FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety

Policing

A rally in remembrance of Emmett Till, held in front of the Courthouse on August 28, 2020 . Photo courtesy Emmett Till Interpretive Center.

Healing pervades as artists deal with race— a throughline of policing in the US

What New Yorker writer Jill Lepore calls a “crisis in policing” today is, she writes, “the culmination of a thousand other failures,” including our “failures of education, social services, public health, gun regulation, criminal justice, and economic development.” This section approaches policing as a system that is intertwined with the other systemic challenges in the US.

A report by The Guardian, which has built the most comprehensive database of US police killing ever published, reveals that “in the first 24 days of 2015, police in the US fatally shot more people than police did in England and Wales, combined, over the past 24 years.” In addition to the excessive force used by police in the US, data time and time again reveals that racial bias (both implicit and explicit) leads to the disproportionate targeting, jailing, and, in too many circumstances, killing of BIPOC individuals. The research project Mapping Police Violence reports that despite being only 13 percent of the population, Black people were 28 percent of those killed by police in 2020. Black people are 3 times more likely to be killed by police than are white people, and 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed. Furthermore, the response to dangerous police behavior by the policing and criminal justice systems is paltry. Between 2013 and 2020, 98.3 percent of killings by police resulted in no criminal charges. Simply put, police are rarely held accountable for these actions.

Powerful informal vigilante groups, formed under public or private auspices, served to control the Black population in a variety of ways.

Likewise, police are presently tasked with dealing with a wide range of situations that can be incredibly challenging. They’re rarely trained to address mental health crises, for example—and a 2016 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that 20 to 50 percent of fatal encounters with law enforcement involved an individual with a mental illness. Nor does their training usually prepare them to work with marginalized populations, handle nonviolent protests, or work in schools. Many calls to divest funding from police forces and reallocate it to hire specialized support, like mental health professionals, are rooted in this acknowledgment that police can’t address every issue that comes from a 911 dispatcher. In Eugene, Oregon, for example, through a program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), teams have been providing mental health support as a first response for crises involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction since 1989. This approach more directly addresses underlying issues, greatly reduces the presence of police in incidents related to mental health (in 2019, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police backup was requested only 150 times), and reduces public safety expenditures.

Scholars have pinpointed the origin of modern-day policing in slave patrols that began in the early 1700s. These powerful informal vigilante groups, formed under public or private auspices, served to control the Black population in a variety of ways: crushing uprisings led by enslaved people, searching for escaped slaves, and later enforcing “black codes,” repressive laws formed via a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment. We continue to see vigilante surveillance and killing of BIPOC individuals, as we did in the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, killed by two white men in Georgia, and Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, shot by Kyle Rittenhouse at a protest sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The ethos of healing pervades these projects, as it does in most of the other initiatives in this issue.

This section explores two creative projects. One dives into the deep history of vigilante policing and the importance of collective memory; the other addresses youth incarceration by bringing together incarcerated youth, artists, advocates, and police. Both deal with race, a throughline of policing in the US from the nation’s genesis. The ethos of healing pervades these projects, as it does in most of the other initiatives in this issue.

Emmett Till Interpretive Center and Memory Project

Addressing the historical trauma of Emmett Till’s murder

Location: Sumner, MS Artist Role: Facilitating community conversations about a new memorial at the Tallahatchie River; documentary education for young people Partner Organizations: Emmett Till Memorial Commission, Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors, and local community and wellness centers Cost: $4 million to restore the Sumner Courthouse

The Tallahatchie County Courthouse. Photo by Mallory Rukhsana Nezam

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center. Photo courtesy Emmett Till Interpretive Center.

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center began with an apology. In 2006, Supervisor Jerome Little of the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors (the county’s first Black president of the Board of Supervisors) organized the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. Members of the Commission realized that before beginning their work, they needed to publicly acknowledge the history of Emmett Till’s lynching, committed by vigilantes Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. During the periods of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, groups of white vigilantes committed lynchings of Black people with almost no legal consequences. The origins of modern-day policing are traced back to these white supremacist vigilante groups.

In 2007, the commission issued the first formal apology to the Till family in front of the Sumner Courthouse, where Emmett Till’s murderers were found not guilty by an all-white jury in 1955. In 2015, the courthouse was restored to its 1955 appearance with input from the surrounding community. “We had lots of community conversations about whether this would be a historic preservation project or a living memorial,” says Patrick Weems, co-founder and executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center.

The community chose the latter, making the ETIC a site for artists, young people, activists, and all members of the community to gather. In the summer, young people from the Mississippi Delta visit the center for filmmaking and photography workshops.

Some of the ETIC’s efforts to make history visible have been met with violent backlash. “At the site where Emmett Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, we’ve had to put up four signs in a row,” say Weems. “The first one was stolen, the next one was so shot up that it was unrecognizable, and the third was shot by students from a local university.”

Now the community is coming together with artists, writers, and architects (including former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, author Kiese Laymon, and photojournalist Alysia Steele) to create a permanent Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Park.

Several signs have had to be replaced at the site where Emmett Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, as the visibility of the site's violent history results in backlash. Photo courtesy Emmett Till Interpretive Center.

“We’ve really galvanized around the idea that we need arts and storytelling to process the pain of the community. But we also need it as a way to point to a different future. If you don’t do that, you just re-create the systems that are already in place.”
— Patrick Weems, co-founder and executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center.

These conversations offer an opportunity to create a new narrative for the community. “We’re one of the poorest counties in the country,” Weems says, “and we’re in a food desert. Young people have to leave the county for work opportunities. We still have 100 percent Black public schools and 100 percent white private academies. We have an opportunity to address those things during this process.”

