“Creative action liberates us by reminding ourselves and other that we can come up with new ways to disrupt.”- Chrislene DeJean
Chalking outlines of dead bodies on the sidewalk. Occupying St. Louis University for a week. Holding up coffins adorned with mirrors for police officers to literally see themselves in the reflection of ‘the dead’. These are just a few of the many creative actions that have been organized to protest Michael Brown’s killing and the structural issues, including the devaluing of black and brown lives and state-sanctioned violence, that it represents.
Chrislene DeJean and Terry Marshall, co-founders of Intelligent Mischief, a creative design lab for social good in Boston, have both been struck by how, in departing from more traditional movement strategies like marching and protesting, these creative actions and others make possible new realities. Reflecting on their experiences both organizing and being a part of some of these actions in Ferguson, they’ve distilled some lessons below that are deepening their praxis around how artistic interventions can strengthen activism in ways that are gripping and sustainable.
Reframe the Narrative
Many news outlets vilified Ferguson protesters. Tropes of uncivil and hostile looters dominated media coverage in ways that vastly overshadowed on-the-ground realities. For Terry, one of the most successful creative actions that helped to change this narrative was Requiem for Mike Brown, a flash mob-esqe action wherein a pre-organized set of audience members at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra interrupted a concert by singing the civil rights song, “Which Side are You on?” and dropping hand drawn banners inscribed with “Black Lives Matter.”
Transcript: “I think the most creative actions came from small independent groups. So literally a day before I got there Requiem for Mike Brown happened. That set the bar for what creative actions could happen, and what was possible. It was important to have that, and see how much attention that got and how that spun the story. As opposed to what the media attention was which was –the every night protests and people being at the police stations every night– which was also important because it kept Ferguson in the spotlight but at the same time it was still helping, in terms of media and people knowing stuff, it was spinning this narrative of unruly protesters. The point with creative actions is how do we control the narrative? How do we tell the narrative from our point of view, in a way that clearly gets our message across for liberation and justice. There are a lot of actions we can do that are not bad but aren’t getting out a clear message. If your message isn’t clear, that narrative can be spun by someone else or the powers that be.”
Another cogent and powerful action that countered the “brutish” protester narrative was conducted by TribeX, a group of young Ferguson residents that came together in the wake of Brown’s death. Marching solemnly in twin single file lines into the baseball village of the Cardinal’s Stadium, TribeX members and allies positioned themselves on the sides of a stairwell fashioning a protected alter to Brown. Mimicking a viewing at a wake, the group held the space in tact for each participant to walk through, place a rose on the altar and share a brief thought. In this reenactment of a funeral, a ritual often marked by vulnerability, raw emotion, and grief, TribeX members were taking charge of the story around Brown’s death. In reflecting on this action, Terry, who worked with the group in planning and execution reasoned, “the only way we can respond is creatively and peacefully. This is how we fight the narrative that we are brutalistic and angry.”