Antonio Cosme is part of a long legacy of artists and organizers whose creative talents have been the lifeblood of social movements. “Art like is the color to the coloring book,” Cosme explains, “where organizing might be the lines, but art is like the crayons, it’s like the paint, it’s what gives things energy, life, vitality.” As a grassroots artist, organizer, and intellectual fighting for liberation in Detroit and beyond, Cosme has been involved with a number of organizations over the years, including the People’s Water Board, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (DREM), and the Raiz Up hip hop and art collective. He also founded the organization Southwest Grows Urban Farm and Agroecology Hub.
Cosme grew up in a diverse, working class neighborhood in Southwest Detroit and attended private school in Redford, Michigan as a kid. It was early on that he realized the differences between classes and races, and saw how the other side lived. “I often wondered why is it that these people have so much more resources.” As a student at Eastern Michigan University, Cosme switched his major from chemistry to economics after his parents home was foreclosed on in 2009 during the Great Recession. From 2005-2014, 36% of all properties in the city went into foreclosure, devastating families and emptying neighborhoods. “I switched my major to economics because I really wanted to understand these systems better. And as I studied economics, I came to see… neoliberal economic policies as something the United States had been pushing since the 1970s in the overthrow of the Chilean government.” Neoliberalism is an approach to politics that “favors free-market capitalism, deregulation, and reduction in government spending” and disproportionately harms working-class communities of color. Seeking a better understanding of economics outside of neoliberalism, Cosme traveled to El Savador, Guatemala, and Mexico, studying the history of these places and spending time with Indigenous organizers. From these experiences, his knowledge of economics grew and he gained even more insight about economic injustice, US imperialism, and what he could do to help.
Shortly after graduating in 2012, Antonio put his experience to work and helped form the hip hop and art collective, Raiz Up. The group worked to address issues impacting Southwest communities like environmental justice, housing, immigration, education and gentrification. “We had helped organize community events by bringing people together with music and art and asking them what their experience in tackling one aspect of the crisis,” Cosme explained. The year after the Raiz Up’s founding, Governor Rick Snyder placed the City of Detroit under Emergency Management, stripping Detroiters of their democratic rights, cutting city services, and selling off public assets. “As the little radical economist in our group,” Cosme explained, “I was like, ‘Yo, we need to get involved with this…we need to supply some art, and we need to push this conversation in our community and push the analysis and push that messaging to the grassroots, to the neighborhoods, to the communities, to the people.”
Cosme and the Raiz Up joined the coalition Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (DREM) to mobilize grassroots opposition to the state takeover and to reclaim the city. They engaged in direct action protests, including the Motown Slowdown to shut down freeway traffic and interrupting city meetings. In addition to direct action protests with DREM, the Raiz Up organized community events on particular aspects of the crisis to bring people together to “share their stories and share their things and hear some of the structural systemic side of it a bit.” Cosme explains that organizing these events for “popular education was a way to help shed light on people’s…lived experiences and connect it with bigger systems.” Most of these events were founded in music and arts to make them accessible and engaging to their communities. “We really wanted to create an actual, like, soundtrack for…the emergency management resisting work, and we tried to begin organizing it, but like, again, we were chasing so many different areas it just didn’t get prioritized enough.”
In addition to organizing community events, Cosme also used graffiti to challenge emergency management, gentrification, and the mass water shutoffs orchestrated by emergency manager Kevyn Orr. In 2014, Cosme and William Lucka were arrested for painting the words “FREE THE WATER” alongside a clenched fist on an old water tower. Their arrests stemmed from Mayor Mike Duggan’s creation of a Graffiti Task Force to criminalize and prosecute street artists in prime areas for investment. Elected just months after emergency manager Kevyn Orr filed for bankruptcy, one of Duggan’s top priorities was to target graffiti as part of a broader plan of implementing “broken windows” policing in the city. This task force was weaponized against those trying to make social change through art but like Cosme says, “culture is something that cannot be controlled.”
Cosme learned a number of lessons from his time with DREM, such as learning where power came from and how to shut things down. Cosme also got involved with the People’s Water Board (PWB) to challenge the mass water shutoffs that have disproportionately harmed working-class communities of color. The People’s Water Board is a broad coalition that fights to make sure everyone in Detroit has access to safe and affordable water held in the public trust. They have been a leading force in the fight against shutoffs and struggle for a water affordability program in Detroit. In addition to his work with PWB, Cosme has been active in protecting his neighbors from shutoffs, even putting his body on the line to physically prevent a pregnant neighbor from having her water turned off.
In recent years, Cosme has built on these experiences and is now the founder of Southwest Grows, which is an urban farm organization formed in 2015 in the McGraw/Lonyo neighborhood of Southwest Detroit. Cosme discussed the increasing importance to his political work, “But for me, it was really important to reconnect with land, reconnect with soil as a way to heal myself.” He started a community garden to add beauty to the land, which also helps build relationships between neighbors. For Cosme, Southwest Grows is a way to heal himself and heal his community by artistic and ecological means. “I feel like my new work is like greening the ‘hood and taking young people from the ‘hood to green spaces…it’s been beautiful work.” More recently, he has been a co-founder of the Black to the Land Coalition “to encourage BIPOC Detroit residents to explore the outdoors.”
“That’s kind of like the direction I’m headed in,” he said of his current organizing work. “I still love art. I still want to make art and still want to do stuff in the city, but, yeah, I’m really interested in bridging those gaps and expanding those relationships between people and land.” But those relationships must also be geared toward developing collective power to fundamentally transform society. “We need wealth. We need land,” he explains. “Equity starts with redistribution of wealth…and power. And then, also a strengthening of the institutions that allow us to actually stand within that power.”
Antonio Cosme, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, March 2, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.