Interference Archive exterior. Photo credit: Lindsey Scharold
Hidden in Gowanus, New York City, in a small space packed with boxes full to the brim with activist literature, is Interference Archive. An all-volunteer organization established in 2011, the archive’s mission is to document “the relationship between cultural production and social movements,” as its website explains. The brightly lit room feels like some combination of a classroom, a bookstore, a library, and a meeting space. Visitors are encouraged to pull boxes off the shelf and sift through the papers they contain.
From its vast collection of countercultural ephemera, Interference Archive also organizes regular exhibitions. Its current one is Defend/Defund, which opened last fall and will run through January 29, 2023, and is not to be missed.
The exhibition is in part a response to George Floyd’s murder, and of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Philando Castile before him. But its scope is much broader. Hung on just about every wall are posters, newspapers, pamphlets, zines, and even buttons that catalog the long history of negative police presence in marginalized communities and, most importantly, document varied modes of resistance to this presence.
The exhibition traces the story of predatory policing from colonialism to the Jim Crow era and contextualizes issues with policing in contemporary circumstances. But it’s also a survey of various groups and communities that have taken a stand against racist policing, such as queer activists and Black workers.
The exhibition is a lot to take in—more than can reasonably be absorbed in one visit. There are 15 sections dedicated to specific eras and approaches to police abolition and historical issues in which police violence came to the forefront of cultural consciousness. Each of these sections has their own wall texts, and each contain their own text-heavy artifacts.
A smaller selection of carefully chosen artifacts might have conveyed more forcefully the problem of racist policing, and the ongoing popular resistance to it. But Interference Archive’s exhaustive approach has the merit of showing how deep America’s traditions of racist policing really are. The exhibition was overwhelming, but also and left me wondering, exasperatedly, how many more innocent people must die at the hands of police, and for how much longer, before this failure of the state sinks in—a sentiment almost certainly shared with the activist groups whose histories are displayed in the exhibition.
For me, the highlight of Defend/Defund was the section called “Cultural Organizing,” which highlights popular music with an anti-police bent. I was particularly struck by the works created during the Black Arts Movement that flourished in the United States in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. I believe that it’s through these modes of so-called “cultural organizing,” conveyed through a catchy slogan or song, that political mobilization can become particularly potent.
For example, I first came across the phrase “all cops are bastards” (ACAB) as a teenager. It had a harder, more taboo edge then, like a swear word spoken in a different language. It was a phrase and ideological position I never could have imagined would ever become mainstream. The acronym popped up in song lyrics and on patches, displaying the frustration with the state of the world espoused by the punk bands that were always on rotation in my headphones when I was 17. It wasn’t until I studied the radical histories of other groups in college—Black, Indigenous, queer, and feminist movements—that I realized punks weren’t the only people who felt this way. The Black Panthers felt this way; and today’s Black Lives Matter movement feels this way, too.
The “Cultural Organizing” section displays several vinyl albums that address anti-police themes, including KRS-One’s 1993 “Sound of da Police.” In this track, he delivers a sentiment with the same exasperated yet indignant message as the exhibition and the condemnations of anti-Black policing throughout American history:
My grandfather had to deal with the cops
My great-grandfather dealt with the cops
My great-grandfather had to deal with the cops
And then my great, great, great, great—when it’s gonna stop?
Cultural production—whether in the form of visual art, or music, or posters, or pamphlets—is uniquely positioned to disseminate countercultural ideas. The sentiments delivered through lyrics and images often get at the heart of social movement issues with a single artistic gesture. Anyone interested in the intersection of radical politics and culture should definitely take time to visit Interference Archive and their current exhibit, Defend/Defund.
Lindsey Scharold is a journalist and MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School, whose arts writing has appeared in Cultured Magazine and Mn Artists.