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Sep 4, 17

Ann Arbor, MI: Doing What We Can, Teens on Diversity of Tactics

Your Ann Arbor local teenage rebel-rousers are going back to high school this week (along with every other public school student in Michigan). Before we get bogged down with schoolwork, though, we wanted to engage in some productive trouble-making. This was how my friend Amílcar (pseudonym) and I ended up on our one ladder in our downtown’s Graffiti Alley with a can of spray paint each, trying to make an artsy mural that said “A2 WANTS DC TO DROP J20 CHARGES.”

When our unlikely hero showed up, he was pretty unhappy with us. He stoped his bike in front of us, watched us taping up stencils for a second, and said, “Hey. I’m gonna paint over that tonight.” He let us know that we were painting over his mural, and that he was just going to cover it up when we were done.

I guess this caught us a little off guard. Apprehensively, we asked him if he was familiar with J20. “Yeah, I know it. But you’re painting over my stuff,” he said. We started to quickly explain how this was for an important cause and to please paint somewhere else, but by then he was biking away. The two of us were left a little dazed and very pissed off.

“Let’s just finish it and take a lot of pictures,” Amílcar said. “No,” I said. “Fuck that. Fuck all of that. Let’s finish this, and then I’m staking out here with a fucking bat.”

Amílcar looked at me like I had just proposed a really bad idea (which, I mean, yeah. Pretty bad idea.) He had barely finished talking me out of it, though (which didn’t take much more than an “uh, no,” because, again, bad idea) when the guy came back on his bike. He apologized for approaching us the way he did. Then he said, “I actually am familiar with J20, and I believe in probably a lot of the same stuff you guys do.” He told us that he paints a lot–professionally as a commissioner, and, on his own time, rebelliously–and that he had put his mural up so high because he wanted it to last. Sympathetically, he offered to help us paint a different mural for J20 away from his. “That…would be awesome,” we said. I think we were both pretty surprised, but were more than open to help.

We gave him our ladder. He produced a can of paint from his backpack, climbed up, and drew out clean, flamboyant letters way bigger and more impressive than ours. He broke us out of our mesermized observational state by letting us know he believes we live in a police state and that he’s into prison abolition (which we agreed with him on.) While he painted and showed us the best way to do block letters, we talked about the abolition movement, the role of art in movements and revolutions, the hazardous relationship humanity has with its new technology, and some of the times he’s been almost caught by police for graffiti. We found that we agreed in the paramount role art plays in a revolution–landscape sets a tone for the climate; very important–and the importance of art in general. “It’s organic. It’s human expression, and like, it’s just what we’re supposed to be doing.” “Yes!”

We very briefly discussed antifascism, where we found what I guess was our only point of disagreement: our comrade was a pacifist. “I’m personally not really sure about the violence with antifa,” he said. He said he believed in egalitarianism, but he went about pursuing it through street art. Unwilling to get into how people categorize “violence” and distinguish state violence from political and interpersonal violence, inform him that he was participating in a type of antifascist work at the moment, or point out that antifascism was literally about opposing fascists–those subscribed to an inherently violent ideology–we asked him to talk more about the resistance art he had engaged in. Speculating whether that conversation would have been productive or not is all hypothesis contrary to fact right now. He wasn’t expressly disrespecting combative action; he just said he wasn’t into it personally, which I guessed I could respect for the sake of respecting diversity of tactics (and at least he wasn’t a liberal.) We continued our work untroubled and focused. This guy was doing us a huge favor, but when I looked at his face, he was smiling. I thought about how this must have been for him and concluded that based on what he’d shared with us, this was probably a pretty rewarding experience for him too. That made me really happy.

After we filled in his outlines, we watched him use red, silver, and white to accentuate the letters. We continued to talk about our lives, our world views, and art. I was thrilled to be able to bond with a local community member over resistance art. When he was finished, we had “DROP J20 CHARGES NOW!” emblazoned across half the span of the alley. We had silently agreed on letting him cover up our mural, so when we were done, we left him with our ladder and a can of our blue paint. Before we left, we thanked him profusely and told him how awesome he is, exchanged contact information and handshakes, and told him to just leave the ladder in the back of the alley and that we’d come back for it later. He left us with encouraging words and told us he’d catch us around.

Everyone, even pacifists and kids like us, have something to contribute to the movement toward a world without hate and hierarchy.

As exemplified by our comrade’s unfounded disdain for antifa, there’s a very particular version of antifascism sensationalized by the media right now that is embodied by masked-up fash-bashing and rioting. While that’s a part of the (unfortunately) needed work to be done for the safety of marginalized people right now, antifascist action can also take shape in masked-up teenagers and a community member collaborating to make rebellious street art. Everyone, even pacifists and kids like us, have something to contribute to the movement towards a world without hate and hierarchy.

Amílcar and I talked on the car ride back later that afternoon about school coming up, about college applications, and that superhero we had met. “I’m tryna get better at spray painting,” Amílcar said. I seconded that notion, excited for prospective projects to come.


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