the principle—what I like to talk about is Gandhi's principle of Satyagraha, which is that the best way to nonviolently succeed is to show the evils of your oppressor. The people that stood up, those are the people at the end of the baton. Those are the people that the police have been striking down in Gilmore for decades. Shit, it was in The Wire [laughs]. You know it is police brutality and it is the spot that police get out a little anger, it has been like that for a little while.
Pablo Machioli’s mural at Westwood and Presbury Streets (detail). Photo: Samantha Redles
SR: It's really taking the concept of what true non-violence is: it is a civil disobedience; it is turning the other cheek and exposing the wrongs through peacefulness. And the reaction of what your oppressor will do when you do that, [you acting] in a way that is not violent in any way, shape, or form. I think this is something that has gone beyond just the marching and the protesting, and it is great to see that we are 2-3 months since and there are still efforts in different communities that are like yours. And it's great to see because it shows that this wasn't a once and done thing. People recognized that it needs to continue, and the effort needs to continue.
N: You were talking about outcomes that are additional to what we are trying to do something to aide the movement in the community. That's the primary outcome, but there have been a lot of different types of mural projects in Baltimore. And Baltimore has had a really interesting active DIY and official public art history from the Baltimore Mural Program to graffiti, to...
SR: ...to the Open Walls projects, to Wall Hunters.
N: ...to the activist projects. There are a lot interesting and different [projects]. And it has all been very experimental. The mural program crashed and a lot of stuff birthed in its absence. These murals are for Baltimore and they need to be influenced by Baltimore, all over the city. I think that's really important! Even just with our curated list we are trying to build here. Everyone is talking about "one Baltimore"— it’s really important that people show one Baltimore in their mural projects. Having just a bunch of MICA kids... And you know I didn't go to MICA, and I am from Baltimore, but at the same time you can be damn sure everyone assumes I'm from MICA [laughs].
We are trying to get some people from the neighborhood—some older muralists. And then artists whose work translates really well into murals, and have not painted a mural yet. We are really trying to build and develop the street art scene in many ways and in a very radical way. This city—five almost six years ago now, when it was just me, Ways, and Nook, Mata Ruda, Gaia—it was very experimental at first. We all went in and developed our practice due to experience, due to talking people, screwing up, trying to figure out ways to do it without being caught—because we didn't know that people really actually liked it!
It has been really great how much people have cared through artwork, but we are trying to bring everybody together to create Baltimore's art identity. And it's the type of situation that if something is fucked up in this town, whether you disagree with something that is happening in Station North, or disagree with something that created Sandtown, or [you] have something to say about the east side development—artists have a lot of power! And it is not just because they tend to be a little more privileged and have a lot more freedom in life. It is because of the artwork. And they need to aide these struggles that people are having in Baltimore.
I see a lot of art that is dead on content in Baltimore, and I can't even tell you, I don't try to think of what to paint anymore. There is just so much material that is so interesting in this city! So many parts of the fabric [of the city] that it’s just endless.
SR: You have been doing this for a very long time and you have been developing relationships. You are listening and aren't going in with the idea. For someone who's not from Baltimore, they could easily just assume that you are a 25-year-old white male just parachuting into these different neighborhoods that you don't live in. How do you respond to people who do not know what your practice is? Who say you are imposing things on the neighborhood, and you are just thinking of this as beautification? What are some of the ways you have developed relationships specifically with Sandtown/Winchester communities, but also Baltimoreans across the city and other areas?
N: Race and sex are the two easiest ways you can divide people. And everybody has a race problem: I have a race problem, you have a race problem, America has a race problem. It is all of us. And we are all trying to work stuff out in our minds. Actually thinking about those things and having those conversations and those thoughts, is the best way we can develop it. I see a lot of people come up to me and they’re shocked. The conversation, about me being a white boy in these neighborhoods, they come up to me questioning, and they are working through their own thoughts about racism. I think me being out there is progress just in the way that it looks weird and forces people to think. I'm really used to it. This is the founding of my whole entire process, meeting people just as normal people meet people. Not just hit them with an email and say, "I'd like to set-up an interview." Nah, I just walk up and knock on the door and say "Hey, what’s up?"
