96 Acres and Project NIA: Building an anti-incarceration infrastructure

Bert Stabler  |  Bert Stabler is a Renaissance man occupying the prairie. www.bertstabler.com


I spent ten years teaching art full-time on Chicago’s southeast side, at James H. Bowen High School.  One of the highlights of my teaching was the opportunity to work with artist and legislative prison activist Laurie Jo Reynolds. At Laurie Jo’s suggestion, my students created embroidered patches for orange prison jumpsuits, to be worn by activists with her group, Tamms Year Ten, at a rally on the first day of the spring 2010 perjury trial of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, under whose administration over 100 young African-American men were tortured and wrongfully imprisoned. During the course of this project, one of my students discovered that Burge had actually attended Bowen as a high school student, which helped to bring home the significance of letting students know about the violent history of white flight and terrorist policing in their neighborhood.  In spring 2013, during my last year as a teacher at Bowen, my students and I worked with the group Project NIA in creating work for a pop-up art show about police violence. Now in graduate school, I’m writing a great deal about Laurie Jo Reynolds’ ever-evolving practice. Here, however, I want to focus on two highly impressive projects creating art, education, and action around the policing and incarceration of young people of color from Chicago’s apartheid low-income neighborhoods.

Co-initiated by Chicago artist Maria Gaspar, 96 Acres describes itself as a “series of community-engaged, site-responsive art projects.” The organization’s name comes from the area taken up by the massive Cook County Jail, smack in the middle of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, the west side community where 96 Acres is based. The artists and community members involved with the organization document and think through the experiences of neighborhood residents living in the shadow of the jail, as well as the Cook County Criminal Courts. The organization does work in schools as well, collaborating with young people who interact with these authorities directly or indirectly, in regard to friends, family, and loved ones.

In October 2014, 96 Acres helped to put on “The Visibility Project,” an “intergenerational community performance and art-based action” that took place outside the jail and featured poetry readings, live theater, and kite-flying. Also last fall, local artist Bianca Diaz created a comic book addressing the experience of having an incarcerated family member, entitled “The Princess Who Went Quiet,” in cooperation with Project NIA. Also, working with Yollocalli Arts Reach and artist Rob Castaneda, young people power-washed “reverse graffiti” stencils on to the walls of the jail and neighboring sidewalks with phrases that kids came up with, such as “Today Is Your Day,” and “This Is Not A Rehearsal.”  Currently, 96 Acres is working on the final stages of a portrait project, in which artists William Estrada, Anthony Marcos Rea, and Erica Brooks documented the faces, drawings, and stories of individuals coming in and out of the Cook County Jail.

This summer and fall, 96 Acres will be working with the Jane Addams Hull House on events at the site of the jail, and an exhibit at the Hull House. There will be an animated projection entitled “Letters Home Project,” in which artist and art teacher Claudia Rangel worked with her former student Hector Duarte in order to tell a story about the letters between an imprisoned man and his daughter, and a performance event led by Landon Brown in response to the concert B.B. King put on in the jail in the early 1970s.  As a piece called “Who Is Response(Able),” Regin Igloria is distributing a series of books to local libraries that contain prompts and questions that engage perceptions of incarceration, and Damon Reed will be doing a painted installation on the jail wall entitled “Making Corrections.” To go along with the exhibit, Gaspar, along with Silvia I. Gonzalez and Paulina Camacho, will be putting together events, a symposium, and an extensive education initiative, partnering with a number of schools, teachers, and re-entry programs to discuss incarceration, race, policing, and discipline.

Beginning her activist career with anti-racist work as a teenager in New York City, Chicago youth organizer Mariame Kaba has been involved in youth organizing around issues of racial injustice in Chicago for over twenty years.  Recently she helped to found We Charge Genocide, a youth-driven movement to expose racialized police violence, and Project NIA, a group working to oppose youth incarceration, and with whom my classroom worked in 2013. Kaba also has worked hard to promote an ordinance to provide reparations to the many survivors of torture inflicted by Chicago police officers and in Chicago Police Department facilities, and this ordinance will be receiving a hearing before the city council on April 16. 

While it has engaged with art and artists, the primary outlets of Project NIA are education and advocacy, with the long-term goal of ending youth incarceration. 

Describing the nationwide organizing against state violence that originated in Ferguson and has come to be known as #Blacklivesmatter, Kaba made the following analysis:

I think you’ll see that in the spaces where the actions and uprisings and protests are more sustained are the places where people have been doing work for a long time already. So there exists an infrastructure that can absorb the new energy and the passions of new people who are really activated to these issues of state violence.

I would argue that this is an important insight regarding what makes working on criminal justice issues with young people, especially low-income youth of color, so important. Of course this is the demographic that is most targeted by police, and most overrepresented nationwide in terms of arrests, and so discussions of racist practices and institutions can impart practical knowledge and coping techniques that young people can disseminate among themselves. But these young people can also use their early forays into research and activism as a way to begin planning for their adulthood, when they will hopefully have a greater voice and will be able to help build communities that provide young people with support and protection not offered by the punitive state apparatus.