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Photos: Laurel Golio

The Streetwear Line Supporting Trans and Queer People of Color in Prison

Feminist skater collective Brujas is giving back.

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This past fall, the feminist skater collective Brujas released a limited-edition streetwear line of black and white separates emblazoned with “1971” and an illustration of a prison on fire. The line is an homage to the 1971 Attica Prison Uprising and a gesture of solidarity with the prison strikes that erupted this past September across the country. In all-caps sans serif typeface, the apparel reads: “PRISONS ARE OBSOLETE / GIVE EM HELL / NEGOTIATIONS FROM THE DOOR OF A CELL" and “CORRECTION / FIRE TO THE PRISONS.”

Designing a cohesive, tightly-branded T-shirt and shorts line may seem like an unlikely project for a staunchly anti-capitalist counter-cultural group. But as Arianna Gil, the 23-year-old cofounder of Brujas, points out, “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” so it might as well use its relative amount of power to subversive ends. Gil refers to herself as “a scammer and a hustler.”

In early October, Gil and co-conspirator Isabelle Nastasia launched the “1971” Kickstarter campaign with a catchy video of Brujas members playing capture the flag. Of the 25 people in the video, all of them either know someone who has served time at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, or they themselves have been incarcerated there. As Gil explains, “they viscerally understood the importance of a project like this.”

Within the first week of the campaign, they hit their target amount of $10,000; by the time the campaign closed, it had 350 backers and raised $22,000. After dealing with production costs, the remaining funds are going to Freedom2Live, a grassroots network that supports queer and trans people of color in New York state prisons.

When asked how Freedom2Live allocates money, Nastasia explains the fairly radical, redistributive framework: “Anything from [directly] sending people money, like making sure people's commissaries are updated to sending somebody’s sister money if they’re about to be evicted. [Also], part of the idea is about handing people cash when they get out of prison.” This, Nastasia points out, is “shit that another group would not do without stipulations.” (The unofficial, underground name of Freedom2Live is Fight2Live, and while it doesn’t have much of a web presence, the organizers do post intermittently on Tumblr and Twitter.)

While Brujas has only been active since February (Gil calls it a “brand new baby”), it’s received considerable media attention. Stories with description-heavy headlines like “Meet Brujas: The Feminist Skate Crew We’ve All Been Waiting For” and girl-power narratives like “Sisterhood of the Skateboard” characterize the group as a cohesive body rather than a loose constellation of individual members working on overlapping projects. It’d be accurate to call them political organizers carving out spaces for youths of color to come together and skate, scheme, party, and organize.

Gil makes no attempt to hide her frustration with the group’s misrepresentation. “We’re sick of being put in the media as [having] an apolitical identity. We started with political intentions,” she explains. Contrary to what has been written, Brujas members are not all girls nor are they all from the Bronx (many members, like Gil, are from the Lower East Side or Washington Heights.)

“Mad Brujas are queer and nonbinary. That’s the untold story,” says Nastasia. The clothing line itself, it should be noted, is resolutely gender-neutral. “We’re all freaks and we’re really pro-deviance,” she continues. “We think that the conditions that we live under [and] the way that people are criminalized is what produces criminals. We love those people and we want to support them. We are part of that tradition.”

To share its preferred labels with press, the group created a series of guidelines. According to the list, journalists are ill-advised to call it a “skate crew,” but can define it as a “radical cohort made up of community organizers, skaters, musicians, healers, and hustlers.” It asks not to be referred to as “all female,” “all girl,” or “all women,” and it’s quick to clarify that it’s not all people of color.

What the guidelines make clear is that Brujas’ goals are often at odds with those of the press. While writers like myself attempt to pinpoint who the members are and clarify the nature of their work, they resist categorization and cling to what Gil calls “illegible” identities.

Both organizers use terms that could easily be misunderstood. They use “high-end” and “streetwear” together to signify a connection between clothing and an urban community facing oppression — not necessarily to describe high-quality fabric or a sophisticated production process. “We are high-end streetwear people,” Gil says. “And that is, you know, something that’s controversial. I was born and raised on the Lower East Side, one of the birthplaces of one of the most progressive — not progressive in the political term, but in the cultural way — most progressive streetwear and graffiti and culture. So yeah, we have really good taste." To Gil, “authenticity” means not only knowing merchandise’s origins, but ensuring that those origins are specifically New York City. “Everyone who worked on the [“1971” clothing] line is a native New York young person,” Gil tells me. “It’s corny to say this, but it’s authentic as fuck.”

The designers behind “1971” — Calvin Skinner of the rap collective Nocturnal Sons Posse and Robin Giordiani, who designed the Brujas logo — pass Gil’s test of authenticity: They were both born in New York and attended Pratt and Cooper Union. “They're my best friends in life, so, you know, it’s just family shit. It was a family project," Gil explains. Also, "they’re visually just genius.” Inspired by Angela Davis (“are prisons obsolete”), the anti-prison activist Neil Shirley’s column “Prisons are for Burning,” and a periodical called “Fire to the Prisons,” Brujas worked with them to create the amalgamated language of resistance that appears on the apparel.

Their objective — putting money directly in the pockets of perhaps the most at-risk community, queer and trans incarcerated people of color — is vital, but they maintain a somewhat clouded outlook. Gil and Nastasia see themselves as “race traitors,” which Gil defines as acting as “a traitor to your race and its super-structure,” but this could just as easily be interpreted as not taking responsibility for one’s whiteness. Gil is mixed — Latina and white, a second-generation Uruguayan — and sees her position as “straddling the borderlands between the barrio and elite white higher education, street culture and the academy.”

Nastasia traces the term “race traitor” back to a way of describing “white people who married outside of their race, or allied themselves with the struggles of people of color, and actively worked against the ‘interests’ of whiteness.” It’s a position she’s invested in, but doesn’t necessarily claim as a personal identity. Still, at a time when many of us are grappling with the rise of white supremacy, it is misguided and perhaps even dangerous to abnegate responsibility for one’s access to privilege.

Gil was excited to sport the “1971” line because, as she puts it: “I never get to wear my politics. I get to wear my culture sometimes, like I get to put The Godfather on a T-shirt and I’m like, yeah, I’m an Italian-American. I’m all about the mafia shit. But I never get to wear something [that expresses my politics] that’s not corny like ‘Fuck Bush’ or ‘Fuck Donald Trump.’ I would never wear anything that’s about electoral politics.”

This spring, the group will release a new collection to support more prison abolitionist work, and it’ll likely go to Freedom2Live. Gil, in the meantime, will continue to track which major corporations are stealing its designs. “Even the pink that Brujas has been using went fucking viral across every skateboarding brand, and I’m like, ‘well, you know where you got it.’ All the cute little pink stuff coming out from [major streetwear brands], ‘you chose that color because I sat in my bed one morning and I chose that fucking color.’ It’s cocky, but it’s real.

“So with 1971,” Gil says, “I’m waiting to see all the knockoffs.”

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