Street art is a tool for activists in the era of Trump and social distancing.
By April M. Short
“Defund the wall—fund our future.” This is the message painted in giant yellow letters as a street mural that fills the entire block’s worth of asphalt in front of the federal courthouse in Laredo, Texas.
Laredo is a city of about 260,000 residents that sits along the north bank of the Rio Grande. The river marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and early efforts to move forward on the Trump administration’s proposed border wall project have already begun to negatively impact life for residents of the city, many of whom have relatives and friends who live just across the border in Mexico.
Melissa Cigarroa has lived in Laredo since 1993 and is board president of the Rio Grande International Study Center, which seeks to preserve the river’s water and its surrounding environment. Cigarroa was present at the protest in front of the federal courthouse where the street mural was painted and says she has also been involved with several other local protests against the border wall. Concerned about the prevalence of misinformation on the border wall situation (much of which comes from President Trump), she strives to make sure her community is aware of the facts.
“It’s just an idea of standing up for what’s right,” Cigarroa says. “The wall is a lie. It’s based on a lie. It won’t solve the problems that they say it will solve. The whole promotion of it is this gross, capricious promise that was just a [campaign] line—and then a bunch of racist people started promoting it. It’s just so deeply disturbing.”
On July 14, the U.S. Office of Inspector General released a report detailing the shortcomings of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in its analysis and acquisition process of the southern border for the “Wall Acquisition Program.”
Cigarroa says the wall project threatens the health of the Rio Grande’s ecosystems and greenery—and could significantly worsen flooding that is already an issue in the region. Removing trees and plant life surrounding the river, as is the proposed plan, also threatens the health of the river’s drinking water, which is the city’s only drinking water source, and doing so could lead to increased pollution.
A lawsuit filed by landowners in Zapata County—where Laredo is located—on July 6 claims that the wall project is also racist. The lawsuit has been filed against President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the CBP. Cigarroa, a Laredo landowner in neighboring Webb County, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit’s complaint against the border wall is 51 pages long and alleges that the project is rooted in little more than racism and politics. It cites the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to due process and equal protection to any person in the United States. And, it quotes the president’s own comments as evidence against the project’s legality.
The lawsuit’s introduction alleges that the DHS and the CBP under President Trump’s direction “are engaged in a full-on assault against the people who reside in Zapata County and Webb County, Texas.… The people of Zapata County and Webb County, who are overwhelmingly Mexican American, are the targets of an animus that demonizes immigrants, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people who live on the border.”
The South Texas lawsuit is one among a number of lawsuits that have been filed against the wall, including a lawsuit filed by 19 U.S. states in March, and another filed by the ACLU, Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition asking the Supreme Court to block construction of the border wall. An appeals court ruled against the continued constructionof the wall on October 10.
Laredo residents have been largely opposed to the wall project from the beginning, as has the Laredo City Council, which voted in favor of the “Defund the Wall” mural on July 27.
City residents organized by a coalition of anti-border wall groups, including LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), painted the enormous street mural across Victoria Street on August 15. A newly formed group that is part of the coalition, Veterans United to Stop the Border Wall, did maintenance on the mural on September 12, derailing a “Trump Train” car rally (which Cigarroa says was made up mostly of out-of-towners who came to Laredo to drive over the mural). Residents of the city have been organizing against the border wall for months. The street mural was a way for residents, many of whom have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, to collaborate while remaining socially distanced.
The Trump administration’s border wall will cost Americans dearly—and those costs reach far beyond the hefty $5 billion price tag the project carries. The beginning stages of the border wall are already proving to cause serious environmental and cultural damage for U.S. communities. Laura Parker’s article in National Geographic in 2019 outlined six potential environmental threats of the border wall. Work crews in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, for instance, have been destroying protected Saguaro cactus plants that are sacred to the Indigenous cultures of the region. It is a felony offense to cut down the cacti, which can live for more than 200 years, but the work crews have barreled through protected zones nonetheless. As the New York Times reported in February, Native American leaders in the area say the fast-tracked border wall project poses a range of environmental and archaeological threats.
In Laredo, residents are concerned not only over the racist motivations of the wall project but also about the threat the wall poses to the Rio Grande, their only drinking water source, as well as the beloved local wildlife trail systems and parks that run along the river.
