On July 4, 2020, we began a memorial for Black people killed by the police under the Red line tracks in Rogers Park. Previous posts, on 8 July and 17 September, describe some of the goals we have had in making and maintaining the memorial.
In this post, on a day that feels like the beginning of spring, I reflect upon what the memorial is becoming. When it began, with Black Lives Matter protests occurring across the city and nation, the project was as much a protest as it was a memorial. It expressed grief, outrage, frustration, perhaps also the optimism of agitation; the will to change. Eight months later, it continues to resonate in these ways, but has acquired other sentiments and signs; perhaps they were there already, and I have become attuned to them. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel on public monuments sponsored by the Chicago Monuments Project. This amazing project seeks to address “the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history, confront the ways in which that history has and has not been memorialized, and develop a framework for marking public space that elevates new ways to memorialize Chicago’s history more equitably and accurately.” The other panelists offered very thoughtful insights into what the city’s monuments might become; the public’s questions and their answers illuminated qualities of this project that were not apprehensible to me when we began.
There have been a number of material additions to the memorial as public contributions have continued to grow and change it’s shape and scope. The most obvious addition is:
Two local carpenters built what we call the altar. One of them stopped by one day and asked if we’d like them to build something for the photographs, candles, cans of food, bottles, incense, and other offerings that were left against the wall. We said, “go for it,” with no idea if anything would materialize or what it would be. A few months later, I arrived one morning to find this beautiful construction. It is made out of wood, decorated with furniture tacks, and the inside is covered with corkboard so that you can put photos and prayers up with thumbtacks. It protects the candles from the wind and all the offerings from the snow and rain.
As an object, it is beautiful. It’s five arches sit on two tiers, which wrap around the corrugated outer edge of the arches to meet the base of the backboard. Within the arches are eight shelves. The inside of the arches and the outside of the tiers are lined with small, thick black furniture tacks. But for me, the truest expression of the love it contributes to the memorial comes from its resonances with the inside of the underpass. In its size and many functions, it honors, protects, and amplifies what was already going on within the monument.
I am grateful for the altar every time I visit the monument. Even before it arrived, I had begun to think of the monument as a kind of church. I have been visiting it every Sunday, which is when my family used to attend Episcopal services when I was growing up. I have found there much of what I remember from church in those years: a place for solemn reflection, a reminder of the work that must be done, prayers for the dead and fellowship for the living.
Portraits and More Birds
A number of people brought large portraits of various kinds to the monument. The first portrait to appear was on the Red line wall, a little ways away from the edge of our site. It is an exquisitely made, slightly larger than life portrait of a Black woman, sketched in black and gold on brown paper and wheat-pasted onto the wall by someone who knew what they were doing. It appeared without a title or explanation; it is far enough away from the monument that it seems to comment upon as well as contribute to what we are doing. The next large portrait was an image of Breonna Taylor made out of multiple sheets of standard sized printer paper taped together. This image came with a story: its contributor worked for a city library; they designed and printed it to put up on the library bulletin board, but a supervisor refused to allow it. In short: library police! So this person brought it to us and we affixed it to the wall.
More recently, a member of the P.O. Box collective printed large portraits of Chicago residents killed by the police. These portraits, some of which are pictured above, now grace the tops of the inner arches that face the altar.
Birds have always visited the monument. There is an electrical box at one edge of the main wall with an accumulation of pigeon poop that required years of growth. I’m afraid we’ve scared them off, but maybe they will return in the spring. Meanwhile, a number of exquisitely crafted paper and tape birds have begun to perch on the electrical cables running along the upper edge of the inner wall, and some have even occupied the pigeons’ former roost.
Precarity and Repair: Toward a Living Memorial
We are grateful to the journalist Ash-har Quraishi for a thoughtful portrait of our memorial for Scripps that has appeared on local stations across the country. You can watch it here on WXYZ in Detroit: Artists maintain neighborhood memorial mourning victims of police violence. Quraishi told me that he’d been visiting memorials made in the wake of George Floyd’s death across the country, and that ours was one of the few that was still intact. The reason for our ‘longevity’ is simple: our memorial is still in progress. We are not yet done building it; our installation remains ongoing.
