latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
We do not protest to defy the tyrant, but to salute those who confront him in other geographies and calendars. To defy him, we construct, to defy him, we create, to defy him, we imagine, to defy him, we grow and multiply. - Zapatistas, Crack in the Wall: First Note on Zapatista Method (in Galeano, 2016: 162)
alking up to the Providence Community Acupuncture building in Rhode Island, you will see a two-story mural on a wall depicting two brown women staring at one another. Their faces are larger than life and highly stylized. Burrowed in the earth, they burst through concrete border walls that recede on either side. Flowers and trees grow from the crowns of their heads. Roots radiate from their hair. They intertwine with one another before diving into the surrounding soil, whose vastness covers most of the lower two thirds of the mural. Plants native to Palestine and Guatemala sprout from hundreds of star-like seeds in the soil. The Palestinian sunbird and the Mayan quetzal nestle in the women’s silhouettes.
Artist Jess X. Snow and I created the mural, “The Revolution Starts in the Earth, with the Self,” in the summer of 2019. The mural references Toni Cade Bambara’s (1970: 109-110) challenge to activists and revolutionaries in The Black Woman Anthology: “Revolution begins with the self, in the self…If your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order. The Revolution ain’t out there. Yet. But it is right here. Should be.” Bambara reminded activists to value internal transformation to sustain revolutionary action. We painted complex root systems through which plants communicate and keep each other alive as a model for the type of internal political work that Bambara urged activists to undertake. We hoped that mutually supportive networks found in nature could resonate with the reciprocal care webs amongst people that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018: 33) has counseled could replace ideas of care work from an individual chore to “a collective responsibility that’s maybe even deeply joyful?” Designed to be seen by community members seeking affordable care and body work through acupuncture, we depicted the earth beneath border walls as a generative place from which to sprout local care webs and global solidarity.
Painting the mural in Providence was an act of memory-keeping and place-making for both of us. Snow and I returned to the city where we began thinking about international solidarity and care work while students at Brown and RISD from 2008-2013. By transforming a previously blank wall on the community acupuncture building into a mural, we painted memories of international solidarity political activism in Providence a decade earlier. In 2009, building on decades of international solidarity mobilizations, activists in Providence began constructing mock border walls across Brown University to disrupt the ease of movement on campus. Activists were part of broader efforts throughout the United States to erect mock walls throughout cities and universities, depicting Palestine on one side and Mexico on the other. Local organizers mobilized to stop the 2008-2009 Israeli siege of Gaza, while others fought against increasing migrant deportations carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In the past decade, there have been remarkable coalition efforts to link the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid to communities of color in cities in the United States. By campaigning to abolish police exchange programs, municipal military contracts, and border wall construction, organizers have produced innovative analyses of joint liberation that emphasized how the strategies of dispossession and accumulation that they faced in the United States were not just similar to those in Palestine-they were interwoven. By identifying local examples of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2022: 380) calls carceral geographies, “that signify regional accumulation strategies and upheavals, immensities and fragmentations that reconstitute space-time…to run another round of accumulation,” activists charted their own abolition geographies- “the antagonistic contradiction of carceral geographies [that] form[s] an interlocking pattern across the terrain of racial capitalism.” By painting earlier coalitional networks, we drew meaning and method from the past while transforming the present landscape.
Our plans for the mural began in the winter of 2019. Snow, a public artist who believed that academic scholarship should be seen and engaged with on streets, asked me how the dissertation I was writing would look as a single image. My dissertation, Veins of Repression: US and Israeli Counterinsurgency in the Americas, chronicled a global network of policing tactics, drone technology, and agricultural enclosure between Israel, the United States, Guatemala, and Nicaragua from the second half of the twentieth century through the end of the Obama presidency. Developed with and inspired by Palestine solidarity and immigrant Indigenous rights movements over the past decade, I (2022) tracked how states and companies exchanged drones, policing tactics, and security technologies that were used against Palestinians, Indigenous people in Central America, and communities of color in the United States. We wanted to suture the split that can occur in academia between scholarship and activism. Before painting, Snow and I discussed the possibilities and pitfalls of transforming an academic dissertation that followed violence and death across disparate geographies into a public mural. To what extent would the single image simplify or erase the dangers that those doing solidarity work confronted when living and creating in spite of the violence enacted by carceral geographies? Would creating symbols of ecological resistance pale in comparison to daily struggles for food sovereignty and access to sufficient land in Providence, Palestine, and Central America? Would a political message of abolition and solidarity be lost in the aesthetic of the mural?
We asked two long-time friends of mine, a Guatemalan and Palestinian woman, who had been involved in migrant Indigenous justice and Palestinian solidarity work over the past decade, for their permission to paint their faces bursting from the earth and surrounded by plant life. Their lives were interconnected through legacies of US and Israeli military and agricultural aid to Guatemala. Beginning in the late 1970s, Israeli agricultural advisors helped the Guatemalan military to build model villages in the predominantly Indigenous highlands (Black, 1984). The Guatemalan state displaced Indigenous people from their homes and forced them to live in these highly-surveilled villages, enabling the military to carry out a devastating counterinsurgency campaign and genocide (1960-1996), which killed 200,000 people. While imperial forces had tied their histories together, it did not define their shared futures.
