Black and Blue:
Artists Target Police Brutality
Revolutionary Worker #1079, November 20, 2000, posted at http://rwor.org
I sit down in the easy chair placed in front of an '80s TV console. Other people gather around, drawn by the over-saturated image and menacing bark of a local newscaster.
"Right now, straight from the scene, here's our team coverage with Charles Thomas. Charles?"
"Larry, it is ironic that all of this is happening on Mother's Day. Most of the people who are inside the MOVE house right now are in fact mothers and their children... Our best information is that police have been sweeping the area that was supposed to have been evacuated. They're trying to find out if all of the neighbors are gone, that they're out of the way..."
What we are watching are actual news clips of the hours and minutes preceding the bombing of the MOVE house in 1985 in Philadelphia, a military assault that resulted in the murder of 11 people (nearly all of those mothers and children) and the demolition of an entire city block. As the helicopter drops the bomb which explodes the row house, I am instantly reminded of the living room I was sitting in when I first saw this barbaric act committed live on TV 16 years ago.
I try to get closer to the screen, but the chair is bolted down. We are in an art gallery. I have heard about this work-- "MOVE" by Pat Ward Williams--but I am truly unprepared. Surrounding us on three walls, the incident is described in the chilling official language of legal documents and police reports. Behind the TV, in white-chalk on black, a diagram of the city block in question puts you right there. Later, the artist tells me that much of the footage we are watching (including wrenching scenes of the mother of a MOVE member who was still inside the house, warning of the massacre to come) was not actually broadcast, not live, not ever.
The Williams' piece is part of "Black and Blue: Examining Police Violence," an extraordinary art show curated by Nina Felshin at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut, about two hours from New York City.
Early in the afternoon, DJ Ski Hi, the music editor from Stress Magazine, sets up a massive sound system on the lawn just outside the gallery. On either side of the turntables are art works by Adam de Croix: blue police barriers inscribed with the names and dates of individuals killed by cops. Ski Hi has been commissioned by the show's curator to create a mixed tape of hip hop tracks on the subject, which strikes me as an inspired concept given that much of the best art about living in the occupied zones comes from the hip hop DJs. Ski Hi arrives with copies of a tape entitled "Black & Blue: NYPD Crew. Who Protects Us From You?" Soon, KRS-One's track by that name is disturbing the peace, and groups of students as well as a few visiting parents--it's parent's weekend at the college--are pulling up to the sound and heading into the gallery.
The gallery is big and maybe three stories high, which is good because every piece in here creates its own world, usually a fiercely audible one. You first experience Dread Scott's piece, "Historic Corrections," by hearing automated nightsticks cracking on four plastic domes with Tommy Hilfiger caps. In the center of these is a full-size electric chair; in the background a photo-mural of the lynching and burning of a Black man before a jubilant white crowd. Additional soundtrack for this tableau of past and present tools of official terror is a police radio with live transmissions from the Middletown police force. Standing before all of this, we are presented with the faces of three young Black men (color transparencies) looking straight ahead without a shred of fear, from behind metal bars. If you walk around to the other side, their faces are still visible, and no longer caged, hinting at a different, liberated future.
Nearby, Carl Pope has assembled what looks like a cheery array of trophies, large and small, the type of thing one sees on fireplace mantles and behind glass in a high school corridor. Looked at closely, however, the achievements being celebrated send a chill up your spine. Many of these faux-gold pieces are topped with grotesque figures like a cop crouched in the shooting position. Their engravings are still more ominous: "The Michael Stewart Memorial Award for Meritorious Service and Superior Achievement in the Field of Law Enforcement and Community Relations" recalls the police murder of New York graffiti artist Michael Stewart. Other trophies give "1st" or "3rd prize" to an officer for killing citizens. These ugly and threatening objects--and the table is crowded with dozens of them--are creations of the artist, but the exhibition notes include a recent New York Times magazine article on the recent Los Angeles police scandal, with the following fact highlighted in yellow: "Officers gave plaques to comrades who shot gang members."
David Thorne's piece, "ready to start overnights right away," tells the story of those in this country who live very well and those who are not allowed to live at all--and the brute hand of the police who mediate this. The piece is built around two news stories: In 1994, a homeless man, Marcelino Corniel, was killed in the park in front of the White House, shot by cops "from ten feet away as he stood holding a knife." At the same time Clinton wrote a fundraising memo, directing his staff to offer "stay-overs" in the Lincoln Bedroom to big campaign donors. The memo emerged three years later, creating a minor scandal. The names of all these guests are carefully written in pen on a white pillow. Hanging above are a string of grainy news photos that present the excruciating second-by-second account of the park murder. A cloth panel hangs down the center, inscribed with a fairy tale: "At the end of the century in a place called Slumberland, those who could afford to sleep slept and slept well, and those who could not were simply disposed of or in the official jargon of the day, 'put to sleep'..."
