I thought I discovered something. On further exploration, I found quite another. I discovered, once again, the power of artists to remember, lament, and protest, all at the same time.
It was December 13, 2014. I was on the Red Line Metro in Washington, D.C., heading to the National March Against Police Violence, gathering at Freedom Plaza. We were just pulling out of the Brookland Station, my old neighborhood, and I saw a piece of graffiti art I hadn’t seen before. This section of the Red Line is a beautiful and ever-changing museum of graffiti art, and here was something new. In cool white letters, easy to read, the words: FILM THE POLICE. How appropriate to discover this today. In a couple of hours, thousands of us would march to remember Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed African American men killed recently by police– and here is a new, larger than life message: FILM THE POLICE. Here was graffiti art voicing a solution. Not just protest.
Because I know this area of the Red Line well, I noted where I was and knew I’d stop here on my way back from the march to photograph this timely piece of art. I proceeded to the march. I met up with the poets. I talked to lots of folks. Marched part way down Pennsylvania Avenue. Then I boarded the Red Line for my return, planning to stop again at Brookland to photograph FILM THE POLICE. From the south end of the platform, I could get the whole work in my camera. With just a little enlargement, it would be clear, readable, and moving. I took several photographs. The one you see above was the best. Click on the image to see the whole work.
I posted this photograph to Facebook and twitter. Many friends commented on its timeliness. Then I saw it. On the left end of the painting, in what looked like another artist’s work, RIP DEMZ REEFA. I wasn’t sure what this meant but a friend commented on Facebook that she knew who REEFA was. I searched and discovered the deeper level of meaning in this work of art.
DEMZ was a 21 year-old Miami graffiti artist named Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez. DEMZ was struck and killed by an unmarked police car during a chase. He was seen tagging a privately-owned building and chased by police, then hit by the police car. DEMZ died in the hospital that night. His mother was approached by Police Union president Javier Ortiz who told her that her son should not have run from police. Then he offered to buy her dinner. On the same night, a vigil took place remembering another Miami graffiti artist, REEFA.
REEFA, also a Miami graffiti artist, was 18 year-old Israel Hernandez. An award-winning artist in Miami Beach circles, REEFA was a sculptor, painter, and graffiti artist. On Tuesday, August 6, 2013, just over one year before DEMZ’ death, REEFA was tagging an abandoned McDonalds. He was confronted by Miami police, chased, then tasered in the chest. He died that night in the hospital.
The deaths of these young men, at the hands of police, clearly is a deep sadness. To their families and friends I extend my thoughts and prayers. Their deaths also join a chorus of others, mostly young men of color, killed at the hands of police for what appears to be little reason. Chasing someone in a car for spray painting? Tasering someone for resisting arrest for a minor offense? When do police just let someone go? Surely there are times when that’s appropriate. These questions join the questions tearing at our society today after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. These also join history’s long line of African-American men killed with no consequences for those who killed them. Also in this line are Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, thousands of known and unknown lynching victims, and hundreds of thousands of slavery’s victims. The individual lives and deaths of these men are different, to be certain. But the consistent thread cannot be ignored. Our society will continue to suffer until we come to grips with the unjust systems and individual acts killing these men.
How appropriate that artists, graffiti artists in particular, are so able to capture the rage and sadness around these deaths. I don’t know if the same artist who created FILM THE POLICE is the same who painted RIP DEMZ REEFA. Others tell me they must be the same artist. I don’t know. Regardless, these two young graffiti artists are now remembered in Washington, D.C. In the same way their own public art, graffiti art, sought to speak, they now find themselves the subject of another’s art. Is there any hope in this? Not in their deaths. But in the power of art to remember, to lament, to call for change? Yes. There is always hope in that.
There is a Facebook group titled Justice for Israel Hernandez.
A Miami Herald article about DEMZ, Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez is at Graffiti Tagger Dies After Being Hit By Miami Police Car