Cigarroa says the current plans for the wall project include removing all vegetation surrounding the river for the length of half a football field to create a security enforcement zone. She is concerned that the river’s ecosystems—already among the top ten most endangered rivers in the world—will become further polluted if the wall construction is allowed to continue, and since the river is her community’s only drinking water source, that is a serious concern for humans as well as the river’s plant and animal ecosystems. She also says the community would lose some of its most cherished outdoor spaces. And on top of that, she says, the wall would damage the local culture.
“Putting a wall in does a couple of things,” she says. “Physically, it destroys the land, and you lose access to that land… Then there’s [the fact that] we have this deep connection with Mexico because our heritage is Mexican. My grandmothers came over through the river and then married Tejanos who had been here since before the United States was the United States. [The wall is] a symbol of racism and hate against our ancestry—and so many Laredo families have a deep connection to Mexico… our identity is a bicultural bilingual identity, and it would be a slap in the face and an insult to all of that.”
The Outpouring of Anti-Trump Artwork
The street mural in Laredo is far from alone when it comes to public art that stands against Trump and his administration’s many degrading actions. Art has always been a tool of political activists, and the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic have inspired some particularly memorable works of public art.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, a mural on the side of a restaurant in Lithuania showing Trump kissing Russian President Vladimir Putin went viral. Around the same time, a mural painted on the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, depicting Trump with a ball-gag wedged in his mouth and the words “!RAPE TRUMP!” became a tourist attraction. Who could forget the day in 2016 when numerous naked Trump statues, sculpted by the horror artist Ginger, appeared overnight in Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle for the project known as “The Emperor Has No Balls.”
Both the Tijuana mural and the naked Trump sculptures were executed by the anonymous political activism artist collective Indecline. The group is also responsible for transforming a Trump Tower luxury hotel suite into a prison cell for the president, complete with live rats, in 2018, as the Russia investigation—which the U.S. Justice Department never fully examined—was ongoing.
Indecline, which began as a group of “punk kids” in Southern California looking for an outlet during the Bush administration years, has grown into a national collective of artists whose work makes headlines around the world regularly—especially since the Trump statues project.
“The best thing to do, for us, has always been to find a way to therapeutically make the best of these situations through activist art,” said a founder of Indecline who spoke anonymously with the Independent Media Institute.
The idea behind Indecline, he says, is to use art to shock people into paying attention to the things they care about, but often feel too depressing to look at.
“This has been around forever… Since the first time some asshole came in and pulled some oppressive move on a community, resistance art has been there,” he says. “Activist art or street art has ways of reaching people at an emotional level that more traditional forms of protest can’t.”
Indecline’s mission, per se, is to get people into a dialogue around the hard things to look at and invite them to look from new angles.
“We break so many laws in the quest to create our art, and that in and of itself has always been a touchpoint for us with the general public,” he says. “[We’re asking people to think about] why they care more about the billboard that we put a sticker on to address school shootings, rather than the school shootings themselves… When people are choosing property over people, for us that [indicates] a clear need to readjust, recalibrate your moral compass.”
The need to break laws in the name of civil disobedience and public awareness is a running theme throughout Indecline’s new 40-minute documentary “The Art of Protest,” which is distributed by Zero Cool films and premiered on the Rolling Stone website. Elisabeth Garber-Paul, who previewed the film in detail for Rolling Stone, writes:
“Indecline teamed up with Saving Banksy director Colin M. Day to turn that footage—as well as footage of their numerous installations since, from prison rooms fabricated in Trump hotels to walking a pack of leashed MAGA supporters—to illustrate the importance of art and satire in the movement for social change.”
Rather than continuing to focus their efforts primarily in places that already have fairly progressive populations, Indecline is working to bring more art projects to places like the South, where they expect most Americans will not offer them as warm a reception as they’ve received in places like New York and the West Coast.
“We’re trying to think of how we can go to Arkansas, for example, and do something that really wakes that community up,” he says. The goal, he says, is not just for the sake of shocking people but rather “to try to engage with the small pockets in that community that wished they had a platform or some resources to make more noise in their community—rather than feeling like they’re going to get shot for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to Walmart.”
He says even if Trump loses to Biden in the upcoming election, there will be just as much need for community activism and public art: “A lot of things that we have to look at in the wake of a Trump presidency were always around beforehand—even though he’s exacerbated them,” he says.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.