Vision & Justice Online: The People’s Justice Murals
On the streets of New York, murals strike back against police brutality.
Nelson Rivas, aka Cekis, Washington Heights, Upper Manhattan, Wadsworth Avenue and 174th Street, 2009
Photograph © Emily Raboteau
I pass this mural next to a laundromat every day on the way to my kids’ daycare in Washington Heights. It pops out from the gritty gray buildings surrounding it—a vision of blues. The mural is hard to ignore. Huge letters trumpet “Know Your Rights!” followed by basic information about what to do if arrested or stopped and frisked. Because I so appreciated the integrity of that message, and the beauty of the mural in my neighborhood, I took a picture of it. After that I set out to find others. There are currently ten (and counting) “Know Your Rights!” murals spread across four boroughs in New York City, typically in poor neighborhoods plagued by police misconduct. In the summer of 2015, I traveled to Harlem, Bushwick, Long Island City, Bedford Stuyvesant, and Hunt’s Point, to photograph them.
The murals were commissioned by a coalition of grassroots organizations called People’s Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability and financed by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Yul-san Liem, who works for the Justice Committee, explained to me that the murals are part of a broader project to counteract police brutality: “Our original goal was to highlight the systemic nature of police violence in communities of color.” People’s Justice formed in 2007 in the wake of the New York Police Department killing of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, the day before his wedding. “It wasn’t an isolated incident,” Liem lamented, recalling the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, who was also an unarmed black man, and who was shot forty-one times by police, as well as the assault of Abner Louima, sodomized by police with a broomstick in 1997, among others. In response to this pattern of misconduct, Liem said, “We’ve taken a proactive approach to empowerment that includes organizing neighborhood-based Cop Watch teams and outreach that uses public arts as a means of education.”
As with protests organized via the Black Lives Matter movement since 2013, these works of public art convey how people on the street are responding to police brutality now. The deaths in recent years of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling (to name but a few) have shown us the necessity of art like this, which attempts to save actual lives at risk. When I remarked to Liem that the murals struck me as an act of love for and by the people living in the neighborhoods in which they exist, she agreed. “Visual art communicates differently than the written or spoken word,” Liem told me. “By creating these murals, we seek to bring important information directly to the streets where it’s needed the most, and in a way that’s memorable and visually striking.”
Indeed, the murals are huge, colorful, and graphic. In each photo, I captured a local resident in the frame, walking past the mural to give a sense of its scale. I chose to respect that person’s anonymity in case they didn’t wish to be photographed by a stranger. Their face may be hidden by their phone, or turned toward the mural, or silhouetted by the angle of light. Sometimes it took hours to get the right shot; hundreds of photos for the one photo that worked.
I shot these images with my iPhone 5s. Many of the subjects in the murals themselves are depicted shooting with their phones, too. The muralists meant to convey that we have the right to record police activity. These days our phones are crucial weapons in the fight for social justice. Over the course of this project, I was struck by how many of the murals figure cell phone technology as an agent of social change. When a bystander captured Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers, prompting the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, that kind of footage was rare. People didn’t walk around with video cameras in their pockets. But as the footage of Michael Brown—who was murdered by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and his body left for hours in the street—showed us in 2014, instant and widespread exposure via social media has the power to initiate nationwide protest. While it remains true that the police may still brutalize and kill us with impunity in this country, it is also true that we now have the ability to lift our cell phone cameras and shoot back.
These pictures are part of a photo essay that will appear in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks Out About Race in America, forthcoming in August 2016. They were documented by the photographer with the permission of People’s Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability.