As a founding member of the Raiz Up Collective in Southwest Detroit, Antonio Cosme, 28, has been an outspoken critic of the city’s redevelopment regime: speaking at public meetings, interrupting the mayor’s state of the city address, and using his own body to prevent officials from shutting off a pregnant woman’s water supply in the middle of Ramadan. Recently, however, Cosme has also become a subject of the emergency management system he’s been criticizing. He and fellow Raiz Up artist and activist William Lucka, 22, are facing up to $75,000 in fines and four years in prison for allegedly painting “Free the Water” in large block letters up the side of a water tower in Highland Park. Accompanying the text is a black graphic of a fist covering the height of the tower.
In November 2014, police confronted Cosme and Lucka at the bottom of the tower, but nearly a year and a half had passed before police contacted them again about the incident. Then, a Detroit graffiti task force — a newly formed special unit charged with tracking and prosecuting taggers and graffiti artists — took over the case, claiming the cost of cleaning the tower would range from $45,000 to $75,000, Cosme says. Police raided Lucka’s home, taking many of his art-related materials, and eventually brought a slew of new charges against him, using one of the task force’s key tools: an expanding graffiti database. Cosme describes it as a “badass” archive of local street art despite its nefarious purpose. Using the database, the taskforce linked Lucka to multiple appearances of the tag “Astro,” which appeared on the water tower with “Free the Water.”
Because Cosme and Lucka’s arrest coincided with the formation of the task force, Cosme sees the charges as a publicity stunt to show off the special unit and promote the city’s agenda. In June 2015, the taskforce also made a big show of issuing a warrant for the internationally known street artist, Shepard Fairey. After completing a commissioned 18-story retread of his brand “Obey,” Fairey wheat-pasted several other versions of his brand illegally in public spaces, including a water tower. He turned himself in and faced charges that were dropped in June of this year.
The publicity around the arrest is ironic considering that Fairey is a commercial street artist whose work tends to appear in areas undergoing gentrification. Indeed, his commissioned mural in Detroit climbed the side of a building owned by Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans who has become one of the city’s leading developers. Cosme and Lucka’s case, meanwhile, represents heightening conflict between residents and an emergency management system that doesn’t seem to care about them. The case highlights clear disparities in the city’s agenda, considering that, on the one hand, it has targeted at least 40 percent of the city for water shut-offs due to overdue bills as low as $150 and, on the other hand, it has criminalized graffiti in order to attract and retain out-of-town investors and developers, and to encourage smaller-scale entrepreneurship.
While Detroit media tends to narrate graffiti in terms of vandalism and blight, Cosme and Lucka are hardly criminals. Cosme helped to found Raiz Up as an Indigenous/Chicano art and activist collective in 2012 after returning to southwest Detroit from Eastern Michigan University, where he studied economics and political science. He was frustrated watching his city “get sold off piece by piece, watching every asshole with an idea and a bunch of money get their shit done,” he told me over the phone. Significantly, the Detroit establishment seemed to endorse the collective’s values: In 2014, the Knight Foundation awarded The Raiz Up $25,000 to host hip-hop parties that also organize communities and promote civic action. The Raiz Up works with a number of other local organizations — Black Youth Project, New Era Detroit, #blacklivesmatter, the People’s Water Board — geared at “hardwiring,” to borrow a phrase from corporate culture, community interests and provide input for the city’s agenda. Attempts by some groups to do so have been met with resistance from city leaders: A recent voter-initiated ballot measure that ensures public investments serve community interests, for instance, was instantly undermined by a councilman’s similar proposal that excludes developer accountability, a key feature of the community version.
Cosme and Lucka have been in and out of court since March, initially working with a pro-bono defense council, but moving to a different lawyer when it became clear that the city was going to push hard for the maximum sentence. They have a pre-trial conference on September 23 and their final trial on October 24. Initial offers from the prosecutor have been inflexible, Cosme says, which has been frustrating considering that Lucka qualifies for a program that keeps young offenders out of prison. And, having witnessed a white graffiti artist with similar charges walk without sentencing, Cosme believes the entire process subscribes to a logic of anti-blackness. “That day in court, literally, every single black person who went into court … went to jail,” Cosme said. “I saw two or three white people just get off … [with] lawyers from the suburbs.”
Supporters have formed a Free the Water Defense Campaign for Antonio Cosme and William Lucka’s defense fund. The same group is hosting a fundraiser featuring Lucka’s artwork on August 13 and a crowdfunding campaign, Funded Justice, that continues through August 31.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Shepard Fairey was still facing charges for his street art. Charges were dropped in June 2016. This has been fixed.