Some of the art work in "Black and Blue" has been seen in various communities before coming to this gallery. Hanging high on one wall is a street sign (created by Jenny Polak and David Thorne for the Repo History art project), commemorating the killing of three young men by New York City cops. One wall in the gallery is covered with posters and graphic works on the subject of police brutality, including powerful pieces by L.A. poster artist Robbie Conal, the famous "41 shots" New Yorker magazine cover by Art Spiegelman, posters on the Abner Louima incident by Dread Scott and David Thorne, and an NYPD recruiting poster. This poster--"Most people would not take this job for a million dollars"--like many now hanging in NYC subway trains, has been altered to read: "Most people would not take A LIFE for a million dollars. The NYPD does it for a lot less."
Also playing on a monitor in the gallery are the video Public Service Announcements created for the Stolen Lives Project featuring parents whose children have been killed by the police, as well as artists like Chuck D., Wyclef Jean, Reg e. Gaines and Danny Hoch. These powerful 30-second spots have been aired on BET and MTV.
"Witness," a multifaceted art project created by Brad McCallum and Jaqueline Tarry, once filled the recesses of the massive cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, and the artists have taken incarnations of the piece to 20 different street locations in the city. At the Wesleyan gallery, the piece is displayed in a darkened tower-like room. As the beautiful image of Iris Baez looks down on us from a 20-foot-high slide projection, I join a bunch of students with ears glued to a small soundbox of Iris recounting the experience of watching her son strangled to death by cops in the street in front of the family home.
Walking out of there shaken, I stop an older woman who has spent a long time with many works in this exhibit. What did she think? "It's historic. And being a mother I really felt for Iris Baez." The woman is a Black elementary school teacher from Brooklyn. As her daughter, a Wesleyan student, listens, a story tumbles out. Last week, a second grade student complained to her teachers that another student, a boy, had touched her in the wrong place. The school authorities immediately called in the cops. "This is how our communities are told to deal with these matters--calling in police on second-graders! This is their answer for everything. We need our own answers."
Some of the artists are giving a tour, and debate breaks out as a persistent alumnus keeps demanding to know why the experiences of the cops aren't represented in the show. I'm pondering when was the last time I stood in a fine arts gallery and heard the demand go up for "equal time" for the various characters depicted. And I find out later from the curator that the New York Times told her that, in addition to sending an arts critic, they're also planning to send a reporter who covers police stories to review the show. Apparently, besides being allowed to openly ban performances by musicians who challenge their right to murder and maim, the police are now being offered formal status as art critics by the national paper of record. Welcome to America 2000.
Outside on the lawn another drama is unfolding. The opening for the "Black and Blue" exhibit occurred on October 22, the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Students at Wesleyan had been planning on marking the day, but two weeks beforehand, an incident happened which drove it all home. An altercation at a party involving a Black student and a white student resulted in police brutalizing and arresting the Black student. Many students, both Black and white, were outraged.
Emerging from the gallery, I discover dozens of students, mostly white and all dressed in Black, milling around outside. A contingent in formation from the "Black and Latino Brotherhood" makes a dramatic entrance, as a Latina student pulls the crowd together. A hush falls over the crowd, and a student who was arrested during August 1st actions at the Republican National Convention tells of having been forced to watch correction officers taunt and abuse male arrestees for over ten hours in a Philadelphia lock-up.
Many of the students are surprised to hear that actions against police brutality are taking place in dozens of cities across the country. As the 200 protesters march to the Middletown police station, we witness a kind of speak-bitterness session. "The biggest form of police brutality to me is that every day I walk down the street in fear for my life," says one Black student as he recounts being at a student party when police raided "with six police cars --and dogs."
A message sent from actor Danny Hoch calls on Wesleyan students to protest the recent police incident. "You may think it doesn't matter because you are in Middletown, or because your campus is mostly white... But if you don't yell and scream that you disapprove, then you are telling the Middletown police that you approve, and they will continue until they ultimately kill one of your classmates, and then what you gonna do?"
As we head back to the campus, I fall in beside a Wesleyan student who tells me: "I was raised, as a young Black male, to be careful of my actions around the police, because the police are there essentially to police me, not to protect me. They use the law against me. The system works in a kind of double standard for minorities. The statement I'm here to make is: I will not stand for this system in the way it has existed to date.
"My next stop is the art show. I think art and music play an instrumental role. I myself am a musician. I'm a DJ, and I use my knowledge of certain music that I feel is conscious and positive to amplify messages and send that to audiences and open people's minds up and encourage them to enact change. There's a history behind it, especially for people of color. Many times music is what we use to motivate ourselves, to achieve solidarity. Music plays a role in helping people laugh or rejoice-- to keep from crying."
Outside the gallery I notice curator Nina Felshin with a big smile on her face. "There was a certain pressure to make this a really dynamite show. When I finally saw all the work up I felt really proud, I know that it will stand up to any criticism... For me getting art like this in a gallery is really important, because then it will be viewed by people who may not be as committed to these issues. It will also be viewed as art, and even if it's harshly critiqued by some, the point will be made that artists are interested in these issues and making art about it. This has an impact, especially when the art is powerful."
She goes on to say: "I knew the students were going to do something on October 22nd, but I had no idea it would turn out like this--it totally blew me away. I feel wonderful that they chose to do their rally outside the gallery. It sort of felt like a collaboration to me."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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