While painting with community members in Providence, we followed Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s (2022: 475) assertion that an abolitionist critique, “identif[ied] central contradictions in regimes of dispossession, but also, urgently, show[ed] how radical consciousness, in action resolves into liberated life-ways, however provisional present and past.” Together over the course of a single summer month, we painted what we might hear if we listened softly to the earth’s own techniques of communal care, those that persist in abolition geographies despite repressive forces.
The top third of the mural is taken up by giant border walls. As Harsha Walia (2021: 2) argues, borders constitute a spatial and material power structure, “both assembling and assembled through racial-capitalist accumulation and colonial relations.” At borders across disparate geographies, states and private companies collaborate to restrict mobility, militarize space, surveil life, and kill with relative impunity. In the mural, one of the most well-known border examples for Americans, the US-Mexico Wall frames the upper left side. Underneath a golden-orange skyline, the Israel/Palestine Wall buttresses the right side. Despite their distance, both walls were partially built by the Israeli surveillance and security giant, Elbit Systems. In 2006, Elbit won a subcontract to create surveillance towers along the US/Mexico border. The corporation partially won the contract by pointing to their previous construction of the Israel/Palestine wall in 2002 as a model.
In painting the mural, we shrank the size of the walls to emphasize that shared carceral geographies were not the sole source of solidarity between Guatemala and Palestine. Instead, we researched liberated ecosystems of plant life propagating in the soil below in both locations. Returning to the mural, we painted Palestinian olive and carob trees and Sonoran cacti growing from cracks in the border walls. We sought to represent how communities of color across disparate geographies mobilized to create what Nik Heynen and Megan Ybarra (2021: 722) have called an abolition ecology. Heynan and Ybarra (2021: 27) define this as a demand for political struggles and institutions “explicitly focused on the political ecological imperatives of access to fresh air, clean water, sufficient land, amelioration of toxic land and beyond.”
Observers can see on the left side of the mural flowers from Sonoran cacti sprouting from the face of a Guatemalan woman. An olive tree creates a home in the silhouette of the Palestinian woman on the right, while wild za’atar (a Palestinian herb mixture that is central to many Palestinian kitchens) is scattered by its roots. Olive trees and za’atar are symbols of Palestinian resistance and culture. As Rabea Eghbariah (2017) and Lila Sharif (2014) have explained, Palestinian farmers have continued foraging for za’atar from their olive trees in the face of Israeli military violence. Observers can see on the right side of the mural a carob tree erupting from the head of the Palestinian woman. According to Linda Quiquivix (2013), Palestinians used carob trees the boundaries of their land prior to the introduction of Zionist map-making.
For us as artists, depicting the olive and carob tree’s growth over border walls prioritized Indigenous people’s everyday practices of self-determined place-making through their engagement with the earth itself. In the mural, the root systems beneath these trees blend into a soil that is as dark as outer space. Seeds became stars, and the stars form constellations between the two women. They direct passersby to envision “freedom as a place” (Gilmore, 2022: 474). This freedom is made through active engagement with the earth.
As Snow taught me, solidarity exists beyond the collective mural-making process, and it does not cease with completion of the art itself. While painting, we discussed how our own lives and family histories connected to political struggles far away from the wall where we stood. Through scorching July days, artists, community members, and activists from various diasporas came to help paint or offer food and water. The community acupuncture center offered free care work to volunteers. The Guatemalan woman depicted in the mural herself arrived to help paint one of the Sonoran cacti flowering from her face.
The collective experience of painting “The Revolution Starts in the Earth with the Self” exemplified the ways in which dynamic relationships of care between individuals are essential to sustainable solidarity movements across the borders. Where there had once been a blank wall, now stood a testament to activist networks that stretched from Providence to Palestine and Guatemala.
Bambara T (2005) On the issue of roles. In: Bambara T (ed.) The Black Woman: An Anthology. New York: Washington Square Press, pp. 101-110.
Black G (1984) Garrison Guatemala. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Cutipa-Zorn G (2022) Veins of Repression: US and Israeli Counterinsurgency in the Americas. Yale University: Dissertation.
Eghbariah R (2017) The Struggle for Akkoub and Za’atar: On edible plants in Palestinian cuisine and Israeli plant protection laws. In: Tirosh and Gross. (eds.) Studies in Food and Law. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, pp. 106-121. [Hebrew].
Galeano S (2016) The crack in the wall: Notes on Zapatista method. In Sixth Commission of the EZLN (eds) Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra I: Contributions by the Sixth Commission of the EZLN. Durham: Paperboat Press, pp. 155-178.
Gilmore RW (2022) Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation. New York, Verso Books.
Heynen, N and M Ybarra (2021) On abolition ecologies and making “freedom as a place”. Antipode, 53(1): 21-35.
Piepzna-Samarasinha LL (2018) Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Quiquivix L (2013) When the carob tree was the border: On autonomy and Palestinian practices of figuring it out. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 24(3): 170-189.
Sharif L (2014) Savory Politics: Land, Memory, and the Ecological Occupation of Palestine. UCSD: Dissertation.
Walia H (2021) Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. New York: Haymarket Books.
Gavriel Cutipa-Zorn is a Philadelphia-based writer and scholar. He received his PhD from Yale University in American Studies. His research and writing engage histories of surveillance technologies and agribusiness throughout the twentieth century.