“The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
There has been so much to process these days. So much has transpired in the world and right here in New York's capital region. On May 30th, thousands of people showed up in Albany to protest for justice and an end to systemic racism and brutality against Black people. It was my first time being in Albany in about three months. The rally was nothing short of beautiful, charged with electrifying energy for change in old systems of policing and an end to the loss of Black lives at the hands of police. When I returned home, I watched 3-4 different live streams of protests that had moved on to the police precinct on the south end. I will always remember what I saw. I admit I wasn't there but I saw no effort from police to deescalate or converse. I saw riot gear and tear gas masks early on. I saw people I care about looking for milk to ease the pain from tear gas. I watched Albany PD shoot rubber bullets at folks who were unarmed. Friends of mine posted on Facebook about the militarized presence in their neighborhoods. Places in Albany suffered from vandalism and broken windows. However, and this is a big however, broken windows, as expensive as they may be to replace are replaceable. People can come together to repair, to rebuild, to clean up. But one thing people can't do is resurrect the ones we've lost. Dead bodies stay dead and for Black people in this country, justice is rare.
I wanted to start there because when the city of Troy saw and heard what happened in Albany, the response was to board up businesses and city buildings. It felt like everyone was thinking more about their windows than about Black people dying at the hands of police. City officials, property owners and some business owners boarded up to protect property but the message of the plywood for me and others in the community was this daunting expectation that we could not protest without violence and so the week dragged without even engaging the community in conversation, without examining the reasons behind riots and without transparent support for Black Lives.
Then something happened. A group of artists who call themselves TAG (Troy Art Group) started painting on the plywood downtown. An initial call was made on Facebook for artists to join in painting on the wooden boards downtown. In that call for art the lead artist said, "I'm Looking to rally up some artists and songbirds to spread the LEAST VIOLENT protest you could possibly imagine, by spreading music and art through the streets." In the same post he also said, "PLEASE STAY AWAY FROM WRITTEN or AGGRESSIVE MESSAGES as they open up things for misinterpretation which just leads to more hate." Let's examine this for a minute. First, I'd like to point out that the capitalization is his, not mine. Also, I have questions: What written messages were artists to stay away from? What would make their message aggressive? And when the call is for the "least violent" protest what is implied? In my opinion, the intention behind his art was the same intention behind the plywood boards going up in the first place: fear. So instead of standing up for Black lives and instead of using his artistic platform to make a statement for justice, art started popping up downtown that quite frankly had nothing to do with Black people at a time when folks are enraged by yet more death by police and crucially during a week leading up to the Rally for Black Lives.
The following quote was in a Times Union article:
“Everyone is miserable because everything looks desolate,” said... one of the artists leading the charge. “We want to spread love messages, and we don’t want to go with one political message or another.” (To read the whole article, click on the quote.)
There it is. He didn't want to go with one political message or another. What other political message is there? As a Black artist, I don't have the luxury of my work, my appearance, my existence in this country not being political. When I say Black Lives Matter what I'm saying is that this country has demonstrated since 1619 that the rights to live without fear of being owned, harassed, excluded, disenfranchised, shot, lynched and subject to the disparities in education, healthcare, and opportunities for Black people is not as important as the welfare and comfort of White people so I have to remind folks that my own life and my God given rights to be happy on this planet are just as important. We can't achieve true freedom in this country if we're not all free. And that's political.
The same quote expresses a desire to "spread love messages" but I found no love for my Black life in the mural of a tank shooting out flowers at a time when militarized police are in riot gear shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protesters. When saying they want to spread love messages, to what audience? (I don't know who painted the tank but wow, I can't believe that was the image of choice.) I'll close this paragraph by referring back to the quote at the top: “The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.” Some of the art spoke volumes to me about the continued lack of visibility Black people have to endure.
