New collective injects performance art into Black Lives Matter in New York

    With songs, chants, poems and dances, Artists For Justice NYC unleashes guerrilla theater performances on unsuspecting audiences around the city.
    (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)
    Artists for Justice and Shut It Down NYC staged a performance in Grand Central Station earlier this week. (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

    While some of New York City’s activists continue marching in the streets and shutting down roads, others are using a different form of protest to spread the message of the Black Lives Matter movement.

    Grand Central Terminal and the Armory Show, one of New York’s premiere international art fairs, were the two most recent targets for “performance protests” by Artists For Justice NYC. According to the group’s founder, Shamirrah Hardin, they use “the arts to address the issue of police officers killing unarmed black citizens without facing any consequence,” and to “awaken the humanity in people.”

    Though this collective of visual artists formed in January of this year, many of its members are veterans of New York’s Black Lives Matter movement. After a Staten Island grand jury decided in December not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, many members of Artists For Justice NYC hit the streets to express their outrage and help raise consciousness. After members began regularly seeing each other at protests, they decided to come together and use their artistic talent to spread the word about police brutality and systemic racism. Armed with an array of politically-inspired songs, chants, poems and dances, the group now unleashes a full set of guerrilla theater performances on unsuspecting audiences around the city. And so far, they’ve been pretty effective at spreading their message.

    Their recent impromptu appearance at the Armory art show, one of New York City’s most important annual art events, garnered the group some media attention, as video of the incident showed the group being shoved out mid-performance by security while continuing the protest all the way out the door. The upscale audience at the art show was surprisingly receptive, despite being targeted, according to Hardin, as “a group of people who may be out of touch with the struggles of the black community.”

    Yet, despite a large crowd of onlookers seemingly enjoying the performance, the Armory show’s executive director, Noah Horowitz, told the New York Times that “as a matter of policy and due to a combination of both curatorial and safety concerns, any performance or action that has not been pre-approved has to be asked to leave.” Though the group was kicked out before they could finish their set, the New York Times also reported that one of the onlookers called the protest “meaningful” and stated that he “got the message.”

    Two days later, Artists For Justice NYC teamed up with another activist group, Shut It Down NYC, and staged a performance in Grand Central Terminal. After initially grabbing the attention of onlookers in Grand Central with their act, Artists For Justice NYC made way for Shut It Down NYC members to present the crowd with facts about police violence against black women, as well as the appalling record of violence against people of color by the New York Police Department. This time, the group was able to complete its full set multiple times, and onlookers were still mostly positive.

    “A large crowd gathered, watched and listened to what we had to say,” Hardin said. “The people were quiet, respectful and attentive and they raised their fists in solidarity. Even the police officers seemed calm.”

    The group plans on engaging in more acts of guerrilla theater in the near-future with Penn Station looking like the next target. They’re also developing a performance piece on mentally-ill victims of police brutality, inspired by the recent shooting of Anthony Hill in Atlanta and other similar cases. And while other activists continue to engage in more orthodox forms of protest, Hardin said that her group will continue to illustrate what a movement with a diversity of skills and talents looks like.

    “As I began protesting, I came to realize that there are a lot of aspects of the movement that need attention and involvement,” she said, citing the need for lawyers, doctors, activists in the streets, black-owned businesses and, of course, artists. “For the movement to thrive, I think everyone should get involved by doing what they do best and doing it for the advancement of the movement.”

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