SR: It is very organic and natural. And it's not forced.
N: It's certain areas—well it's all post-segregation in America—but it is all still very segregated in Baltimore. It is a little bit shocking when you see me. And it’s also this idea that we can't fix our neighborhoods so this white person is coming in. Then I pretty much represent that happening! The reality is that this is a community process. This is part of a community process and I am part of the Baltimore community too. But the mural is just one step here. It’s a catalyst. I'm not coming in as a developer. I can't tell you the amount of times I've painted a mural or curated the painting of a mural, and there will be weeds coming out of the sidewalk, and that will get cleaned up. Or the city might have an interest in doing a little bit more street cleaning right there.
Seeing all parts of Baltimore come together is part of the healing. It makes me feel like a hater because I am looking at a lot of the responses that people have had and it's a lot of emotion and care—but part of me says, "Well, you are late."
SR: Are you saying, not necessarily the community's response, but Baltimore as a whole, or even...
N: It’s not even just the Baltimore artist community too, but it's artsy Baltimoreans. At the end of it, I am just really excited that the learning process, and those conversations and those thoughts about race—and this is not just race of course, but economics, and the creation of these neighborhoods, there's a lots of stuff that leads to it—it's great that people are trying to learn now. And they will make mistakes. I've made mistakes, especially when we were starting out. The paper shit on the wall, we didn't know whether or not we were going to get arrested for it, or celebrated for it. There was this kind of "Where's Waldo" game in it—one of the elements of it was this fly-by-night thing. At first it was without as many direct conversations with the community, but then you went back in the day to get your day shot of it, and then I'd start talking to some people. They would say, "Hey, hit this vacant [house] over here for us." And then you've got your in in Sandtown, and you're just rolling! The Baltimore way!
NETHER's act of civil disobedience to publicly call attention to an incident of police brutality that happened at North Ave. and Greenmount Ave. in 2014.
North Ave. and Greenmount Ave., 2014, Photo: NETHER
SR: What is the community's response to the project—the murals, about the landscaping, the imagery—so far?
N: It’s been incredibly positive! Like with Wall Hunters, it was a little bit more controversial, I am realizing. It's interesting, people's perceptions, about how bad it is! I guess people think it’s radical, like I am some crazy white boy for doing this. Or maybe, I am just stupid, or I'm taking too many risks. It’s really peaceful over there. The community reaction has been great. I'm really cool with a ton of neighbors now in the area. I'm talking to people all the time who are helping me out. It’s really coming together. If we need some landscaping there are people to do that, and who could use the work too.
SR: What are some of those ways in which people can get involved? The readers, what can they do? What can a local do? If I want to help out, what can I do?
N: I think a great general guideline is only do stuff with organizations that have been on the ground before this. And there are quite a few in the area! Like Elder Harris, Jubilee Sandtown—there are organizations on the ground there. There's a community association, along with other neighborhoods around there. There's a rich and deep Baltimore history, and they have resources. They have been underfunded, but projects need to have a connection to people on the ground. That's why Brandon is heading this project. He's the shot-caller. Wall Hunters was more of a cross-city pop-up installation, but this is this neighborhood. And if there's going to be 18 murals popping up, I think it’s really important that the person calling the shots on those murals is somebody who has a lot of influence in that neighborhood.
SR: If someone wants to stay up-to-date on the project, where should they go?
N: We have a Facebook group "Vision Sandtown Mural and Arts Project". That's where we are going to announce volunteer days where folks will help with the setting-up and the skilled labor, and then there will be days where (like with my mural) we needed to get 30 plants and trees in the ground. We hit everybody up on Facebook and Instagram last minute. And having just a few people come out was really great! And we are going to need that again. For individual donations we set-up a Go Fund Me page. You can donate money there, and there's information about the project.
ArtSlant would like to thank NETHER for his assistance in making this interview possible. This interview was transcribed with the help of Kirsten Walsh.
(Image at the top: Freddie Gray (center detail). Photo: Samantha Redles)