One of our goals is to make a visual representation of all the Black people killed by police and security forces in the United States over the last decade. This visual representation is far from finished. So far, we have pasted up names as far back as 2014. Although Rekia Boyd is on our wall, we have not yet begun to represent all Black lives taken in 2012, the year she was murdered on an unusually warm March 27th by an off-duty police officer. And the crisis continues. At least 125 Black people have been killed by the police since we began the project eight months ago. Furthermore, our data is incomplete. I have been relying on two primary databases: Fatal Force, a Washington Post database that attempts to record all encounters with the police that resulted from a death by gunshot. Obviously, this data is incomplete for our purposes. Daniel Prude, George Floyd, and Eric Garner don’t appear on it, for example. A more comprehensive database is Fatal Encounters, which attempts to track every death in which the police were involved. These databases, like all of the ones I’ve found, rely upon local news reports. For the most part, the local news reporters rely on police statements for their initial story–and few of these deaths are ever revisited on the news. In the last six months, I’ve observed a disturbing trend. More and more frequently, the police repots do not identify the race of the person who died. I suspect that under heighted scrutiny police departments may be hiding Black death by refusing to provide this information. This is particularly ironic when one considers their role in the construction of racial categories of identification in the first place.
So we are not done. And meanwhile, the memorial deteriorates rapidly. It was never meant to last; wheat paste and paper is no match for a Chicago winter. I knew this when we started but I had no conception of what the project’s future might be. I expected that we’d get shut down in a few days. As it turns out, that didn’t happen–in part because we agreed not to put anything lasting on the public walls. Unlike paint, wheat paste is not considered durable by the city, and for good reason. Although we have been perfecting our recipe and technique, snow, wind, and rain are at least as effective as the city’s Graffiti Busters. But fragility in one area generates durability in another.
Some of us who visit the memorial regularly have determined to maintain it. When the name cards begin to peel, we reapply our paste and stick them back down. When the names fade, we go over them with a fresh marker. When the paper is about to come completely off or the name illegible, we replace them. Thus, the memorial has become something to be tended on a weekly, if not daily basis. We care for it and in the shelter of that care we are rewarded with new friendships, new alliances, new ways to serve.
I will end with a story of the memorial becoming other to itself over the winter.
One of our neighbors sees the memorial almost daily; since before we began, she was waiting for a ride almost every day under the Red line tracks. A few months ago, her husband Ricardo–a Rogers Park resident for many decades–died of COVOID-19. When she told me this, she explained that she understood that his name wouldn’t be appropriate for the wall as he had not been killed by the police. But I felt that this was one of the things the altar has made possible; it has made a space within the memorial which is larger than the memorial’s stated purpose. In the darkest days of February, she brought us a couple of photographs of Ricardo for the altar. Putting them up, along with some verses, and remembering this beautiful Black man, taken well before his time, was very moving, and an expansion and clarification of our project.
Since my last post about the memorial, three stories about it have appeared; one is mentioned above. Here are the other two. A few days after Christmas, Darcel Rockett visited the memorial with photographer Erin Hooley. The result was an incredibly thoughtful and detailed piece on the memorial which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 30 December 2020. Here is a link to “Volunteers create Black Lives Matter memorial under the Red Line in Rogers Park with the names of people killed by police.” A few days later, Joanie Lum of Chicago’s Fox 32 paid us a visit, creating this generous portrait of the project, which aired on 8 January 2021: “Mural dedicated to victims of police violence keeps growing.” We are deeply grateful to these reporters for taking the time to understand what we are trying to do.
As the warmer weather returns, I invite everyone to visit and contribute to the memorial. It is a public monument. No one controls it; no one determines how it should be used. A group of volunteers are meeting there every Sunday from 11:00 to 1:00 to tend to it and add names.
The Crisis Continues
This memorial continues because the crisis continues.
Take the case of Benjamin Tyson. On Thursday 25 February, Baltimore police responded to reports of a non-fatal shooting following an altercation in the Inner Harbor neighborhood, near the Aquarium. Police chased a suspect into a nearby parking garage. Body camera footage shows Benjamin Tyson walking up the ramp; he is ordered to put his hands up. He takes both hands out of his pockets. In his right hand he holds gun. It is not pointed at the police; both hands are half-way raised and on on their way up when the video stops. Two or three officers fired sixteen rounds. In their initial report, the Baltimore Police Department claimed that Benjamin gun had “misfired.” Then they said that it had “jammed.” Indeed, their own footage clearly shows that he does not fire the weapon. They claim that he points it at the officers but that is not in the video either. According to Baltimore’s Mayor, Brandon Scott, the killing of 35-year-old Benjamin is an example of “our police officers being where they’re supposed to be.” According to Benjamin’s sister, Kia Shaw, the police’s version “is not the events that we viewed.” “They can’t keep killing us with no explanation,” she is quoted as saying on WJZ, “Sixteen shots was overkill, so we want answers.”
We miss you, Benjamin Tyson.