On Christmas Eve, artists took their a public art intervention, #JailBedDrop to the streets of Los Angeles. Members of the Green Corn Collective, “A Constellation of Indigenous Feminist Bosses,” created one of the installations in this “artivism” action initiated by JusticeLA.
The Green Corn Collective artists decorated a steel-frame jail bed which they placed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Collective member and Mvskoke artist Kimberly Dawn Robertson wrote on her website, “Native peoples were sold as slaves on Temple Street well into the 1850s. Native peoples have been under surveillance and suppression of the settler state for over 500 years. Enough already.”
In roughly three weeks, artists Michelle Bernardino, Gem Labarta (Navajo), Tawny Ruiz (Navajo), Xochitl Villa, Kimberly Robertson (Mvskoke) and Jenell Navarro (Cherokee descent) designed and created the bed. Jennifer Varenchik (Tohono O’odham) documented the process.
Justice L.A. is a coalition of more than forty activist organizations. In September 2017, JusticeLA placed one hundred steel-frame jail beds outside the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration to protest the expansion of a prison. The Christmas Day action involved placing over fifty decorated jail beds at several locations across Los Angeles. These beds highlighted, among other things, the high rate of incarceration of people with mental illness, people who are homeless, and people of color, especially African-Americans and Native Americans. Organizers said they chose Christmas for the action to remind people how many of their fellow citizens spend the holidays incarcerated.
“To our knowledge, this is the only bed that specifically focused on the theme of Indigeneity and Mass Incarceration Since 1492,” said the collective in a group interview. “We did, however, notice that another bed that contained a ‘zine library’ had a zine dedicated to Leonard Peltier.”
Robertson described the Indigenous artists’ bed on her website:
“The bunk was beaded in the four directions colors plus turquoise (and a white line of beads to make sure our spirits and thoughts always have a safe and sacred way out of the artwork) to provide medicine for the centuries of imprisonment of our people. The top bunk was dedicated to our incarcerated brothers and the bottom was dedicated to our incarcerated (as well as our womyn relatives who identify as brothers and men who identify as sisters). We included abalone for our California Indian relatives and a shawl that wraps everyone in love and protection.”
Like most of the jail beds involved in the action, the indigenous artists’ bed was removed almost immediately, but the memory of it most likely remains in the minds of those who witnessed it.
“Perhaps one of the most impactful instances was when we first arrived [at]the location where all the jail beds were housed in,” said the collective. “There was something about seeing them all together that provided a stark reminder that slavery and genocide on stolen land, in this case, Tongva, never ended (and is still present throughout the settler colonial US) and present as mass incarceration.”
They said the collaborative nature of the bed’s decoration was also powerful.
“We met in the designated location, alongside other community artivists working on their respective beds, and spent many hours creating the string of beads for each color of the four directions and then wrapped around the bedposts. At first, it seemed to take a little longer to complete the posts. Some beads would fall out here and there, but after figuring out a way which required two persons, the beading of the posts sped up, and in between counting beads, sharing of stories came about. This is one of the aspects we appreciate most throughout the creation of this project,” they said. “It was empowering and inspiring to see our individual ideas for the project to merge, evolve, and blend together in collaboration.
The collective also created a zine with images, poetry, statistics, and other information to accompany the action, which can be downloaded here for free.