18th Street Art Center’s ‘To Protect & Serve?’ examines cycles of police violence through protest art

By Christina Campodonico

Walter Cruz’s ‘#Say Her Name’ campaign for Black Lives Matter (2016, Digital Print, New York, NY) is among the exhibit’s featured protest posters

Can a protest poster change someone’s world view? Academic turned activist Carol A. Wells believes it can.

The Founder and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) in Culver City had an epiphany while on a trip to Nicaragua to document the art of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s. (The Sandinistas were a group of political revolutionaries who overthrew Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship in 1979.)

“I saw a young boy go someplace he’d never been before,” remembers Wells, describing the entrancement of the young boy as he looked at a revolutionary women’s poster with the provocative phrase, “In Building the New Country We are Becoming the New Woman” in Spanish.

“That’s a pretty sophisticated concept,” continues Wells, “but the process of watching him just be someplace he’d never been, look around the room, see this poster… and make him start trying to figure it out. … In that moment, I understood how posters worked.”

At that point, the eventual seed was planted for CSPG, which after 30 years, houses some 90,000 protest posters and pieces of political art. A subset of those posters, addressing the topic of police brutality, are currently on display at 18th Street Arts Center’s Airport Gallery in Santa Monica and online in the exhibit titled “To Protect & Serve? Five Decades of Posters Protesting Police Violence.”

Initially funded by a Mike Kelley Foundation grant for an exhibition at Venice’s Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in 2017/18 — “They literally said to me, ‘What exhibit have you always wanted to do that nobody else would fund because it’s too difficult a topic.’ … The first thing out of my mouth was ‘police abuse,’” recalls Wells — the three-year-old exhibit became relevant once again in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal death while in police custody earlier this year, prompting Wells and 18th Street to bring “To Protect & Serve?” out of the archives.

“The vision… is to show the historical patterns of racism, the historical patterns of police violence, the historical path of [attacks] on people’s civil rights,” says Wells, who initially conceived of an exhibition on police violence following the Rodney King Riots in 1992. “Once you realize this isn’t just a mistake or this isn’t just a bad apple, or this isn’t just one bad cop, but it’s part of the system that’s really the first thing for change.”

Having curated shows for a number of years, Wells has observed police brutality as one of the most prominent and reoccurring themes throughout CSPG’s collection.

“We did an exhibit for the Getty… in the 90s,” says Wells, recalling how she organized posters for that exhibition by theme into piles. “The smallest pile was women’s rights… The largest, by far, was police abuse. I was truly stunned.”

Wells says the posters in “To Protect & Serve?” serve “multiple functions” — to bring our attention to the crisis at hand, “to the wrong that must be righted,” and to keep the stories alive of those who “did not have their police incident on videotape.”

“George Floyd will have a lot of posters about him, Breonna will have a lot of posters about her, which is really important,” says Wells, “but so many won’t, so many don’t. … [The posters]also keep the story alive for later generations to know that this isn’t just something that’s happening right now. … People were organizing against [police brutality] last year and a decade ago and two decades ago, that we still have to fight the same fight.”

To that end, the Center for the Study of Political Graphics is also seeking posters not only on Floyd and Breonna Taylor but anyone whose life have been impacted by police brutality. Mail contributions to 3916 Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 103, Culver City or email digital files to archives@politicalgraphics.org.

“To Protect & Serve?” is viewable by appointment only for groups of six or less Monday through Friday at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., or by request at 18th Street Arts’ Airport Gallery (3026 Airport Ave., Santa Monica) through Oct. 2. Make an appointment via eventbrite.com at bit.ly/airportgalleryappointment. Visit 18thstreet.org/event/to-protect-serve-cspg to view the exhibit online or politicalgraphics.org/to-protect-and-serve to view the catalog.