Chris Drew: The First Amendment And The Right To Survive

[Occupy Rogers Park had no question about how it wanted to highlight the beginning of its “Chicago Spring” campaign: we decided to honor Chris Drew, Rogers Park resident and courageous artist, who has uncompromisingly fought for free speech rights for artists.  The unusual thing about Chris Drew is that he identified the right of the artist to survive (by his/her art) and the right of free speech, and thus began to challenge the restrictive peddler’s licensing procedure that limits artists’ abilities to pursue their craft and hence their speech.  He recorded his own arrest for violating this ordinance, and when the police discovered this they dropped that charge and instead charged him with felony eavesdropping.   The ACLU took up his case and in March, 2012 the trial judge threw the case out on constitutional grounds.  The Illinois eavesdropping law may be on its way out. 

What many may not know is that for the last year Chris has been fighting this case and fighting his own serious health issues at the same time. His indomitable will and his connection with and belief in those marginalized artists with whom he has worked for so many years sustained him.  But as his health is failing (for the past year he has been fighting lung cancer),  he was determined  to accept the award and to make his remarks, which appear below unedited.  In addition you will see the remarks I made to introduce Chris;  having worked with him since my arrival in Chicago has been a distinct honor;  and in making these remarks I wanted to add something that perhaps no one else was in a position to do.  When Chris and I had a few moments after we had dropped him off at home, we talked for a moment about how overwhelmed he was by the honors accorded him, and about the difference between the movements we had both seen as young people and the movement of today.  We talked about the slogan, often repeated on Occupy posters, “It Isn’t One Thing,  It’s Everything!”  Our experience is so tied up with this demand or that issue.  This piece of the pie or that piece.  But this is about the whole pie.  The whole thing.  And Chris responded: “What most people see is small and unconnectedness. But it is connected.  It’s about the whole thing, and art is the key.  It’s all connected it is the key to our freedom.  We use the art patch to illustrate how to fight for freedom, demonstrate that [artists] have tools to fight for that freedom.”    —  Lew Rosenbaum] (The April 7th program, including Chris Drew’s remarks can be seen here).


The Art Patch Project: The First Amendment And The Right To Survive – Chris Drew

This expanded lecture needs to be repeated at graduate gatherings of the Arts Teaching Institutes in Chicago.

Community Arts Concept

Art for change vs. art for art’s sake:  Art is always both, because the act of art is self-expression, which is the act of expressing the self in flux – in change.

The economic system that developed around art – art for collectors, for curators and art as an investment separated itself from art for change when desirable.  “Change art” being feared by the moneyed classes had to be discouraged during its dangerous lifetime. This is done at the institutional level.

Community art keeps rearing its beautiful head, generation after generation, by different names, movements and artists. In the 60’s and 70’s tradition I am from, it was known as “Community Art,” and resulted in opening up institutions to minority artists as well as a call for the ambitious artist to establish small institutions in community locations, securing the self-esteem needs of community segments.

Our initial Art of the T-shirt and its presently evolved Art Patch Project is the fruition of this in our 25 year long arts activity.

Stolen Rights –the Right to Survive by Art

We are talking about the real First Amendment right to survive by selling our art in public spaces that is required for change art to exist and build a public audience. This is the right above all that should be defended by our lives. In Chicago and too many other locations it has been abandoned as useless, a move that has marginalized artists and dwarfed our art scenes in public.

I have written on the legal basis and significance of this on my blog ( and in e-mails available on

Chris Drew asks “WHO WILL WORK?”

line.  Here I hope to describe a vision shortly and hook a few dedicated individuals.  Every movement is only as great as the art that informs it.  We need a core of workers to re-awaken the Art Patch Project to change Chicago – to create survival opportunities as an arts change base for Chicago.  WHO WILL WORK?

Art Patch Project

Please use the Art Patch Project to make Chicago Change.  Bluntly put, I am dying and the Art Patch Project needs new energy.  I pray some of you are that new energy.

Why the Art Patch Project?

We must teach citizens of Chicago to stand up for their rights and demonstrate the central role art has in this process.  We must employ win-win strategies to do so.  Using art we have changed the eavesdropping law.  Let’s extend this to artists’ rights and set an example of using art to fight for First Amendment Rights.

The Art Patch Project is a win-win concept.  Artists submit designs and are encouraged to promote their art on line on the art patch.  The Art Patch Project promotes artists’ rights on line on the patch.  Volunteers print and give away the many flavored art patches over time educating the public to the variety of artists missing in public.  The movement regenerates an art movement to sustain its needs in public. Activities take place in low-tech one or two day a week activities sustainable by a core of dedicated artists at costs affordable to a volunteer movement that takes place in public.

In 2006 Chris Drew set up “shop” on Michigan Ave., ironically in front of the Chicago Tribune Freedom Museum

This concept is already underway, demonstrable today. You may have an art patch in your hand right now.  These patches are sewn on clothes, pinned up in a creative variety of ways. They have a life that goes on promoting your voice.  This is a solution.

