Student mural at Porter envisions a future without police

When Irene Juarez-O’Connell was a senior at UC Santa Cruz in 2012, she sought out John Jota Leaños, a Professor of Film & Digital Media at the university, looking for a quote on the role of the arts in Latino civic engagement in San Francisco’s Mission district for a research project she was working on. Then, a couple years ago, Leaños got in touch with Juarez-O’Connell because he was teaching a class on public art and its role in political movements and wanted her to give his students a tour of the murals she’d done in the Santa Cruz Beach Flats in Santa Cruz. 

“It was kind of a full circle moment,” Juarez-O’Connell said. “From there, he said, ‘Well, do you think that you'd ever want to do a mural with students?’”

The mural Leaños asked Juarez-O’Connell to be the lead artist on, addressing community safety and policing, is now on display at the Porter Study Center at Porter College. 

Leaños was pretty much the perfect person on campus to ask to work on this mural. He’s a Guggenheim fellow whose animation work has been in the Sundance Film Festival and the Morelia International Film Festival, Mexico, and he has had installation exhibitions at the Whitney Biennial in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. He’s worked on dozens of murals as well as starting a digital mural program at San Francisco’s famous Galería de la Raza, a Chicano arts nonprofit. He thinks working with students on this provided a great opportunity, combining research with experiential learning. Putting paintings in public spaces like Porter is one of the best ways to communicate, he thinks. 

“The great muralists, the Mexican muralists, were like, ‘We're going to put indigenous stories on the walls,’ and ‘We're going to teach history for the illiterate,’” he said. “All that history is part of mural making in educating, developing, and building community.” 

Juarez-O’Connell agrees. The full-time director of programs at Food What?!, a nonprofit that works with high school students to grow and cook food, she doesn’t take on a lot of mural projects. But she made time to work on this one. 

The project came out a recommendation from the Campus Safety Community Advisory Board, which provides advice and recommendations to the chancellor on issues related to campus and community safety.

Leaños recruited students, and Juarez-O’Connell and her partner Victor Cervantes brainstormed with them, drawing on butcher paper and responding to prompts about public safety and police. The artists also looked at pictures of campus protests over the years, and the finished product includes UC Santa Cruz Professor Emerita Angela Davis in front of a sign reading “Abolish Prisons.” Other signs in the mural say “Huelga,” “Keep Cops Off Campus,” and “Mutual Aid is an act of Love.” The middle section, Juarez-O’Connell says, imagines a campus with no police, with a group of students holding a banner reading, “We Take Care of Us” and a police car seemingly fading back into the land, with vines growing up it and the tires coming off. 

Juarez-O’Connell says she and the students are pleased with how it turned out. 

“I can’t quite believe it’s up because there’s not a lot of murals on campus like it,” she said. “It’s telling a story of something that is possible. Envisioning a future without police —I think that’s radical.”