Artist Jose Loza is using his artwork to spark new conversations about the meaning of public safety in a time when many feel disillusioned by government decision-making.
“I think the political system, the city, counts on that apathy or disinterest that occurs,” Loza said.
Loza has already made a physical imprint on Long Beach. His murals dot the city, highlighting migrant narratives and creating space for conversations that he said have long been silenced or ignored.
As protests sparked across the country, he found new meaning in local advocacy, in budget deliberations and in the renewed conversation about public safety.
During this year’s budget deliberations, advocates voiced disdain for the Long Beach Police Department’s $239 million budget subsuming nearly 70% of the city’s general fund. At the same time, other services bore the brunt of the year’s budget cuts. Library hours were cut across the city to save money, something Loza grappled with in his work.
“Right here in my community, we have the Michelle Obama Library and honestly, it’s a jewel for the neighborhood. People go there to use internet, to read, to hang out. It’s a little sanctuary in a sense,” he said. “You wonder, why aren’t there more places like this?”
To Loza, public safety goes beyond law enforcement, which he describes as “reactive” public safety. He wants to broaden the common view of public safety to include preventative measures, like opening parks for longer hours and providing recreational opportunities for kids.
“I started to think about things in terms of ‘All of these are abstract thoughts and ideas. How can I create something tangible that we can use to talk about this?’” he said.
Those thoughts culminated in a piece of currency, something tangible to spark conversations about municipal spending.
Inspired by 1890’s silver certificates, the paper currency presents contrasting images that are each representative of spending at the city level. One, a representation of current spending and its focus on policing. The next, a hopeful incarnation of the future that advocacy groups have long dreamed of.
“That specific print deals with how we value ourselves, how we value our community, how we take an active role in it and what we choose to fund, in a sense,” Loza said.
“It’s a conscious decision of where we are spending our money,” he said. “Do you want it to all be going to ‘public safety,’ but we can’t have libraries open seven days a week for the hours we need them to?”
The Michelle Obama Library is now open five days a week, along with 11 other libraries in the Long Beach who had their hours reduced to alleviate the City’s budget shortfall.
“With the pandemic going on, you see certain things, certain images, attitude shifts, just the way different neighborhoods in the city have access to infrastructure and, pretty much, are able to climb the social ladder a little bit better than others,” he said.
Loza lives in North Long Beach, an area with a high population of Latino, Black and Asian American residents. As of 2018, the median household income in the area was around $46,000 with 24% of residents living in poverty.
“I remember one day, just running around, you see these barricades. You see what neighborhoods in the city get offered more protection and defense,” Loza said.
In speaking to his neighbors, he noticed a collective understanding underpinning their conversations, “Our voices don’t get heard.”
In June, an opinion piece in FORTHE revealed that Mayor Robert Garcia had received over $500,000 from the Long Beach Police Officers Association.
In response to the article, Loza created a foldable “Campaign Fund” inspired by activity sheets he found in cereal boxes and magazines as a child. The piece is meant to provide a tangible, accessible entry point to understanding campaign finance.
The completed piggy bank is only large enough to hold spare change, a reference to the overwhelming ability of lobbyists to drown out the voices of regular citizens.
“You can do it too!” the box states, immediately followed by, “Not really though. While you’re just trying to get an email answered, special interest groups lobby and drop some serious cash.”
The activity sheets were available at Flatline Gallery in North Long Beach and at Page Against the Machine. For the past few months, Loza has been exchanging his work for proof of donation to local advocacy groups.
Though budget deliberations have long ended and election season is over, Loza plans to continue exploring topics of public safety and their intersection with local politics through art.
“If I can give away some prints to local organizations to help them raise money for what they’re doing,” Loza said. “Then that will be my role.”
Correction, Nov. 12: A previous version of this article stated that the Michelle Obama Library was open seven days week, with other libraries reducing their opening hours to five days a week. This was just a recommendation under a proposed budget. The approved budget cut all library hours to five days week.