Day 6

The politics behind Detroit's push to rid its streets of graffiti

In the wake of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Detroit's abandoned buildings became a canvas for world-class street art. Now, a controversial plan to revitalise the city is putting that at risk. Graffiti artist and community organiser Antonio Cosme is fighting to keep Detroit from getting too cleansed.
A pedestrian walks by graffiti on a downtown street November 20, 2008 in Detroit, Michigan. ((Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images))

Detroit has long been a nationally-recognized haven for street art and now graffiti artists and community activists say that standing is being put at risk by a new development plan.

After Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection in 2013, thousands of homes were abandoned due to foreclosures. Huge pockets of the city were virtually empty, leaving taggers and street artists with miles and miles of open wall.

For a time, street art thrived.

But now Detroit has a new mayor, and he's cracking down on graffiti.

Next week, two young street artists will go on trial for allegedly vandalizing a Detroit water tower with the message "Free the Water."

Antonio Cosme is one of the artists going to trial. He's also a founding member of the Raiz Up Collective, a group of hip-hop artists fighting for social change.

He tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, about the build-up to the incident with the water tower.

It was very, very difficult to get our narrative past the mainstream corporate media.- Antonio Cosme


It all started with the bankruptcy

"It was very much triggered by the bankruptcy. There were a lot of people in my community who lost their houses. There was a huge foreclosure crisis in 2014," explains Cosme.

Cosme goes on to describe a neighbour, eight months pregnant, who had her water shut off during Ramadan. He says that when he and his fellow artists tried stop the water shutoff, six police cruisers were sent to ensure that the shutoff could go forward.

"We can't get one cop to respond to gun incidents, to drug deals, to all the issues that we see in our community. Fights, domestic abuse, it's hard to get any cops out there — but six cars came to ensure that this woman's water was shut off."


Water shutoffs

Desperate for money, in 2015 the city of Detroit sent thousands of shutoff notices to residents who were behind on their water bills.

"The city takes this suburban narrative, this very anti-black narrative of welfare recipients who have cable TV and they have cellphones and they have all sorts of technology, but they're being too lazy to pay their bills," says Cosme of the water shutoffs.

Cosme says that assumption is unfair, and that the average annual income in his neighbourhood is $23,000.

"So if you have a $1,000 or $2,000 water bill, that's damn near 10 per cent of your income."


Why getting rid of graffiti is a priority

Detroit's current mayor, Mike Duggan, is working to revitalize the city. That plan includes getting rid of much of the city's graffiti.

"It's called 'broken windows policing'," explains Cosme. "The idea is that if you can maintain and control the aesthetics of a place, you can somehow reduce the amount of crime."

This is art we're talking about. This is not the war on drugs. This is the war on art that's taking place in Detroit.- Antonio Cosme

Cosme says he's doubtful of the criminal justice system in regards to black and impoverished people in the United States. So he's not hopeful that the focus on graffiti removal will result in positive change.

He says he took up graffiti art to try to get his views and his message to the rest of the world.

Cans of spray paint sit near graffiti on the walls of the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant December 13, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. ((Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images))

"As the bankruptcy was occurring, as the water shutoffs were occurring, it was very, very difficult to get our narrative past the mainstream corporate media."

So Cosme and his artist friends took to making direct statements, via art, about what was happening in their city.

"The 'Free the Water' phrase, it became a hashtag, it went viral," says Cosme. "I've been really pleased to see that it gave people hope."



Cosme says he knew what he was doing when he tagged the water tower, and says many of his friends have also been charged.

"I do think the political nature of our specific piece and what it means to this administration and to this city is what made them go so hard on us, trying to really go hard on jail time — and trying to stick us with a $75,000 bill for something that we could have painted for 30 bucks."

Cosme's trial begins October 24th, and he says he's concerned that the story of what's happening to the people of Detroit will be lost in the coverage of his trial.

But he's also hopeful that he'll be OK once it's all done.

"I mean, this is art we're talking about. This is not the war on drugs. This is the war on art that's taking place in Detroit."