It is impossible not to be angered by horrific images of a man, George Floyd, lying helplessly on the street, calling out for his mama as police squeezed the life out of him. We live in the East Village of New York City where dozens of businesses have been vandalized this past week. Lawlessness has ravaged our neighborhood but I see the unity and kindness peaceful protests in the Black Lives Matter movement and remain focused on the persistent pattern of injustice on Black people.
Last year Rome Pays Off created a capsule collection for the Guggenheim’s exhibition “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story,” centered around a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat and the outcry around the death of Michael Stewart, a young black artist, at the hands of police. In 1983, Stewart was arrested for tagging a subway station in my neighborhood. Several hours later, police brought him to the hospital, unconscious and badly beaten (he was hog-tied!), where he died two weeks later. Basquiat expressed his fear, rage, and exasperation painting the story of defacement, a comically austere image of two cops with billy clubs striking a black figure, directly on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio. Haring, so enamoured by Basquiat and moved by the image, had it cut out of his studio’s sheetrock wall and extoled its presentation which was eventually installed above his bed in a gold gilt ornate frame. Other artists including George Condo, Andy Warhol, David Hammons, and Haring created work in response to Stewart’s death. There were protests and a trial (the officers were acquitted). Another movement against anti-Black police brutality commenced to eventually die out, but Black men and women have continued to live in fear and suffer abuse by some police.
Recently, Spike Lee released his short film “3 Brothers,” a mash-up of the scene from Do The Right Thing when Radio Raheem is choked to death by police with real footage of the murders, at the hands of the police, of Eric Garner and George Floyd. From Michael Stewart to Eric Garner to George Floyd (and the countless victims in between), it is cause for serious reflection that we have made little progress with racial inequality and police brutality in the past 40 years.
And I know why this is still happening—because lots of people have to truly care enough to change the system. I am listening to my Black friends—they are tired, scared, and deeply hurting. Please, let's continue to peacefully protest, educate ourselves, click on the news articles (if people read them, they will continue to dominate the news cycle), like the social media posts, and donate money and time to groups fighting institutionalized racism and police brutality. We need to keep this movement front and center until there is true police reform and accountability.