On the 4th of July, the CAFF Collective and the P.O. Box Collective began a neighborhood memorial in support of Black futures. The memorial is under the red line tracks at Glenwood and Farwell in Rogers Park, Chicago.
I developed the idea for the memorial a few days after the protests began in response to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on May 25. The first step was to screen print hundreds of posters, which were distributed for free to the public at the site.
“Free lines” are a technique for distributing movement culture posters, t-shirts, and pamphlets that the Cheap Art for Freedom (CAFF) Collective developed during opposition to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002-6.
The next step was to screen print hundreds of “We Miss You” cards. Each card has space for the name of a Black person killed by the police and the date of their death.
As residents of the neighborhood passed by, we invited them to “take a poster and leave a name.” Some people chose not to interact, but most stopped to talk and some stayed to help us wheat paste the names to the memorial wall.
The names of Black victims of police violence were taken from several databases, including the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database of people fatally shot by the police and Operation Ghetto Storm, which to the best of my knowledge was the first attempt to create a comprehensive database of Black death at the hand of state and private security forces, back in 2012. At that time, Operation Ghetto Storm estimated that a person of color dies at the hands of the police every 28 hours in the United States. Based on the Washington Post’s data, which includes only those deaths caused by gunfire (George Floyd is not included, for example), its clear that the numbers of fatal encounters have only increased since Trump took power. On average, a Black person is shot to death every day in America. The number of people who are wounded but not killed, or choked or electrocuted or beaten to death is not known.
Anyone looking at these or other databases that track police violence should know that they are incomplete and often misleading. Because neither the federal government nor most state governments maintain public data about police violence, the basis for the data is mostly local news reports, which tend to rely upon police spokespeople for their account of events. Many killings are not investigated further. It takes eyewitness testimony, cellphone footage, and the persistence of the victim’s family to bring a full account to light. Often, its several years before the truth of incident becomes clear. Consequently, nearly every “first draft” of what happened justifies the homicide (usually by saying that the victim “fired at,” “pointed a gun at,” “lunged at,” or “charged at” one or more officers. These are the magic words that allow any officer to escape punishment–or often even a thorough investigation–of the actions that led to the loss of yet another Black life. Over time, and against the concerted efforts of police administrators and union bosses, district attorneys, and elected officials, a many fatal encounters are revealed to be totally unjustified, even according to the laws written to favor state violence.
In 2014, I began to research Black death at the hands of cops, security guards, and citizen vigilantes (commonly known as “homeowners” in the local news). Using “objectivist poetics,” I created factually accurate accounts of these incidents that focalize on the people who were killed. This is in contradiction to the news accounts, which almost always tell the story from the murder’s point of view. Here are three of these poems:
March 2, 2012 New Orleans, Louisiana Wendell Allen, 20, oldest of eleven was a high-school basketball star. "He was my everything. He was my superstar," his mother Natasha said. At Frederick Douglass averaging 21 points a game, he landed a spot on the Times-Picayune's All-Metro team. Upon graduation, Wendell tried Navarro College, a day's drive away in Corsicar Texas; but, missing his family, he came home and found a job at Richard's Disposal: community focused, environmentally friendly their logo. A teenager named Troy Deemer told cops that Wendell's brother Davin sold pot. Officer Michael Voltolina observed exchanges between Deemer and others in the driveway; it was assumed (not proven) that marijuana was exchanged for cash. On the first Wednesday in March NOPD's 3rd District narcotics unit rammed in the front door of their house. Riot-geared officers entered the living room, where Wendell's sister Jazmine was watching TV. Officer Joshua Colclough and several others ascended the staircase. Wendell, just home from pickup basketball, shirt off and hands empty, came out of Davin's upstairs room; Colclough shot him through the lungs and heart. March 27, 2012 Chicago, Illinois Rekia Boyd, 22, walked among throngs of Douglas Park residents enjoying the warmest March in years. Dante Servin, an off-duty detective, became "frustrated" by the noise. Strapping on his piece, he went out "to get a burger." Soon he encountered Rekia and her friends leaving the park. Driving the wrong way up a one-way street, he blocked their progress. Gesturing from his car, Servin told the group to quiet down, sparking a verbal altercation with several of the men. "Fearing for his life," Servin fired five rounds over his left shoulder. He hit Antonio Cross, who was reaching for a cell phone, and shot Rekia in the back of her head. July 21, 2012 Saginaw, Michigan Milton Hall, 49, slept on the streets. The sky was blue; Midwestern wisps of altocumulus--a pleasant afternoon when the SPD received a call that Milton had stolen a cup of coffee from a convenience store. Some reports suggest that it was Milton who called 911. The first officer on the scene, A. J. Tuer (also known as Wojciechowski) found Milton in the parking lot with a knife. She reported that he was not "looking so nice" and said that if officers didn't arrive soon she'd "have to shoot this guy." Soon five officers and a dog cornered Milton near the lot's edge. He's said to have taunted them: "My name is Milton Hall," he shouted. "I just called 911! My name is Milton and I'm pissed off!" The dog's leash was let out; its advance further agitated Milton. "Let the motherfucking dog go!" he screams. In witness video, he steps back. Six officers fire 47 rounds, striking him eleven times.
These episodes, and thousands of more like them, are what the names on our wall represent. Some of these fatal encounters can be found on an interactive map the artist/activist Brian Holmes created several years ago.
On August 5th, a member of the Rogers Park police department demanded that we stop adding names to the wall, take down the posters, walk away from our memorial. We complied. But since then, the memorial has grown every day, as our neighbors add flowers and candles, photos and names in chalk.
We invite and encourage everyone who cares about Black futures to contribute to the memorial. Take a poster, leave a name, light a candle, say a prayer. Remember that this small gesture barely registers the enormity of state violence. The next step is to defund the police; history has shown us that reform efforts pour more tax dollars into police coffers without in any way mitigating the crisis. We need to dismantle, rebuild, start again. Not until the state can prove that Black lives matter–not until it exists to support Black futures–will any of us be free.