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The dark silhouette of a dove interrupts the white stone fountain at the center of Dupont Circle. On closer inspection, it’s a piece of cardboard spray-painted red, green, and black and tagged with #BlackLivesMatter. It’s one of more than a thousand ornaments that popped up around the District last Friday.
Nearly a month ago, as the world was waiting for the Ferguson grand jury decision to come out, Omolara Williams McCallister, 24, received a text from her mother in West Hartford, Conn.: “If they don’t indict, I’ll be on the ground tomorrow morning.” “My first thought,” McCallister says, speaking from her home at Mount Pleasant’s Lamont Street Collective, “was ‘Take me with you.’”
A day later, she was chanting in front of Ferguson’s Police Department, the initial protest epicenter. Over the next week, McCallister saw police in riot gear arrest peaceful protestors, approaching in military formations and scattering them with tear gas. At times, she got caught in the melee.
McCallister had gone to Ferguson to make sense of the pain and frustration unfolding before her, but by the time she had to leave, much remained unresolved. “Actually,” she says, “it made a whole hell of a lot less sense.”
Red and green decorations are a Christmas tradition. Add black, and you get the colors of black liberation. Stencil “#BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the front and ziptie them all over the city, and it’s a graffiti-like intervention.
“I go to art first,” says McCallister. As a textile and conceptual artist, her first step in Ferguson was to process her experience with other artists on the ground. As a community arts programmer, her next step was to create a project that could be a first step for others. She thought, “What if I take that tradition of decorating a space for Christmas and turn it on its head?”
“Media is consumed unconsciously by people,” McCallister says, and that informs how they interact with others. Placing the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” in public spaces competes with mainstream messages that dehumanize black and brown people.
Negative perceptions of blackness might manifest in a city’s unwillingness to invest in certain neighborhoods, an individual’s struggle with depression as their worth is questioned in a national conversation, or an officer’s split-second decision to shoot a perceived threat. Police brutality, McCallister says, is just one of many life-threatening symptoms of racism.
Organizers in Ferguson were enthusiastic when McCallister explained her idea for an ornament “art bomb.” Inspired in part by Damon Davis, a St. Louis artist who wheatpasted photos of black people’s hands in the air on Ferguson’s abandoned buildings, and encouraged by St. Louis artists Derek K. Laney and De Andrea Nichols, McCallister found help to create an instructional video and mobilize everyone she knew to mobilize everyone they knew. She named the project #consciousXmas.
McCallister conspired with friend Gerardo Benavides of Silver Spring, who’d bring the art bomb to Baltimore. Leo Senai of Silver Spring helped organize D.C. while others did the same in Salt Lake City, Provo, Philadelphia, Chicago, Jacksonville, and, of course, Ferguson.
People made ornaments at art parties held in churches, classrooms, and private homes. McCallister hoped that these spaces would provide an opportunity for conversations around race that might not otherwise occur; they were more accessible than marches, die-ins, and highway shutdowns. The ornaments confront the public in a different way still. “I’m taking advantage of the energy around this movement to recruit unengaged people in ways that are sustainable for the long term,” she says.
The next phase of #consciousXmas is a “selfie challenge” that asks people to find an ornament, take their photo with it, and post it to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, “and your momma’s fridge” with the tags #SolidariTrees, #consciousXmas, #BlackLivesMatter, #DCFerguson, and the neighborhood where it was found. The challenge is to find five friends to do the same.
Before going to Ferguson, McCallister didn’t have a Twitter handle. Once there, she relied on the social platform to stay connected with other activists. From organizing grassroots protest actions to influencing the news narratives, social media is transforming the landscape of social change-making. McCallister recalls having a conversation with an artist friend about Twitter. He dismissed the use of hashtags as “just being about trends.” “I was like, no,” she says. “Hashtags are creating communities right now on the Internet.”
The ability to tag content also allows people to show a story that’s not offered by major news networks. “Having a strong narrative, being able to control and to tell it, is powerful. And that’s what hashtags are allowing us to do. Hashtags allow us to control media input and media consumption around #BlackLivesMatter.”
McCallister will monitor the #SolidariTrees narrative to gauge the impact of the ornaments online. She’s confident that projects like this are going to become integral to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “Yeah, people can say that art doesn’t matter,” she says. “[But] as an artist, I know that art is generally at the forefront of instigating social change.”
Top photo by Lang Kanai; video by Reese Bland; bottom photo by Erin Jayes