Standing atop a soapbox on the stage of Civic Plaza, Rodrigo Rodríguez, 18, put down the feedback-inducing microphone and spoke to his peers without amplification.
“This was a positive event,” he said. “We weren't coming over here to party and throw down ... we were coming to educate people. We were coming to empower people. We were coming so people could learn, so they could live healthy, more informed lives.”
Amid the cheers, Rodríguez stepped down from the soapbox to make way for another speaker. He all but faded away into a crowd of young and old, wearing T-shirts bearing the title of the event that was to be: Rock Out With Your Cause Out.
Rock Out was the original event Rodríguez, SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) and the South Valley Male Involvement Project had scheduled to hold at Civic Plaza that day--Saturday, Aug. 26. The event had been in the works for over three months, Mónica Córdova, youth coordinator for SWOP, says, and was planned by local youths. Rock Out was to include musical performances from local bands, a break-dancing competition, booths with information about health care options and healthy living, and a live graffiti battle, she says. When the city denied the permit to use Civic Plaza within a week of the event, it was canceled. Although reasons given for the denial of the permit were legally based, Mayor Martin Chavez also raised issue with the graffiti battle that was to take place at the event, posing the pivotal question: Can graffiti be art?
On Tuesday, Aug. 22, Córdova sent an e-mail to colleagues, supporters, friends and media with the subject line, “ABQ Mayor Shuts Down Youth Event!” The e-mail stated that Rock Out had been canceled because the permit was denied, claiming that "the city does not support youth,” and included information about the rally that would replace the event. In response, Mayor Martin Chavez held a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 23, which was closed to non-media, and wherein media representatives were asked not to inform members of SWOP about the conference.
At the press conference, Chavez stated that SWOP's permit was denied because of inadequate security and cleanup crews for the event, and unmet fee and deposit requirements. Fees for the event were $670, while the deposit, which was refundable, was $1,300. “Those were the bases on which the permits were denied,” Chavez said. The mayor then went on to talk about “not the reason [why] they were denied, but the reason why I am repulsed by what this group wants to do ... They wanted to have a graffiti battle on Civic Plaza.”
The mayor pointed to an enlarged flyer for the Rock Out With Your Cause Out event, which depicted a can of spray paint and a break dancer and promoted a live graffiti battle. “I thought we sent the message a long time ago in Albuquerque that graffiti is not art. It has nothing to do with pride. It is vandalism. It is a crime and [this event] is perfectly suited for zero tolerance,” Chavez said.
Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz says the city's zero-tolerance policy means that “anyone caught causing graffiti and vandalism will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Schultz says the policy pertains to public property, but in the context of the graffiti battle, during which graffiti would have been sprayed on panels brought by SWOP, a potential problem was additional vandalism in the area. “That was our concern,” he says.
During the press conference, Chavez called attention to the monetary cost of vandalism.“This is what these people have done to the city of Albuquerque in the last year. We spent over a million dollars to eliminate graffiti,” he said. “That this group pretends to want to enhance youth pride under the guise of having graffiti that's part of cultural pride is repugnant. ... I'm not going to sit quietly while any group tries to ghettoize the youth of Albuquerque.”
Meanwhile, Córdova and the youth of SWOP held their own press conference to get out their side of the story. Córdova says SWOP requested that the fees for the Civic Plaza permit be waived, but once they received word from the city that the request for the event was denied, the youth fundraised money to pay the fees. She says they had a security and clean up team in line and isn't sure why the permit was denied. “The mayor really spun it out of control into something it wasn't,” she says. “The graffiti was a minor component of this event.” She says SWOP does think graffiti can be an art form and has hosted graffiti battles in the past. “We don't support the defacing of property or tagging on the streets,” she says. “As an art form to relay a message, we do support it. It was really turned into a controversial issue: Those who support it, and those who don't, as an art. It's not what it's about. ... It was really turned into a very divisive situation. The youth only wanted to empower themselves.”
Córdova says the youth involved in organizing Rock Out decided to hold the rally at Civic Plaza to show that there is support for youth in the city. To some, the rally was more like a protest. In the crowd, some people held signs with messages such as: “Why Marty?,” “They Can Take Our Rock Out but They Can’t Take Our Cause Out” and “Marty Don't Know Art.”
At the end of the rally, after speeches by community leaders, youth organizers, chants of “¡Sí, se puede!” and a few acoustic musical performances, Rodríguez stood atop the soapbox again and made demands of the city. He cited a 2005 City Council resolution that was passed to create a youth department in the city which the mayor did not sign. He said the youth of the city and SWOP will organize and demand that the mayor support the youth department as well as invest in youth instead of criminalizing it.
“The mayor could have just stuck to the [legal] reasonings for why they didn't approve the permit. There was no need for him to turn negative, especially on young people,” Córdova says. “He made a lot of very, very hurtful remarks for young people. ... It affects them. It's sad. It never needed to turn to that.”