Filed under: Bloc Party, Incarceration, Interviews, Lifestyle, US
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Originally posted to It’s Going Down
We have been dropping not so subtle hints in our column over the last couple of months that we would be adding new types of content through Bloc Party. We featured a quick and dirty interview in our column a few weeks back with Firehawk of Unstoppable in an effort to highlight women and trans prison rebels during this time of massive and widespread prison organizing. We want to continue to carve out space for the folks who are inspiring us to take on more, be bolder and think differently about issues surrounding prison organizing, prisoner support and anti-repression work.
In that same spirit of highlighting different fronts of struggle, we’re bringing you a full feature interview with the NYC skate crew BRUJAS who recently launched a skate wear line called 1971 which may well be the first fashion line with a prison abolitionist agenda. Fucking swoon, we’ll take two. When we first saw this project launch we got excited about the many ways in which culture, fashion and struggle can be brought together so we immediate sought out getting in touch. This week we caught up with Arianna Gil, the founder of BRUJAS, and 1971 collaborator Isabelle Nastasia, co-owner and production director at MASK Magazine.
Can you tell us a little about your backgrounds personally and how BRUJAS came to be?
Ari: I grew up in the Lower East Side or LOISAIDA in New York. I’m a bassist, I’ve been playing bass for many years and studied contra bass at the conservatory at Oberlin. I’ve been skateboarding for even longer. BRUJAS was founded in 2014 and has grown into a free form revolutionary feminist collective as well as a skate crew. It’s been painted by all the wack press as an “all-female-skate-crew” but really it’s a really mixed crew of folks sprinkled across the gender spectrum, most of us are brown, all of us are pretty young and grew up in New York City. What is consistent is that we’re a group that’s really committed to fighting patriarchy and capitalism and for decolonization of our peoples and land and using cultural organizing, parties and skate culture as an entry point into radical ideas and action.
How do you see skate culture and the issues of mass incarceration intersect for y’all?
Ari: Skating is not unlike other activity that have been deemed deviant or criminal in that it’s very much about being ungovernable and pushing back against laws and trying to find modes of survival, and even really finding ways of thriving under really harsh conditions. Skating has also seen many different waves of being considered super “subcultural” and then other times where it’s been very normative and apart of the mainstream, none of that is new. What has shifted is the way the state relates to youth culture and specifically urban youth of color who bare the brunt of poverty and exploitation in our communities and who day after day get harassed, jailed, beaten, killed by cops for just trying to live. As the carceral state has expanded and austerity has risen even higher, more and more we’ve seen skate communities and radical cadres being targeted. Those are the kids — poor urban black and brown revolutionaries and some of their white co-conspirators — who were targeted by COINTELPRO, by the “war on drugs”, and then by Broken Windows, and now by Stop and Frisk policing and even more insidious kinds of surveillance that have been on the rise.
From my understanding your name, BRUJAS, comes from a 1980’s skate video called Skate Witches but also is a nod to brujería. How do you see this part of your culture intersect in prison abolition?
Izzy: There was a funny action that happened awhile ago where a bunch of healers and brujas tried to levitate a police station. Obviously it sounds kinda gimick-y but it reminds me that abolition (of the state, capitalism, police, prisons and all forms of control) really needs magic to be a part of our struggle. Maybe we even need a little more theatrics too to be honest! It reminds me that witchcraft and brujería traditions have been a means of seeking justice for people who have always been denied it. Oh, you’re going to be a shit-head? You’re going to steal my family’s goats? You’re going to break my heart? You’re going to violate my body? I’m going to fucking hex you!
Ari: I think also there’s a very clear correlation between the emergence of capitalism, the enclosure of the Commons, land privatization aka like, colonialism, the destruction of the natural environment and the autonomy of women’s bodies, all were a means to endanger the lives and steal the land of indigenous peoples, to enslave and dominate black people, to squash heretic movements led by peasant women and gender deviant people. You could say that these magical traditions have always been defined by being targeted by and also fighting forms of domination, exploitation, and control. It’s why the tagline for the 1971 project is “here for the prison rebels, the deviants, and the BRUJAS”.
This year you’ve been highlighted in some huge ways, a feature in Vogue for instance. How are y’all using that media to push BRUJAS to new places?
Ari: I’m sure some people think its wack that we’re in those kinds of features, but I see it as being able to reach more people as much as we can without compromising our values whatsoever. We’ve definitely been able to access more people and spaces because of the press we’ve been getting. The 1971 project has really blown up as a result of the reach we have, on our Instagram and other platforms. It feels significant that we’ve been able to talk about radical shit that’s happening like the prison strike in magazines that would not have even dained to cover prisoner resistance otherwise. We’re definitely going to keep growing in scope and will likely keep using media to reach different kinds of kids as a means of political education.
Izzy: I would never call BRUJAS relationship to media or the mainstream “subversive”, it may really not be possible to subvert anything, but I will call it outreach.
What was the inspiration for the 1971 skate wear line?
