Some of the most captivating and urgent art being made in the United States right now isn’t hanging on the walls of a museum.
It’s on the streets, being carried by protesters who have been marching in the name of Black Lives Matter for over two months. But for many, protesting with a pandemic still at play is too risky. So two young women are helping make sure as many voices as possible are still heard.
New Yorkers Laura Navarrete and Brianna Barrett, both 25, have been friends since high school. They’ve been spending a lot more time together lately since they joined forces to run Signs for BLM, a small group that collects art and posters, and distributes them for people to carry at protests. When the protests in New York took place in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in police custody, both Navarrete and Barrett say they didn’t initially feel safe participating in the protests as women of color.
“It’s crazy to me that I’m not even worried about the pandemic anymore,” says Barrett. “I’m worried about Black lives. That sentence alone sounds crazy to me — we’re still fighting the fight that we've been fighting for over 400 years, meanwhile, people are dying because of their health.”
Barrett also experiences anxiety around large crowds, which is why she wanted to figure out another way to help.
“Put a big crowd with like a bunch of really angry policeman and I’m just like, that’s not something I want to be a part of,” says Barrett. “But being a person of color and a Black person, you just have to, one day, put that aside and just do something about it.”
Barrett started going out to the protests and seeing how people were gathering. “For people of color, in general, this all this just hits home. But I think especially for Black people specifically, it’s a battle that we face every day, and now the world is facing it. We’re not alone in it anymore. And I think that’s what makes it such a powerful thing.”
Navarrete’s brother, Eddie Navarrete, was in Washington, D.C., when authorities charged at peaceful protesters to push them from the streets — about 30 minutes before President Trump walked through the area for a photo op. Spurred by rapper Killer Mike’s speech in Atlanta to “strategize, organize, and mobilize,” he spoke to his sister and business partner Jessica Garcilazo about what they could do.
“It was a good way to start that conversation in our inner circles and in our own little communities, with our family and friends, and ask, ‘How do we get people involved who don’t feel comfortable going out to protest?’ ” says Navarrete. Her brother also rallied a friend Swathi Ghanta, a graphic designer, who helped design early signs and spread the word.
It starts with a call out on the Signs for BLM Instagram account. Those interested fill out a form, and the pickups are done on Thursdays and then distributed to protesters. It’s all contactless, and many will leave the signs outside their homes.
They get work from amateurs and artists alike.
“It’s touching when you see how much effort is put into the pieces that people contribute every week,” says Barrett. “To me, it was very powerful and just showed how creative you can get with this. Even those who are not artists — some people have kids get involved, which is amazing. It’s all really inspiring.”
Each week, they identify which protest to take the signs to, linking up with one of the various groups protesting. They began with a couple dozen but now get up to 600 pieces a week. A similar initiative is underway in Portland, Ore., now.
Protesters are free to take the signs home with them. A memento, Barrett says, of a historic time of hopeful change.
The women also hope they will spur conversations inside homes, too.
“Just keep on, that’s the message,” says Barrett. “Until things really change.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled Swathi Ghanta’s name. We regret the error.