Other folks noticed that lack of visibility as well and raised attention about the artists not reaching out to Black artists to work on the murals. The response expressed willingness but included a reiteration of wanting peaceful voices and not having the capacity to do the things that were mentioned such as pay artists and invite businesses to chip in. A better response would have been 'you're absolutely right'. Also, some folks like myself decided since we don't see ourselves in the art, we're going to create some on our own. Team H.E.R.O. took a group of young people out to paint on plywood but not without also having to deal with Troy PD while doing so. Did Kris and his team of artists get the same attention from Troy PD? I know I was personally thankful for the White people with me while I painted for this very reason and for the times people yelled out All Lives Matter from their vehicles driving past me. The response to my mural was overwhelmingly positive but all it takes is one incidence of violence for me not to make it home. Look at George Floyd, Maurice Gordon, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery. That's just this year and those are just the ones we know about.
To be fair, it looks like two POC artists were then asked to participate. He must have gotten a lot of heat for not including them in the first place. This was followed by a call for more Black artists to join and he referred all those inquiries to the POC artists who had just joined TAG! This is screaming let the Black people handle the Black people. What I gather from all of this as a whole is that the art was never intended for Black people, the platform to create the art was not intended for Black people unless they could censor their message and if Black people were going to get involved they could talk to the other Black people on the team instead of the so-called leader. This type of dismissive response is one reason why racism continues to permeate our society.
But that's not all, I thought okay. They may be learning. MAYBE. So yes, I spent some time on Facebook, especially after the lead artist happened to stop by my mural while I was painting. And guess what I found? All the reasons why if there is ever a show about this moment in history in Troy, I will not have my work included alongside artists who for me it seems have no interest in dismantling racism.
Statements such as:
"Stop handing over our lives and resources on a silver platter by encouraging people to violently protest. That part should be obvious, and it presents the illusion to the opposing force that they've won, thus making them withdraw their show of force."
-First, look at the pronouns. Saying "our lives" should give everyone pause here.
-Second, what resources have been handed "on a silver platter"?
-Third, who is "encouraging people to violently protest" and in the same vein of examining
pronouns, who is they?
"I didn't think I'd have to spell out on any media what I think is more productive than any protest."
To continue, then there were recommendations to read The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene and The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene as a more productive use of time than protesting.
I also have book recommendations: White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for starters are a better use of time than essentially saying that protesting is a waste of time.
"Yea lets lynch em"
You read that correctly. The response to being called a "gate keeping cookie cutter dickbag" was "yea lets lynch em". The response when two Black women engaged with a post that tried to discredit the value of protests was "yea lets lynch em". When confronted about the choice of words and phrasing, the response was "Phrasing? Like was there an alternate meaning? no. That's what angry mobs do. Nothing deeper. Pinky promise" (I don't think I need to explain this further but for anyone reading this still not understanding how problematic saying that is, please look up the extensive history of lynching in America.)
I posted how I feel on Facebook but I will close this all out by re-posting what I said here:
"This is the first mural I have ever done and it won't be the last. Painting was the most therapeutic thing I did last week leading up to the rally. Shout out to @artcentricmarketplace for centering my Black femme voice and doing the same for @theprettypainter__ . Yesterday on my live, I said we literally made art out of their fear. We did.
I have seen several online threads over the last few days about what to do with all this art. First let's not forget that boards went up in anticipation for a riot that never happened. Take into consideration property owners and the city's response leading up to the rally. Also think about the businesses who were already supporting Black people in forms of safe space and/or opportunity. For the businesses, property owners and city officials who weren't on board before (No pun intended), now is when the below surface level work starts. When the boards come down, make sure your solidarity remains.
I agree that this moment is historical and work should be preserved. I also believe any conversations about the future of all this art should be Black centered. Black artists should determine what they'd like to do with their own art. Any funds from art by Black artists should go to Black artists and Black owned businesses. Any funds from art done by folks who aren't Black should go to the bail fund and other initiatives focused on Black liberation. If you are not Black and you are for us for real then you will not profit off of Black pain for your own personal or business gain.
I'm only one person and I can't speak for other artists but these are my own personal thoughts about the art downtown. Y'all are welcome to donate to my cashapp ($dcolinpoet) or venmo (@dcolinpoet) but like I said on my mural, my protest is not for sale."
It is Thursday. Downtown Troy is quiet. The windows are back. Racism is still real. Nina Simone once said, ""It is an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live." That's what I intend to do. Always.