“We’ve really galvanized around the idea that we need arts and storytelling to process the pain of the community. But we also need it as a way to point to a different future. If you don’t do that, you just re-create the systems that are already in place.”

A replacement sign at the river site where Emmett Till's body was pulled from the river. Photo by Mallory Rukhsana Nezam.

Graball Landing, future building site. They are in the early stages for a river site memorial. Photo by Mallory Rukhsana Nezam.

Performing Statistics

Youth-led cultural organizing to end incarceration

Location: Richmond, VA Artist Role: Artists and cultural organizers play a significant role in program management and facilitation; youth ambassadors and participants create multimedia art (music, documentary film, visual art) to model, imagine, and advocate for alternatives to youth incarceration. Partner Organizations: RISE for Youth; Legal Aid Justice Center; Campaign for Youth Justice; Youth First Initiative; Center for Performance and Civic Practice; CodeVA; Richmond’s Departments of Human Services, Social Services, Criminal Justice Services, and Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities; the Richmond Police Department; Richmond Region Tourism; and Venture Richmond

The second installment of the Freedom Constellations project was unveiled on Richmond's City Hall on July 1, 2021. The installation, on the North and West-facing sides of the building, features two 160-foot tall portraits of Ta’Dreama McBride and Clyde Walker made in collaboration with artist and Performing Statistics creative director Mark Strandquist. Photos courtesy Mark Strandquist for the Performing Statistics project.

Performing Statistics began in 2015 as a one-time project of ART 180, a youth arts organization in Richmond, Virginia. It has since taken on many different shapes (and names) before becoming an independent project in July 2019.

In 2017 in Virginia, 8,009 young people ages 8 to 17 were incarcerated, and Black youth were seven times more likely to be among them. In response to this crisis, Performing Statistics asked, “How would juvenile justice reform differ if it were led by currently and formerly incarcerated youth?”

This approach centers the leadership of those most affected: “We do this work because youth voice and agency have been stripped away, for far too long, by the systems that most impact us,” the organization says in its values statement. “Young people have a lot to say, and we work to ensure their voices are heard in spaces where they have been historically excluded. This means fostering a project culture that is flexible, caring, healing, and youth-centered.”

Programs include a holistic reentry program for youth returning home after detention or incarceration, as well as cultural organizing projects like #NoKidsInPrison, a digital experience and film that leads viewers through the past and present of youth incarceration; and Freedom Constellations, an interactive mural directly across from the headquarters of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus police, which uses light and audio to communicate young people’s visions for a world without youth prisons.

In 2016, Performing Statistics partnered with incarcerated youth, artists, advocates, and police at the Richmond Police Department to create an art camp. From the police department, recruits, beat police, detectives, and school resource officers came to see and discuss the art and training manuals made by the youth. The different collaborators convened in a community forum where they used art and performance to intervene and reimagine scenarios, and to ultimately discuss solutions. For example, youth, officers, advocates, teachers, and other community members broke into groups and were given scenarios where a teen was arrested. They were tasked to redesign a scene with an outcome where the young person does not enter the juvenile justice system.

“For me, this project is also about extending the limits of how a society views public safety.”
— Mark Strandquist, Performing Statistics Creative Director

Freedom Constellations subjects McBride and Walker are both youth leaders from RISE for Youth, a state campaign that promotes the creation of healthy communities and community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. The installation will remain through November 30, 2021. Photos courtesy Mark Strandquist for the Performing Statistics project.

This is the largest public art installation on a municipal building in the country that uses augmented reality. The portraits come alive using augmented reality when viewers hover their phones over the portraits from a distance. Though the portraits will be visible for miles away, the augmented reality can be viewed on the northwest corner of 9th Street and Marshall Street, directly in front of the John Marshall House, whose mission is to “engage the public about the life and legacies of the Great Chief Justice, his Richmond home, and the enslaved people who labored here through historic preservation and education,” according to their website. Photos courtesy Mark Strandquist for the Performing Statistics project.

Performing Statistics Creative Director Mark Strandquist says of the organization’s eight years of workshops, exhibits, campaigns, and public art projects, “None of that would have happened if we didn't design our workshops with as much intention and creativity as the actual art projects we're making. It's just as important to have incredible artists in the room working with young folks as it is to have adult and peer mentors who have gone through the system themselves. We don't ask young folks to dig up and parade past traumas...instead we use art as a rare and powerful medium to dream and envision a more just and beautiful future…. Our hope is that they see how important their stories and dreams are, that they fall in love with the power of their voice.”

“You need to shift culture before you can ever shift policies. These kinds of projects can help lay that groundwork, can help push cities and communities to question the past, to understand the urgency of the present, and to commit to a better future.”
— Mark Strandquist, Performing Statistics Creative Director

Another installation of Freedom Constellations is in progress at Richmond City Hall, where viewers will be able to experience augmented-reality animation and audio by two local young people, Ta’Dreama McBride and Clyde Walker, articulating their vision for a future where they and their peers can be safe, healthy, and free.

“City Hall, where on a daily basis, adults are making laws, writing budgets, and deciding priorities that impact young folks’ lives and futures, is now literally covered with the portraits of young leaders fighting to create a world where all youth are free,” says Strandquist. “For me, this project is also about extending the limits of how a society views public safety.… You need to shift culture before you can ever shift policies. These kinds of projects can help lay that groundwork, can help push cities and communities to question the past, to understand the urgency of the present, and to commit to a better future.”

This Freedom Constellations installation is an interactive mural directly across from the headquarters of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus police, which uses light and audio to communicate young people’s visions for a world without youth prisons. Photos courtesy Mark Strandquist for the Performing Statistics project.

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FORWARD: Issue #3

Community Safety

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