Artists have been using the Art Patch Project to protect our stolen rights with growing awareness, establishing a foundation to build on.  The fact is we have less right to survive by our art in Chicago in public than most places of the world.

The fact is we have less right to survive by our art in Chicago in public than most places of the world. And we have a first amendment guarantee in this right.  And we are not fighting for it.  We have given it up. We have given up our most basic right.  It is your duty to change this.


Sue Ying, an advocate of the Harold Washington Cultural plan, founder of Artists Against Homelessness, a strong woman and revolutionary artist for fifty years, introduced me to Chris Drew shortly after I arrived in Chicago in 1987.  Chris had come to Chicago’s uptown as a homeless expatriate from Minnesota.  He’d set up a gallery on Clark Street and began a career devoted to advocating for and with artists, recognizing that suppression of the artists’ voices is key to suppressing any revolutionary discontent in society.  

She told me he was someone I needed to know, to work with, and to learn from. What he was doing was important and powerful and it went to the heart of understanding what it meant to be a revolutionary and to have clarity about the content of our time. 

He was opening the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center, which is still housed in the American Indian Center. Recognizing that Chris’s work was important to the youth in Uptown, especially the American Indian youth, the American Indian Center gave Chris a space, rent-free, to run the workshops that were open to anyone– ANYONE — who wanted to take them. Chris started a free screen print workshop, which pulled young taggers and graffiti writers in to learn how to put their drawings onto t-shirts.  He taught them the process and then engaged them to help teach others.  He never charged for what he taught and he always encouraged people of all ages to honor their creativity. Even if they could not sell to a gallery or get published, they could make art, they could make t-shirts for themselves; for their friends; to sell at pow-wows and to display and sell at the Art of the T-shirt exhibits that Chris arranged in libraries, at the Cultural Center one year, and at Daley Center another year.  But more than anything, Chris adhered what his mentor Carlos Cortez used to teach us: “Do not expect to become an artist to make a living; become an artist to make a life.

For 20 years, Chris has run UMCAC on a shoestring — he always said he operated very low to the ground.  And while it is true that famous artists such as Carlos Cortez have worked closely with Chris, the thousands of other artists he has touched and helped to show that they have a voice are at least as important.  Chris’ gift to the community is translated into his vision that everyone is an artist, a vision that he shared with that other mentor, Sue Ying.  That there can be no revolution without a revolutionary culture.

As times changed, Chris added more weapons to his artistic arsenal: art shows, computer skills workshops, an artists’ co-op, a web campaign to revive the Harold Washington Cultural Plan that had been abandoned, the annual Art of the Tee Shirt Harvest Festival and the web based ART-ACT or Anti Racist T-Shirt-Artist Contest Tour.  From the ashes of the Washington Cultural Plan, Chris began the project that evolved as Free SAM or Free Speech Artists Movement.  

Chris passionately wanted artists to be able to display, and sell, their artwork in the parks and on the lakefront. That led to questioning the peddler’s license process. and that then led to his art patch project and to the Artists’ Free Speech Movement.  He was arrested in 2009, initially for selling his art patches for $1, but that charge was dropped and he was instead indicted for felony eavesdropping because he had audio recorded his arrest for selling the patches.  

This only scratches the surface, but I have to stop now.  I have to stop now by thanking Mayor Richard M. Daley.  I thought I would never thank Richard Daley, but I am doing it now.  Because King Richard and his minions thought they would pick a fight with a defenseless artist who would go quickly into oblivion.  Instead they picked on a tiger, who seized the opportunity and whose merit is that he wants us to continue to seize the opportunity, not to give up the fight for freedom until we are all free. 

Now, Occupy is not in the habit of petitioning the Mayor for actions.  In various parts of the city, organizations petition the mayor through their alderman for an street to be named in honor of one of the neighborhood’s distinguished citizens.  Instead of begging the Mayor of the 1%, we decided to confer that honor on one of Rogers Parks most distinguished citizens.  And so  Morse Ave. will be re-christened Honorary Chris Drew Way. And we are presenting this commemorative proclamation recognizing why the street will bear his name.  It’s especially appropriate for Occupy Rogers Park to be give this proclamation to Chris, because it is precisely the question of defending the “99%” to which Chris has devoted himself.  That is the content of our time: “Everything or nothing all of us or none. ” (Bertolt Brecht)

Chris Drew prints and gives away art patches at the Glenwood Ave. Arts Festival, August 2010

So now, I want to ask you, as Chris begins to talk, remember the felony charge that Chris has been fighting and take out your video cameras, your cell phones, any recording devices you have for video and audio, and record what you are about to hear, to post it far and wide on FB or any other medium you have at your disposal, to celebrate the fight for which Chris has dedicated the majority of his life, the battle which is for your freedom and the freedom of us all.  Pull those phones out and please help me welcome Diana Berek, a long time cohort of Chris Drew to present our Occupy Rogers Park award !!! — introductory remarks by Lew Rosenbaum]


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