Izzy: The idea for the 1971 line is something I think Ari and I had both separately wanted to do for a long time: figure out how to start a bail fund or something like that. Personally, I think I’ve been inspired by people who run massive scams to do fundraising for prisoners. This is obviously way more “above ground” than anything like legit organized crime but it does feel like a bit of a scam to have the line, and as a result of the line, very intense prisoner organizing, being written about sympathetically in the style section of Hypebeast and Paper Magazine. The creative team Calvin, Robin, Ari and myself looked over a lot material to inspire the actual design: footage from the Attica uprising, stories about queers starting fires inside prisons in Alabama, we reread at IGD posts, Angela Davis essays, and the column that Neal Shirley writes for Mask Magazine. We also wanted to reference Dixie Be Damned and traditions of resistance against slavery that reach back before the Civil War. We tried to directly reference all of those things either in the Kickstarter video, the design on the BRUJAS x 1971 P.E. gear or in the Kickstarter project description.
Ari: In terms of the actual gear and why we chose the two-piece, we are referencing little school gym clothes (that’s why we called it “P.E.”), as well as those sort of 1970s west coast skate team uniforms. P.E also doubles for Political Education.
How do you plan to use 1971 to support prisoners?
Izzy: The Kickstarter itself is so we can launch the line and give people an opportunity to pre-order the shirts and the two-piece, but the profits from the line are all going into a legal fund. The fund will be accessible to New York kids who are being hit with charges or who are locked up. We’re also moving a chunk of the money to queer and trans prisoners of color that are supported by a network in New York called F2L. I’ve been involved in that network for a while doing things like packing the court for people who are facing time and fundraising to fill people’s commissaries, pay lawyer fees, make sure there’s money for postage for letters and care packages.
What is inspiring y’all right now personally and politically?
Izzy: The prisoner strike is a huge one for me, also basically every time people are in the streets fucking shit up. The knowledge that we live in a world where, more and more, when police kill black people there will be riots and revolt. That shit is bleak but also the pessimism of it keeps me hopeful. Other things that are keeping me going right now: My buddies Hanna and Tyler at Mask Magazine are really thinking long term about what it means to build power. BRUJAS has managed to really break open what it means to be an “activist” kid, while also being confrontational towards the idea of “lifestyle branding”. Other things like, femmes who take care of one another even when we’re all super depressed. My friends Jenny and Virgil have been putting out badass prison strike solidarity posters and anti-election propaganda art recently. The folks involved in F2L, like Mitchyll and Reina, who are really trying to figure out how to move large amounts of money to queer and trans people of color inside prisons in New York.
Ari: Right now I am really inspired by Ian Reid’s 2005 Sex Hood Skate and Video tape, I plan on making short films with my handycam. Always inspired by Malcolm X and Emma Goldman.
Are there any prisoners y’all currently support you want to let IGD readers know about?
Izzy: There’s at least four people that I want to shout out that IGD readers should know about that are examples of individuals that the 1971 line will be materially supporting going forward, who I’ve personally connected with and done organizing around via F2L and other prisoner support networks. Merci Chrisette is a black trans woman who has been facing lots of different charges for defending herself on a subway train and some other bullshit. Edwin Faulkner and Cici Martinez-Herrera are trans and queer people of color who are incarcerated at Clinton and Attica prisons in upstate New York. They were sentenced to 25 to life for robbery, kidnapping and murder of a sex work client who died during a kink session. We’re hoping to keep their commissaries fully stacked while we put together a legal strategy since they were both just granted their appeals. Another person is Bayna-Lehkiem El-Amin, a black queer man who is incarcerated at Downstate prison. Last month, he was sentenced to 9 years for defending himself against a white gay couple who attacked him while he was eating at a restaurant last year. Also, the Bx120, who are 120 people who were arrested and indicted on the basis of “conspiracy charges” on April 27, 2016, when over 700 NYPD and federal officers, using military equipment, executed the largest mass raid in NYC history, in Eastchester Gardens in the Bronx.
What plans do you have for BRUJAS in the coming year?
Ari: BRUJAS has several big projects coming up following the closing of the 1971 Kickstarter. Stay tuned for a limited edition Halloween hoodie! We have interviews and article features in various magazines coming up, for sure. But one project I’m excited about that we’re working on now is called “Brouhaha” — a residency collaboration with Zeljka Baskic at Recess Space gallery. “Brouhaha” will take place over two months, where the gallery space will convert into an ad hoc community center with diverse and provocative programming, including a living room style house party installation, silk screening and herb workshops, prisoner letter writing events, skate video screenings and a summit on the state of the patriarchy, which is being held at the New Museum in Manhattan. People can also follow the BRUJAS Instagram for more updates as they roll in!
Will folks be able to purchase the 1971 gear when the kickstarter closes? Where should they keep an eye out?
Ari: Yeah! Once the Kickstarter ends, the gear will be available on the BRUJAS website. Folks can stay tuned for our announcement about that!
From our Bloc to y’alls, thank you so much for getting at us this week Ari and Izzy. We cannot wait until these sets drop in December and to see what other incredible and creatively liberatory endeavors are coming from BRUJAS next.