Michael Brown killed, Eric Garner killed, how about art?

The cast of the film Selma wear T-shirts with the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ in protest at the death of Eric Garner. Photograph: Ray Tamarra/GC Images

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

What role does art have in a post-Ferguson America?

Fuelled by peaceful creative protest and technological savvy, an audience of likeminded participants has mobilised in communities across the US

Christian L Frock

Friday 3 April 2015 20.40 BST

Last year, the conversation about racial injustice in America reached a fever pitch after grand juries failed to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner, a 42-year-old Staten Island father whose death by chokehold was captured on cellphone video, and Michael Brown, an unarmed college-bound 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri.

Simultaneously, a wave of resistance unfolded online. After the Brown verdict, Oakland protesters disrupted Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) for several hours on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. A week later, immediately following news of the verdict in the Garner case, people laid down in peaceful protest on the floor of New York’s Grand Central station, and continued to do so in many other well-publicized places around the country for weeks. Discussed via Twitter and other means online, before traditional news media even had a chance to show up, these moments of autonomous creative resistance signaled a new civil rights movement in the United States.

This Saturday in San Francisco, at the Civic Center Main Public Library, the Bay Area Society for Art and Activism is convening a panel discussion on the role of art and protest in racial justice, specifically as it relates to this present moment in political history. Central to this conversation is Jeff Chang’s recently published book Who We Be: The Colorization of America, which considers the role of race and identity in visual culture; it concludes with the pivotal moment of Trayvon Martin’s killing in Florida in 2012, and challenges the reader to consider a future dominated by a minority majority as predicted for 2043. In addition to Chang, panelists include Ben Davis, author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class and national art critic for artnet news; the Guardian’s own Steven Thrasher; Alicia Garza, community organizer and co-founder of Black Lives Matter; and, fair disclosure, me, an independent cultural critic focused on art and public life.

In recent years, fuelled by peaceful creative protest and technological savvy, a dispersed audience of likeminded participants weary of racial injustice has mobilised online. It is a movement whose time has come, repeatedly, following the deaths of countless other black and brown people under the cloak of structural racism.

There was Jordan Davis, whose killer shot into a car full of teenagers over loud music. Renisha McBride, killed after knocking on someone’s door for help following a car accident. Tamir Rice, a little boy playing alone in a park, killed instantly while holding a toy gun.

These national stories are bookended by tragedies in the Bay Area. Oscar Grant was shot and killed by Bart police while subdued on the ground in Oakland in 2010. Last year, Alex Nieto was shot and killed in a neighbourhood park by San Francisco police – it was a decidedly lower profile case that did not garner national media attention, though it bore many similarities to police brutality cases elsewhere. In the end, no charges were brought against the officers involved, despite accounts of excessive force. (Police fired on Nieto 59 times, striking him some 14 times, including seven times in the back.)

Before last year’s demonstrations, few events in recent history had generated as much dialogue on racial justice as the death of Trayvon Martin. Until that time, few Americans were familiar with stand your ground laws, which grant individuals the right to use deadly force when feeling threatened outside the home, with no responsibility to retreat. With Martin’s death also came the understanding that laws such as stand-your-ground are woven with racial bias. According to a 2012 study conducted by John Roman, a senior analyst at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, white people who kill black people are 354% more likely to be cleared of murder.

The absence of Zimmerman’s culpability in Martin’s death forced a national dialogue on systemic racism and its impact on people of colour, particularly youth victims. As cameraphones have become more widely accessible and data plans more affordable, we’ve seen injustice documented and posted online swiftly. Ramsey Orta captured Eric Garner’s death in its entirety with cell phone footage. As a result, “I can’t breathe” became a mantra across media, on the uniforms of athletes and the clothes of performers, in the lines of poets and musicians. Orta, meanwhile, was immediately indicted on numerous charges and remains mired in the justice system, an outcome that many attribute to retaliation.

“Hands up, don’t shoot,” Brown is said to have shouted before he was killed. This image became an icon of condemnation inscribed in our culture across media, in live performances, web graphics and street art.

In the Bay Area, the conversation about racial justice is intricately tied to wealth disparity, gentrification and displacement. The “Manhattanization” of San Francisco has been driven by new tech wealth, a runaway real estate boom and the widespread displacement of anyone who isn’t part of the tech sector, all of which has visibly eroded the city’s once radical, multicultural profile.

An article this week from the San Francisco Examiner presented the recent finding that 8,000 Latinos have left the Mission District in the last 10 years. On Friday, KQED published a multimedia story about the decline of the city’s black population. Recent headlines have fixated on a set of evictions that have recently been reversed in Chinatown, the disruption a clear indicator that gentrification has spread to last-resort housing.

Though the growth of the Bay Area – and indeed the culture of Silicon Valley – is unique to this region, the shifting landscape represents a larger set of issues that can be considered broadly. As technology increasingly assumes the place of American industry, the conversation about art, protest and racial justice becomes tactical in a world that leaves increasingly little space for resistance anywhere but online.

2 thoughts on “Michael Brown killed, Eric Garner killed, how about art?

  1. Pingback: Michael Brown killed, Eric Garner killed, how about art? | The Socialist

  2. Pingback: Anti-Trump protesters banned at US Republican convention? | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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