SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
This weekend, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, a group of artists and activists is flying pro-immigrant, anti-incarceration messages in the skies. They hired fleets of airplanes to sky-write their slogans over 80 locations, including immigration detention facilities, jails, courts and the U.S.-Mexico border. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The performance artist who goes by the name Cassils was in one of the planes in a fleet that flew over the West Coast headquarters of GEO Group, which is one of the biggest operators of adult detention centers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Cassils left a message to ICE in the sky.
CASSILS: Shame - the word shame - and then the hashtag #defundhate.
DEL BARCO: Cassils, who recently became an American citizen, was appalled to learn there are so many detention centers around the U.S. in plain sight - the name of the art project they helped create.
CASSILS: People don't really understand that they're in every single state in this country - like, for example, near an IKEA in Brooklyn.
DEL BARCO: For In Plain Sight, Cassils teamed up with another performance artist, Rafa Esparza. They invited artists and activists to fly their own slogans in the sky.
RAFA ESPARZA: Many messages that are expressing care and support and in solidarity, messages that are coming from frustration, messages that are making demands.
PATRISSE KHAN CULLORS: Care, not cages.
DEL BARCO: That's the phrase Patrisse Khan Cullors sent over the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. The co-founder of Black Lives Matter chose to echo the rallying cry of LA activists fighting mass criminalization of immigrants and U.S. citizens.
CULLORS: LA County's the largest jailer in the world. Half of the people that are in the jails are there because they can't afford bail. If someone goes inside who's undocumented, instead of being released, they're actually given over to ICE. So what we are challenging the county to do right now is to actually invest into our communities through an alternatives to incarceration fund.
DEL BARCO: Each of the sky-typed phrases were followed by a hashtag leading to a website by immigrant justice organizations involved in the project. Among the participants were an ACLU lawyer and Japanese American activists.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My family was also in a camp detention center for three years during World War II because the U.S. thought they were the enemy. We were not, and you are not the enemy.
DEL BARCO: That's one of the messages you hear when you call the number artist Devon Tsuno sky-typed over border crossing checkpoints in Texas. The recording includes letters written by immigrants in detention centers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am coming from Honduras asking for asylum because they killed my son in front of me.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Dear Dad, I love you very much. I wish this was never happening.
DEL BARCO: Over the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, artist Dread Scott is transmitting the name of the first known ICE detainee who died from COVID-19, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia. Above the San Luis Regional Detention Center in Arizona, artist Edgar Arceneaux sent out lyrics from a Marc Anthony song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIVIR MI VIVA")
MARC ANTHONY: (Singing) Vivir mi vida, la, la, la, la (ph).
JULIETA VENEGAS: I just think it's so poetic and beautiful to do a project like this.
DEL BARCO: Singer Julieta Venegas also contributed. Having grown up near the San Diego-Tijuana border, she sent a message to immigrants crossing the San Ysidro land port of entry, no te rindas (ph) - don't give up.
VENEGAS: To migrate - I mean, I'm sure people don't do it because they want to just kind of, like - you know, it's not a frivolous decision. It's a life decision where you take a leap of faith, you know? It's, like, you don't know what's going to happen. So many stories just kind of keep telling you that you're not going to make it. So, you know, maybe looking up at the sky and seeing somebody saying the opposite - maybe, you know, it'll help someone.
DEL BARCO: Venegas says the project reminded her of something Chilean poet Raul Zurita once did. In the 1980s, he hired small planes to sky-write passages of his poem "La Vida Nueva" over New York City. Zurita also had bulldozers etch his phrase ni pena ni miedo (ph), neither shame nor fear, in Chile's Atacama Desert to protest the military dictatorship.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas says this project, In Plain Sight, was a call to action on Independence Day. His message over an ICE detention center in Hackensack, N.J., will read, life, liberty and - dot, dot, dot.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS: Part of what brought many people to this country over the past several centuries was this pursuit of happiness. And so there's a true irony there in the fact that there are hundreds of these institutions across the country where children and parents are being separated, where people are living in inhumane conditions, especially under COVID. It's really, I would say, an embarrassment to our country.
DEL BARCO: Thomas says at a time when people are re-evaluating societal and personal values, artists' voices on controversial issues like immigration detention are crucial. He points to a quote attributed to the late singer-actor-activist Paul Robeson, who said, artists are the radical voice of civilization.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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