Reflections on the Capitol Insurrection

*This was originally a newsletter that I sent out to our Chalk Riot list, but I am posting here at the request of several people. This is why it’s written as a letter.

January 8, 2020

Good morning,

I couldn’t sleep and it’s 5am. The District is quiet, I’ve made my morning tea, I can hear the birds, and soon I’ll hear the goofy rumbles of animals at the National Zoo at sunrise. In times of crisis, for me, it helps to re-center by turning to routine and familiar sights, sounds and smells.

This has been a difficult year and I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe. My original intent was to send a yearly update of recent proud accomplishments, but that can wait. Because of the uniqueness of 2020, it is hard to put into perspective the work of Chalk Riot. And now, the events of January 6th have me angry and heartbroken.

SIDEWALK CHALK ON THE CAPITOL GROUNDS

Two years ago, I ventured into the streets of D.C. with chalk in hand to continue our annual tradition of drawing candy hearts with cheeky messages for Valentine’s Day. I started to outline the image in sidewalk chalk when suddenly, two Capitol police officers stopped me. I complied, and explained I thought it was permissible to chalk in a public park. They called for back-up and I was detained.

Five Capitol Police officers surrounded me as they grilled me with questions, searched my bags and ran my record. I offered to wash off what I had already chalked with some drinking water, but they told me I was going to be arrested for vandalizing federal property no matter what. When they finally confirmed with the Office of the Architect of the Capitol that sidewalk chalk was indeed washable, they let me go with a warning and I learned my lesson about public property sometimes being federal property in this area of D.C. I figured it was the norm around those parts.

Shaken and angry, though, I went home thinking about how the situation could have resulted in an arrest, an injury or death had my skin been a different color. What if it was another member of our team that isn’t white?

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INSURRECTION CHAOS ON THE CAPITOL GROUNDS

Two days ago, the Capitol Police (the same police force that was overly concerned with my washable chalk hearts) allowed the breaking, entering, vandalism and looting of arguably the most important building of our democracy. There are infinite stories from locals and visitors alike describing how out of character their actions (or lack thereof) are when compared with people on a jog, taking photos, or riding their bike near the Capitol steps any other day. Non-violent peaceful activists have been arrested en masse and treated with significantly more violence and repercussions in that same area countless times prior. Jane Fonda recently made it like, three steps up the Capitol steps until she was arrested by several officers. However, the stark racism and allyship with white people is nothing new for any police force. In addition to the many aspects of white supremacy that continue to be upheld by our country since its inception, Wednesday’s actions are the result of omnipresent violent racism that has been celebrated and encouraged by this administration and its supporters.

THIS IS WHY WE CREATE

Chalk Riot is built on the foundations of collaborative community art and responses to social and political events. Our very name pays homage to the suffragists who used chalk to display their messages of resistance and organizing; to Keith Haring who used chalk to create art about AIDS and capitalism; and to Pussy Riot, who continues to use art to fight back against their country’s oppressive government.

Throughout spring and summer of the pandemic, sidewalk chalk sold out everywhere, because thousands of people newly recognized it as a brilliant tool to meet and communicate with their neighbors. It continues to be used in marking messages of protest to police brutality, not to mention the abundance of roadway art messages in support of Black lives. And throughout the presidential and Georgia run-off elections, chalk artists around the nation created works at ballot boxes, polling places and public arenas to help get out the vote in this pivotal time.

CHELSEA, THIS IS GETTING LONG…

Ah, I know!! So the point of my letter is this: if you don’t know what else to do right now, create something. One of the first things fascism does in its climb to power is restrict access and funding to the arts, criminalize the creation of art, and enforce strict laws around what styles of art are permissible. This is both a historical pattern and actively happening. So resist — and create!

Exercise your freedom to do so and put it on public display. If you can’t create outside, hang your art in a window! Tape it to a light pole! Draw on a blank shipping label and slap it up somewhere! You will inspire others. The strongest social movements lead with art. Telling our truths is one of the most radical things we can do in a government that willfully lies every day.

For everyone who doesn’t live in D.C. or who has never visited: a reminder that there’s more than Capitol Hill, the White House and all other federal buildings here. Amongst many other glorious elements, there’s a thriving, abundant art scene that is honest, collaborative and rooted in community. We’ll keep sharing stories with our art, no matter how many Trump supporters come through.

The safety of public space and the freedom to create within it is integral to the mental, economic, social and environmental health of this country. We owe the Arts our lives in this pandemic, and we always owe our lives more art. The show must go on. I can’t wait to see what you make!

With love,

Chelsea Ritter-Soronen

If you’re looking for ideas of how to get creative, I recommend the following resources (and will keep adding) :

Chalk Art Activism Toolkit by Chalk Riot
Art Classes Online with Mural Arts Philadelphia
NPR Art Project Ideas for Quarantine

Chalk Riot // Muralist // Public Arts Organizer // Certified Wine Nerd // proudly wasting money on plane tickets and art supplies since 2004

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Chelsea Ritter-Soronen

Chalk Riot // Muralist // Public Arts Organizer // Certified Wine Nerd // proudly wasting money on plane tickets and art supplies since 2004