Our Resiliency within Destruction: fronteristxs Artist Collective and the Politics of Protest

fronteristxs art collective

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Caption 1: #FreeThemAll action at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, July 17, 2020. fronteristxs, White Coats for Black and Indigenous LivesPhoto credit: mk (Monica Kennedy)

“We are too close, too close to each other. Breathing the same air. We are trapped.”

-Testimony from migrants in ICE detention1

What is protest when we cannot be with one another?  And what is protest when the US nation-state continues to trap people inside prisons, jails, and detention centers during a global pandemic?

The above epigraph are the words and phrases we hear from migrants in detention and those trapped in the carceral system. Compounded with COVID-19, the conditions that migrants in detention and prisoners in the carceral system live under are deplorable and unacceptable. So how do we provoke systemic change when racism is so deeply entrenched in these systems? 

fronteristxs, a collective of artists and activists in New Mexico, is attempting to answer these very questions through a protest language of collectivity. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprising sparked by George Floyd’s murder have challenged us all to re-think what collectivity means, what it means to be together. fronteristxs has been organizing to end migrant detention and abolish the carceral state, using visual and performance tactics alongside direct action. The poetics of our protest strategy centers on diverse ways of communicating and distributing information within our communities. We don’t just speak one language, we speak many. And through that “many” we continuously bend our strategies of resistance towards a riotous and ungovernable beauty.

With the continued murder of Black and Indigenous people at the hands of the state, we have seen a mass movement of people taking to the streets to demand justice. We are seeing everyday people undertake real risks to their health and safety to demand accountability. We are trying to expand the resistance toolkit for those unable to physically show up to protests––those who might be immunocompromised, essential workers, undocumented, or otherwise vulnerable to carceral systems. We are energized by the long history of those who have harnessed the power of imagery and performance for activism, which includes the protests of the Civil Rights era, the Black Panther Party, the Third World Feminist movement, the Chicano/a movement, the Zapatistas, up to present day organizers in the struggle. 

In July 2020, the fronteristxs launched its #FreeThemAll campaign, a series of art actions that ties into national calls to demand release of detained migrants and incarcerated people. Partnered with a broad coalition of organizations and individuals in the abolition and migrant justice movement, we have staged actions with members to demand that the state “FREE THEM”—sometimes in front of jails and, at other times, outside frontline sites for both the criminal legal and immigration systems. On August 1, a protest intervention directed at a public sculpture was installed at the New Mexico State Capitol building. The sculpture—depicting two groups of children playing tug-of-war—was momentarily disrupted with the installation of a cage around it, reframing it as one group of children pulling the other half out of the cage to FREE THEM. 

Caption 2: #FreeThemAll action at the New Mexico State Capitol, August 1, 2020. fronteristxs, White Coats for Black and Indigenous Lives, and Anonymous, Untitled
Photo credit: Stefan Jennings Batista

fronteristxs has been working with the Prison Divest NM Coalition to demand that the state’s public educational retirement fund divest from private prison corporations. We created a digital billboard for Interstate-40, staged projections of a live vj performance on the former county jail, organized a large banner drop in downtown Albuquerque, and created digital graphics as a form of public education. To reach those who don’t have reliable internet access—too often those impacted most by the carceral system—we post physical fliers in English and Spanish in neighborhoods to connect with folks who may not appear in our existing spheres as dictated by social media algorithms. We’re thrilled to share that the campaign successfully pressured the board voted to divest on October 16th of this year. The NMERB, which manages a $13 billion dollar fund, is the first public pension fund in the Southwest US to divest from private prisons. 

Caption 3: #FreeThemAll action at the New Mexico State Capitol, August 1, 2020. fronteristxs, White Coats for Black and Indigenous Lives, and Anonymous, Untitled
Photo credit: Stefan Jennings Batista

The lives of incarcerated people and workers in these prisons, jails, and detention centers are being put in grave danger. As of October 27, there are 1,702 confirmed cases in the state and federal facilities in New Mexico. Experts believe this is a major underestimate due to testing availability and a lack of transparency. Our recent actions have been organized, necessarily, on the heels of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham mandating the early release of incarcerated people in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, on April 6th, 2020. To date, there have been 143 people released, a number that is far too small to significantly contain the spread of the virus inside facilities. New Mexico’s incarceration rates stand out internationally: New Mexico incarcerates its people at a rate 18.7% higher than the national US rate, which we know is the highest worldwide. Just as racial and ethnic disparities exist at the national level, Black, Native, and Latinx people are overrepresented in New Mexico’s prisons and jails, while whites are underrepresented.2 New Mexico’s long reliance on for-profit prison corporations matters, and the numbers tell a story that is higher than any other state; nearly 43% of the state’s incarcerated people are housed by for-profit companies, compared to the rest of the nation holding 8.5% in private prisons.3 With this painful reality as a backdrop, the #FreeThemAll and #NMERBdivest campaign provides concrete and necessary steps for the public to take immediate action on these issues.

Caption 4: #FreeThemAll Banner Drop in Albuquerque, NM, October 2, 2020.
Photo credit: Martin Wannam

What’s next in this moment of a global pandemic, dismantling white supremacy, fires burning across the country, and a presidency that mocks the millions of people that are behind bars and caught in a racist immigration system? If we’ve learned anything in recent times, it is that systemic change can no longer be deferred. There has never been a better time for the role of artists in the freedom struggle. One of the biggest crises we face, among many, is a crisis of agency. It’s easy to succumb to overwhelming despair when everything seems to be on fire, and yes, no single one of us can do anything significant on our own. Collectively, however, we have enormous power and agency–”we” can only continue to morph, adapt, dissolve, and rebuild. As we know, we must organize for the world we want to see. It’s not only our aesthetic strategies that we are working to expand, but also our relational ones. How do we continue, even through conflict, pain, and disappointment, to define what we mean by “we?” fronteristxs will continue to adopt, adapt, organize, and resist because we believe that is the heartache and necessity of protest.

[1] “COVID-19: The time to #FreeThemAll is now,” video by Detention Watch Network. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSy24JfcAME

[2] https://www.prisonpolicy.org/profiles/NM.html

[3] http://www.sentencingproject.org/2018/08/02/private-prisons-in-the-US


fronteristxs is a collective of artists in New Mexico working with community advocates to end migrant detention and to abolish the carceral state. We believe and fight for a world of liberation for all. We do this through direct art action, coalition building, and grassroots organizing. Our core members are Szu-Han Ho, Bernadine Marie Hernández, Hazel Batrezchavez, and Martin Wannam.

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