- the removal of writing, recorded material, or data
"the erasure of prior history"
However, I rarely liken the idea of erasure to the actual, literal and physical erasing of a person. You cannot literally erase a person. There is no pencil big enough for such a job. However, despite my belief, city officials in Trenton have managed to do just that.
On Sunday, October 12th, 2014, a group of artists gathered in the gallery of Studio 219 on East Hanover St. in Trenton, NJ. The reason for the meeting was to discuss an upcoming video project being orchestrated by me and SAGE Coalition member and HGA artist Black Collar Biz. On the heels of the shooting death of Mike Brown by Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson, I had written a poem in memory of Mike, and as a tribute to the lives of other Black men and boys across the nation who are continually criminalized and blamed for their own fates by media, police, and citizens alike. After writing the piece, I was encouraged to take it to the next level by creating a video around the concept. Black Collar Biz, simply known to many as Collar, had agreed to collaborate on the project by offering his recording and videography expertise to help the video come to life. After brainstorming and outlining the video, we held a meeting to cast the project. In attendance was SAGE Coalition member and renowned street artist Will "Kasso" Condry. After explaining the premise of the video, some organic brainstorming took place, and the idea to capture Kasso doing graffiti art arose. Coincidentally (if you believe in such things), he was preparing to go paint a gate right down the street that afternoon. I asked Kasso what has was planning on painting, and he said he hadn't decided yet...
"What if you painted Mike Brown?'
The idea just made so much sense. Capture Kasso painting a mural of the young man who the poem was in dedication to, to be featured in the video. Kasso agreed that this would be fitting, and we decided on a picture of Mike in his cap and gown to use for the image. 5 hours, 3 skateboarders, 2 black and milds, and a pizza later, we had a mural. It was gorgeous. I cried. (Shocker). Kasso asked for a quote from the poem to add to the piece, to tie it all together. Together, Kasso, Collar, and I decided on "Sagging pants is not probable cause."
We knew that the piece was going to result in dialogue, and perhaps even make some people a bit uncomfortable. But that was the point. This was #ARTIVISM. Using art as a catalyst for social change. Art is intended to evoke emotion, sometimes, disturbance. One of the ills of our society is that too often we don't discuss evident truths because they are uncomfortable. But comfort never results in growth, which is what we wanted to come of this project. As my favorite artist points out, "Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced" (James Baldwin). We wanted people to be aware, we wanted people to talk about what happened in Ferguson, MO, and why it was important to people across the country. The fact of the matter is that this issue goes far beyond Ferguson, and permeates our culture and society at a level that has only become more evident as a result of this particular situation.
However, it appears that our project did more than raise a few eyebrows and spark a few conversations. One particular police officer, as we came to find out, took particular issue with the mural. He contacted Kasso, having known it was his work, to see about sitting down to discuss the issue. Unfortunately, before they were able to find a time to meet, the officer decided to take up his concerns with the Trenton Downtown Association. This is where the story gets fuzzy. The TDA claims that the officer placed several phone calls and made several visits on behalf of himself and other officers who had taken issue with the mural. Additionally, a employee of the TDA reported to Kasso that the police threatened to trump up charges against him for vandalism, even though Kasso had permission from the TDA to paint the gate. The Trenton Police Department states that they had no official position on the mural, and many officers who were present while the mural was being painted over claim they had no issue with it at all. However, the TDA maintains that they were being pressured to take the mural down due to police concerns about the message it sent regarding police relations with the community. In the midst of these complaints, I started a petition online to keep the mural up. This petition was shared around and reposted by many people, many of whom added their own opinions and thoughts on the situation. The Executive Director of the TDA took issue with the petition and paid SAGE a visit early on the morning of October 20th. We were already planning to head down to the corner where the mural stood that afternoon to get more signatures for the petition, but what we didn't realize is that we would also be witnessing the mural's end.
That morning, a heated exchange took place between TDA Executive Director Christian Martin and members of the SAGE Coalition. Just over an hour later, after bringing coffee and doughnuts to the corner of South Broad and East Hanover for community members who had come out to see the mural and sign the petition, I found myself in the office of Mr. Martin discussing the issues with the mural and the reasoning behind the request for it to be taken down. Mr. Martin maintained that it was at the behest of members of the police department that the mural was going to be painted over. I met with Mr. Martin for maybe 30 minutes, and as I left his office I could see from down the block, a group of graffiti blasters finishing up their job covering the large mural.
They had literally erased Mike Brown.
I rushed down the street just as they were clearing their equipment, meeting a group of community members, SAGE members, and police. I spoke with several of the officers on the scene, who all asserted that they had no issue with the mural and it was not at their request that it was taken down. It seems that no one wanted to take accountability. That evening I attended a CPAC meeting in the North Ward of the city to see if I could get some answers. A community member brought up the erasure of the mural before I said anything, and the police representative attempted to dismiss it. I said that I was glad she brought it up, and told the officer that the TDA was alleging it was the TPD's request that the mural be taken down. He maintained that the TPD had no position on the mural. At that time, a councilwoman from the North Ward entered the room. Catching the tail end of the conversation, she decided to contribute her thoughts. She asserted that this was not the proper arena for such a discussion, and firmly stated the the City Council had nothing to do with the situation (which was never in question).
Herein lies my problem: The crux of this issue is the idea of literal and figurative erasure. The piece was prompted by the attempts of our greater society to either criminalize or erase Black identity. The response was to silence the statement, with no discussion, further erasing the issue. The fault of our nation is that we refuse to acknowledge and address the issues that we face, because more often than not they are both inconvenient and uncomfortable. Several organizations in the Trenton community who espouse the goal of revitalizing and uplifting the community went to head to head on an issue that was never even openly discussed. And when a conversation was prompted to address it in the aftermath, that too was silenced. And through none of it was the opinion of the community in which the mural stood considered, or even requested.
Additionally, through it all we actively engage in erasure by trying to center the conversation around us. So was the case here. This mural was never about police. It wasn't about me, or Collar, or Kasso, it wasn't about Christian Martin or Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson. But everyone who had a hand in the mural's literal erasure also had a hand in the erasure of the issue itself. While we have yet to get a legitimate answer regarding why the mural was taken down, one thing is evident; In the words of Kasso, the mural's erasure was a result of "politics and bruised egos," none of which have a place in this movement. This mural was a dedication and memorial to Mike Brown and an action of solidarity with the community of Ferguson, MO, which has been going through HELL fighting for justice and the rights of human beings across our nation. This mural was a conversation starter, intended to prompt honest dialogue about real issues that we as a country face. But because people got caught up in their own personal feelings about it, it was hastily, and unnecessarily, removed.
However, the message remains. They can erase our mural, but they cannot stop our movement. This goes far beyond the corner of S. Broad and E. Hanover. Far beyond the city of Trenton, and even beyond Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri. This is a global issue. And only one question is left to be asked:
Which side are you on, friend?
"Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos." (Steven Sondheim)
"All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up."
(James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, 1985)
"Life is more important than art; that's what makes art important." (James Baldwin)