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    CultureStrike: Design Activism to Impact Immigration Reform

     In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty. —Phil Ochs

    Starting in Tunisia, spreading to Egypt and eventually everywhere, resistance to dictators, government policies and economic inequalities had such a global impact that Time magazine declared “The Protester” person of the year for 2011. In the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement, an idea conceived by the Canadian activists of Adbusters, mobilized on September 17, inspired by the Arab Spring protests.

    One week earlier, in Arizona, a group of more than 50 artists, designers, writers, musicians, and activists gathered in Tucson to initiate the CultureStrike Coalition National Campaign against harsh immigration policies. I was part of this delegation, organized by Bay Area activist Favianna Rodriguez, writer Jeff Chang and others. They chose Arizona because of recent protest activity against its SB (Senate Bill) 1070 that put into place some of the most brutal methods of enforcing immigration restrictions to date. Arizona was the site of massive protests against SB 1070 and advocating passage of the Dream Act, which would allow conditional permanent residency for people brought to the U.S. as minors after they lived here five years.

    By mid-October many members of the CultureStrike delegation were actively involved in Occupy Wall Street—protesting, making posters, writing, speaking, performing, and using social media. Protests against stricter immigration laws, massive deportations and economic inequality overlapped in their efforts to draw national attention to everyday practices that most affect the lower classes. One of the most resonant ideas in the Occupy Wall Street movement is the huge disparity in wealth controlled by one percent of the U.S. population compared to the amount held by the other 99 percent. The CultureStrike delegation wants to remind everyone that we are a nation of immigrants, but current economic conditions promote scapegoating undocumented workers and escalating deportations.

    The catalyzing idea behind CultureStrike was that creative producers have power in disseminating information that might affect people’s attitudes on political and social issues, eventually resulting in meaningful change. Immigration issues and the economic inequalities driving the OWS movement are on the front burner of American politics as the 2012 election approaches. Several CultureStrike designers have been using their images to raise awareness about these and other issues for years.

    Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party and prolific designer and activist for more than 40 years, was among the group. His powerful posters have influenced many of the younger designers, including Ernesto Yerena, who recently moved to Arizona from California. Yerena created the campaign “Alto Arizona”—a call to action, asking artists and designers to create posters for a viral campaign, which were then published and sold to help fund the protests against SB1070. In addition to designing posters, Yerena creates multi-layered collages with silkscreens and/or stencils on top. His studio is called Hecho Con Ganas—“made with motivation, desire, passion.” 

    The CultureStrike designers use technology strategically to get their messages out quickly and virally. They conduct silkscreening workshops to teach young people how to cheaply produce a run of posters for a rally or demonstration. Using social media, they allow downloading of their posters for quick distribution. Yerena’s “Decolonize Wall Street” poster went viral on the internet, then appeared in multiples at Occupy Wall Street protests.

    Dignidad Rebelde is a “collaborative graphic arts project that translates stories of struggle and resistance into artwork that can be put back into the hands of the communities who inspire it.” Recently the collaboration between Oakland-based designers/activists Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes has turned its attention to the immigration and Occupy Wall Street initiatives. Barazza’s “99 Percent” poster is included in the Occupy Wall Street Journal folio along with one by Favianna Rodriguez, CultureStrike organizer and Bay Area activist. The newsprint folios are reminiscent of the Black Panther and other 1960s and ’70s radical tabloids that featured large images for posting. Produced in multiple languages, the posters are designed for specific communities.

    The Arizona-protest designers knew their works would have a visible street presence when they were carried in protests and would reach an even wider audience across the internet, on news sites and blogs. The speed of media creates almost-instant iconographic images, like the one by D.C. artist César Maxit of Troy Davis, who was executed in spite of late-breaking evidence in his case and widespread protests. These designers are masters at fast and efficient reproduction for getting graphics out in the streets quickly. Favianna Rodriguez and Josh McPhee, who runs the organization JustSeeds, created a book of reproducible and copyright-free images for use in activist work.

    Digital access and tools afford graphic designers the means to distribute images and ideas with unprecedented speed and production quality. Graphic design has always been part of social protest. The Occupy Wall Street Journal folio, for example, is a nostalgic throwback to cheaply printed newsprint posters from the mid- to late 20th century. Clear ideas expressed in poster slogans, combined with good design and striking images allow grassroots designers to compete with powerful corporate interests in capturing the public imagination. Designers like those in CultureStrike hope to use their power to influence opinion, raise consciousness, and encourage people to act for change.  

    About the Author: Colette Gaiter is an Associate Professor of Visual Communications at the University of Delaware. Her writing on the Black Panther artist Emory Douglas has appeared in several publications including the Rizzoli monograph "Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas" and just-published "West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America." She is working on a documentary about Douglas and his work.
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