There’s a city full of walls you can post complaints at. -Mos Def
Good luck squeezing Jacob Leidolf into a prescribed box. An artist, programmer, educator, and activist, the Boston native makes a symphony of grassroots noise, whether with his Scope Urban Apparel outfit, which you might say did the whole socially responsible entrepreneurial thing before it became trendy, or with the Blackstonian newspaper and collaborators in the public policy realm. This Friday night, Leidolf follows up on past community-building events with Against the Wall at Make Shift Boston in Jamaica Plain, where he’s invited a crush-ton of artists to respond to police and policing through various mediums. Along with a showcase of past work from some of the expected creatives, we asked Leidolf about his team’s decision to capitalize on a post-election moment and return the issue of police behavior to the daily conversation.
DB: You have been addressing issues of police brutality through art and expression—with projects including Scope Urban Apparel, which has released several clothing lines with related messages—for years. Can you give us just a little bit of background on you and your crew’s involvement on that front?
JL: Scope Urban Apparel grew out of our shared interest in using the medium of fashion to make social and political commentary. What you wear can be a very personal expression of what you believe and live and we wanted to make pieces that spoke to our own lives and ideas. I think a lot of the work is political because as a collective we are each individually active in and conscious of what’s going on in the world around us and those ideas come through in the art. As Scope has grown we have used it more as a way to bring people together from different circles around a common cause.
You and a lot of the artists who you work with come out of a hip-hop protest tradition. How does that jibe with the contemporary hip-hop scene, which is decidedly less political that which came before it?
One of the last minute additions to the show is a photograph by Ernie Paniccioli, world renown hip-hop photographer, documentarian, official Public Enemy photographer, author, activist, elder … that is the tradition you speak of and it is an honor to have support from the legends who inspired us as young artists to use our craft to say something. In terms of the contemporary music scene, it’s interesting because while I agree it feels a lot less overtly political, that element will never go away, it just looks different or comes in new forms. It can be challenging to make art of any kind that asks people to engage with hard and heavy and ugly issues, but if you look for it there are artists everywhere taking it on.
A lot of the work created out of this tradition, including in shows that you’ve produced in the past, have a rather, shall we say controversial tone, particularly in regard to the way that police are portrayed in some of the artwork. How do you respond to somebody who might say that message isn’t helpful, or that it’s reckless?
Police sign up to face danger and death every day. I think it is not unreasonable to expect them to be able to take feedback and possibly critique. One of the reasons issues of trust exist between police and the communities they serve is a lack of willingness to listen to and respond to what people have to say. Sometimes it won’t be nice, sometimes it may make you feel bad. But if we all really do want the same thing, which is safer, more just communities, we all need to be able to take criticism and suggestions and to deal with facing how others perceive us—including the police. Also, when I put out the call for art I simply asked for people to respond to the topic “police and policing.” Not police brutality or misconduct or the killings of civilians—just art about police. This leaves room for an open discussion about the role they play in our community and I don’t think there is anything reckless or not helpful about that.
I know that you also work on the policy side of this issue to some extent, with activists who are fighting police brutality along that route. How would you say this work dovetails with those efforts?
We just launched masspolicereform.org, which is a website detailing comprehensive efforts for police reform at the city, state, and federal level, and we will have information on hand at the event for people to take home and learn about relevant legislation and other policy goals. While it is essential to get information out, art is always a great way to get people together, to start a conversation, to grab someone’s attention so that certainly supports the work too.
What is the least recognized reality of police violence in Greater Boston, and how does this show—and your events and work in general—aim to address that?
I think the lack of awareness in general. Another site we just revamped is Shot By Police Boston & Beyond (shotbypolice.blackstonian.org), which has 40 records of incidents going back to 1972, and we know this figure to be incomplete. One of the biggest challenges is getting accurate data since the BPD is often reluctant to produce it or simply refuses to collect it, yet when taken together there is still a wealth of information that contradicts the rosy picture that is often painted about policing in Boston. The most recent killing of Terrence Coleman, a Black man suffering from mental illness who was shot by police who claim he had a weapon, an allegation that is contradicted by the victim’s mother, shares far too many commonalities with previous incidents not to raise questions about systemic problems going unaddressed.
You’re having this event at Make Shift Boston, which is a progressive space by many measures. But how open are most places around here to having events like this?
There’s a lot of pretty rad spaces in the city but if anyone would want to host an event or sticker making party hit me up! We always need more. Make Shift is great and it is great they moved in when Lucy Parsons Center moved to JP (another place that has hosted us before).
Can you tell us a little bit more about the kind of artwork that people will be bringing to the table?
The show is incredibly diverse. We have comics, drawing, painting, graffiti, printmaking, photography, video, maybe some fiber arts. It’s going to be all over the place. The artists represent the intersection of the Boston graf scene, comics, and art and activism. The event will also feature a live art wall, sticker making where attendees can print and take home their own stickers, and live music from DJ Bobby Bangers.
I know there are a lot of notable artists coming. Who are some, maybe who are coming in from out of town, who have been especially influential in the protest space?
As I mentioned it is awesome to have Ernie Paniccioli contribute a piece, especially one that is political, not hip-hop history since that is a side of his work that is sometimes overlooked. We also have GieRodz representing New York comics and graf. Locally, Kwest, Biz20, Tony Diaz, Merk and Tense One are some of Boston’s finest with the cans.
With a brutal election behind the people of Boston, do you see this winter and coming year as a prime time to push issues related to police accountability?
The election definitely sucked a lot of air out of the room so I certainly hope we can get back to more substantive and specific issues. I know we are gearing up to push forward on a number of fronts, including police decertification. Massachusetts along with California, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Rhode Island is one of only six states that lacks the authority to revoke a police officer’s license, which is insane considering you can lose your license to do anything else from driving to plumbing.
Check out the Against the Wall group art show and sticker-making party at Make Shift Boston this Friday, Nov. 11 from 6-10pm. Find Against the Wall on Facebook for more info.