On Monday, January 23, Kalamazoo College Office of Student Development hosted Afro-Boricua Xicana farmer, artist, and organizer Antonio Cosme who is actively working to prevent the privatization of the city of Detroit through projects #FreetheWater #DecolonizeDetroit #RaizUp and #SWGrows. Cosme’s work has been recognized on media sources such as Democracy Now! and the National Coalition Against Censorship.
In the Hicks Banquet Hall, Cosme modestly shared his influential work. Typically in the form of graffiti, Cosme’s art protests the privatization of Detroit’s school system, water, and healthcare.
“This movement of privatization, this movement of neoliberalism, has a lot of very real impacts on the most marginal among us. And they’re not measured, they’re not talked about, they’re not common in our average discourse,” explained Cosme.
Cosme shared numerous photos of his work, one of which challenged the replacement of public schools with charter schools. “My alma mater Eastern Michigan University formed an interlocal government agreement with the Detroit Public School system to create the EAA. They call it the Education Achievement Authority, but we call it the Education Apartheid Authority. It’s a fast track of public schools into privatization into charter schools.” Pointing to the photo, he explained, “Essentially, if black lives matter, then black education matters.”
One of Cosme’s most controversial works–his 2014“Free The Water” graffiti on a Detroit water tank–challenged Detroit’s oppressive water system against racial minorities who are left without water when they are unable to pay their bills. Both Cosme and his partner William Lucka were able to avoid prison sentences for their work, but still face nearly $1,000 apiece in fees.
“Environmental racism is very much so a reality in Detroit. This get us to the water system, which is really a coup de grace for privatization in Detroit.” Showing photos of Detroit’s most expansive water company, Cosme explained that the water source services around 6 million people in the city. “They used the Clean Water Act to take Detroit’s water system in the 1970s and the judge who oversaw it did a lot of stupid expenditures, loaded up the debt on the water system, and now it’s increasing the cost of the water bills enormously.”
“A lot of people just want to frame it in an individualistic bubble–that’s a big thing we have in the United States–we really look to look at the individual, as opposed to looking at the history of it and the inequality that exists within the system,” Cosme explained. “There’s this individualized narrative of black people just want [stuff] for free, they just want water for free. No, we just want to free the water.”
Responding to the “Free the Water” campaign,Director of Intercultural Student Life Natalia Carvalho-Pinto commented, “This was the first time that I think I saw people nationally coming to Detroit to investigate this. That was one of the few really, really successful community actions that we’ve seen because it got so much attention.”
Audience member Sarena Brown ‘19 shared, “I really appreciated all of this information because I live in metro-Detroit and I haven’t understood it this fully before. Dan Gilbert is hailed, respected, and he is making Detroit awesome. That’s the story I get. It just makes me want to do something when I get home. I want to paint everything.”
“I think that’s the most important thing about this, really connecting the systems that are out here and big and often difficult to explain and conceptualize, to our lived experiences,” concluded Cosme. “That’s what I’m trying to do with my graffiti.”