On February 26th, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was confronted and shot by two White men while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT, was shot in her own home eight times by Louisville Police on March 13th. Two months later, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father, died on May 25th when a Minneapolis police officer forced him to the ground and kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes while two other officers restrained him and another stood by preventing witnesses from assisting. These murders spiked outrage and empathy from Black people and our allies across the country. Nation-wide riots sprang to life. Even in the midst of COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of people are risking their lives protesting daily against the police violence that Black people are subjected to in the U.S. The alarmingly high number of Black individuals killed by officers generated a greater conversation on the systemic racism America was built upon.
Subtopics such as overly Eurocentric curriculums, hiring discrimination, racism in the workplace, lack of/denied access to proper health care, and discriminatory laws have all also been brought into the spotlight. Despite this resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement being catalyzed by police violence, every day new victims are revealed in the media. Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, Robert Fuller, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain are just some of the emerging names of murdered Black people since protests began on May 26th, 2020—the day after George Floyd’s death. The centuries-long revolution for Black liberation has been revived and is rapidly gaining momentum, especially through art. In Portland, Oregon, artist Christian Grijalva commemorated Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd with a mural. Located on the side of a grocery store off Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Failing Street, the artwork superimposes black and white sketches of the three police violence victims over a kaleidoscope array. Underneath the faces are shadows of protestors with various signs, one of them reading “Black Lives Matter”.
Once-radical topics like antiracism, allyship, and abolition have been integrated into everyday discussions. Communities started taking action to protect their people—on June 7th, the Minneapolis City Council voted to defund the police department and invest in community-based public safety programs instead. Numerous funds circulated the web to garner services for those in need; funds to provide protestors with legal services, funds to provide free and sliding scale mental health services to Black people, and countless other donations for various Black communities facing financial risk due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Artists created digital images in support of the movement as shareable content and in real-life as street art. Murals took shape, especially in the nation’s major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Boarded up business storefronts became canvases for professional street artists such as Vincent Ballentine, Subway Doodle, and Espartaco Albornoz Abreu. A mural they collaborated on spans several feet on Fourth Avenue and Union Street in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The painting features a bald, Black man with tightly shut eyes shouting “Black Lives Matter”. Strikingly white capital letters are juxtaposed against a maroon background. Golden stick figures of children—Abreu’s trademark ‘nozco’ character—form the mural’s bottom layer. All of these inspiring actions for the Black Lives Matter movement continue to occur alongside relentless injustice. Police are attacking protestors with rubber bullets and tear gas. Essential workers—a population largely composed of People of Color (POC)—are forced to travel in the midst of not only a new, devastating virus but also hoards of violence propagated by police against peaceful protestors.
Historical news clippings, controversial photos of Black people portrayed in U.S. media over time, and political memes are also traveling far. Graphics have long been crucial tools for revolution.
The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, along with many other equally tragic deaths surfacing daily, have garnered national attention thanks to the collective efforts of protestors, activists, organizers, and artists. Informational slides on antiracism, microaggressions, white privilege, systemic racism, and related topics are now circulating widely across social media. What makes these images so powerful are the same factors that make them accessible—their aesthetically pleasing bright colors and graphics, and their vernacular language. Historical news clippings, controversial photos of Black people portrayed in U.S. media over time, and political memes are also traveling far. Graphics have long been crucial tools for revolution. In this movement, they are nearing their maximum efficiency, disseminating complex ideas with optimal accessibility. The picture superiority effect reveals that human beings understand and retain knowledge better through images rather than words. But rising generations possess an especially strong proclivity for understanding via images. We have been raised on internet culture and increasing consumerism, both of which bombard us with visually-coded images selling and sharing sensibilities. The Black Lives Matter Movement is gathering traction because social media has transformed into a hub of information—namely through images—enabling anyone with an internet connection to read, share, and comment.
Although the U.S. is on display for its alarming cases of police violence and its systemic oppression of African-Americans, our ongoing protests have sparked riots and dialogue in countries everywhere given that Anti-Blackness is a global issue. Artists all over the world are creating art in response to uprisings. For example, in Manchester, England, graffiti artist Akse painted a mural of George Floyd which soon transformed into a memorial decorated with flowers left by those showing their respects. Its sentimentality reflects the power of the community and the necessity of empathy. Nearly 4,000 miles away back in Minneapolis, at the section of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, flowers grow in a garden created to memorialize George Floyd. In the middle of the garden is a sculpture in the shape of a fist. On the side of Cup Foods—the grocery store behind the memorial—a mural of Floyd has been painted. Nearby, on the pavement, are various messages of sorrow, rage, and hope written by people. Despite being created in the wake of death and tragedy, the garden stands as an everlasting symbol of communal resilience, our shared stubborn fight for a better future.
Without context, images are up to the interpretation of any individual.
