After months of planning and rallying (and anxiety on my part), Sticks & Stones took place last night. The social art happening consisted of people, standing in the street as silent "statues" holding posters of comments collected from MLive articles over the last year. The sentiments from these comments were largely about Ypsilanti, its inhabitants, youth and activity here, many of them stereotypes, hateful and hurtful in nature.
For the first 30 minutes, participants stood in line at MarketPlace Square* and didn't speak to pedestrians. Viewers started to gather and read the posters, one by one. A number of people came up to me visibly moved and upset by the comments. They couldn't believe they were real. The combined impact of seeing them all together brought tears to people's eyes.
Following the silent portion of the event, we asked people to answer 3 questions:
1. What is your first memory of being discriminated against?
2. Have you ever been the perpetrator of intolerance/hate and how do you feel about it now?
3. What real action can you take from this point to drive positive change?
People took to social media, standing with one another, taking photos, streaming video, meeting new friends. Using the hashtag #sticksandstones, we shared content which will be collected and shown at our studio next month during First Fridays Ypsi, September 2nd. It was positive and wonderful and powerful. (You can continue to use the hashtag #sticksandstones and be part of the show too!)
As we look back on the event and view these photos, we see the diverse support we had last night, in race, ethnicity, age, experience, and we are moved by their belief in our vision to stand up to hate.
Ironically, the media attention we received drove even more hateful commentary, which we find amusing and helpful. The same people who hated on the event and called us "mershmallow soft" (their spelling, not mine), cited Clint Eastwood's phrase to "get over it", also took the time to listen to the radio interview, find social media comments and cite them when writing more comments, and read the article which resulted in online arguments. What I've come to realize is that while I try to listen to political figures who I will not vote for, or read comments from those I don't agree with, our event hit a nerve. (At the time of publishing this blog post, there were 154 comments on the MLive article).
Here are facts as I know them:
• When Clint Eastwood was growing up, there was no internet. Kids and adults didn't cyber-bully and humiliate one another publicly, resulting in deaths and suicides.
• Words have power. They are the seed of dialogue, conflict, resolve, debate, argument. Its visibility and ease of consumption on social media is a root for sensationalizing violence in our country.
• From a little online research, the commenters from our piece have likely not dealt with the racist, classist, elitist, discriminatory words they're doling out. And lastly, most of them would not make those comments in a public forum.
• The joke is funny until it's about you.
Ypsilanti is a rich community. It is filled with some of the most talented and generous people I have ever met. The educators, business owners, parents, children, senior citizens, and civic leaders I've spoken to over the last couple years have given us confidence that we are on the right path. I owned and lived in a home in Ypsilanti 15 years ago and witnessing the continued evolution of this city is phenomenal.
Nick and I have different stances on seeing the obliteration of comments on articles. While they make me ill to read sometimes, I don't think they need to be removed. I recognize it's the same commenters over and over again, who are unable to find the silver lining in anything that is not serving their own needs.
These events which cost money and time and energy to produce are more meaningful than any comment they could ever make from the security of their couch. We create the news, they just consume it.
*We applied and were approved for a street closure with the City. (Our production of this event also required additional insurance coverage, fee and deposit). Although the barricades didn't show up until later than we anticipated, our artist participants were generous with their time and posed for photos in the street beyond the first 30 minutes. For this, we are so grateful to each and every one of you. A very special "thank you" goes to Mayor Amanda Edmonds for her swift response and the Ypsilanti Police Department for their service and smile.