Murals, street art, paintings, drawings, comics, memes, and graphics have all been essential tools for disseminating knowledge in this chapter of the Black Lives Matter Movement. While images are an effective medium for sharing and recording information over a short amount of time and across continents, it is also very easy for anyone to manipulate a picture’s meaning. Without context, images are up to the interpretation of any individual. Many people in positions of power like celebrities, politicians, officers, businesses, and social media brands, have explicitly corrupted the ideas behind significant images and symbols during this resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement through both media and street art. Consider the trend in police officers kneeling with protestors. Others hugged, shook hands, spoke to, and prayed with protestors. When the public first encountered these images and videos, it gave many hope in the fantasy of “good cops,” as it was meant to. Police kneeling with protestors is a performative gesture, however, rather than an accurate portrayal of reality.
Many activists on the ground have called out this trend of kneeling cops as a PR stunt meant to calm the agitated public and redeem police departments’ reputations. Protestors have shared material of cops beating them as soon as journalists captured their pictures. This same article goes on to cite the following violent actions taken by the police against protestors: In Manhattan, cops lured peaceful protestors in with a kneel of solidarity but then, when they got close enough, tear-gassed them. Cops knelt with protestors in Detroit too, shooting tear-gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades at the same group they pretended to empathize with minutes before. In Orlando, police led a prayer with protestors, only to mace them 45 minutes later. Context is extremely important when analyzing any material—literature, film, TV, plays, history, art (including graffiti and street art), architecture, law, philosophy, etc. With context, we can understand that the surge in kneeling police officers is an organized manipulation tactic. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” A picture of a kneeling officer says: Empathy. Solidarity. Community. Good Cop.
Black Lives Matter DC called Bowser’s “mural” what it really is—performative street art aimed towards appeasing white liberals while silencing the strength of the Movement.
Or take the DC mural, which sprawls along 16th Street near Lafayette Square and reads in bright yellow capital letters: “Black Lives Matter.” DC Mayor Muriel Browser unveiled the mural, yet also revealed in May her proposed budget for 2021 includes a $45 million dollar increase in funding for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and a decrease in community-based programs and interventions. Black Lives Matter DC called Bowser’s “mural” what it really is—performative street art aimed towards appeasing white liberals while silencing the strength of the Movement. On June 6th, they released an official statement on Bowser’s street art, writing: “We hold that we have a duty to the loved ones named above to ensure that they are not forgotten and their deaths are not exploited for publicity, performance, or distraction. Mayor Muriel Bowser must be held accountable for the lip service she pays in making such a statement while she continues to intentionally underfund and cut services and programs that meet the basic survival needs of Black people in DC.” Their statement also demands Bowser opt for actual change via defunding the Metropolitan Police Department, dropping all existing charges against protestors, banning “Stop and Frisk”, and abolishing prisons. On June 6th, organizers painted their own mural on the same street as Bowser’s, which read in equally bright yellow caps, “Defund the Police.”
Our generation’s overexposure to media has enticed many of us to favor images over text, but the inherent problem with images (both photographic and drawn) is their lack of context. Context is as important as content, perhaps even more important. When people share these images, they are promoting their ENTIRE message, not just the surface meaning but the hidden meaning, too. Politicians, police departments, corporations, public and private institutions, celebrities, and other individuals and systems in power are very much conscious of this, and are attempting to paint a false narrative of the events currently taking place in the United States so that the people may not only promote, but believe in this fabricated reality. The more we share images, art, or other media from people and organizations who are against or silence demands for the protection of Black people, the greater their message spreads and the more power they inherit.
The only way to effectively avoid falling into the trap of promoting empty (or violent) institutional messages against the greater good is to critically engage with the media we see online. Some guiding questions are: “What is the socio-economic background of the individual/group who posted this image, and what is their relationship to the subject?”, “How is this post engaging with the Black Lives Matter Movement? Is it citing resources from organizations and/or key leaders? Does it rely heavily on the experiences of Black people or the opinions of non-Black people?”, and “Does the content center on the cruelty Black people undergo in the U.S. and demand change, or is does it focus more on the feelings of non-Black people (particularly, guilt) and offer vague encouragement or encourage ‘non-violent unity?’” If we hope to inspire actual change during this uprising, we must be careful that the ideologies we’re promoting online aren’t devoid of meaning or, worse, seeking to retain the very institutional structures which have suppressed Black people for generations.
“That’s what murals do—they keep reminding you of these events and the people that are part of these movements.” -Ed Hamilton
Overall, though, it seems that the United States—the world, even—is waking up to the issue of systemic racism, and understanding that change needs to come. Art has become a popular medium for many when it comes to recording the historical moment taking place this generation, and envisioning a better future. Figures like Ed Hamilton, a sculptor renowned for his depiction of historical African-American figures whose work can be found at the Speed Art Museum and Frazier History Museum, are doing just that. Hamilton recently commissioned muralist Dan Thompson to memorialize George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, the town where Breonna Taylor died. On the corner of 500 S. Shelby St, the two figures stare into the distance with raised eyebrows and pursed lips, looking America into her eyes and challenging her to act on behalf of them; to give them the justice they deserve. People stop by every day to admire the mural and take pictures with it. On this, Hamilton remarked, “now we got two figures who are going to change the world and hopefully change the way policing is done…That’s what murals do—they keep reminding you of these events and the people that are part of these movements. They should never have been killed and we’ll never forget them.”