Black Lives Matter - Protest Portraits
June 7th 2020
Protest Portraits is a photo project to protest racism, police brutality, racial and economic injustice. I invited the black community and those that supported them to come into the studio, tell me their stories, and have a portrait made to take a stand.
These are those photos and stories.
The biggest thing that has been going through my mind is that my little guy has autism and he's African-American.
And when you look at the statistics, a child like him will face more police violence than anything, because when an officer sees him and says, “Stop”, he’s not going to know how to stop. He's non-verbal so he’s not going to know how to communicate. And that scares me.
He will one day have to navigate the world independently. It scares me knowing not only will Gavin experience profiling, but he may not be able to respond appropriately, and the consequences associated with Gavin's lack of understanding.
And so for me, doing this is about bringing awareness to the cause. To hopefully give officers more patience, so when they see kids like Gavin, they don’t assume that they're just not trying to pay attention or they’re trying to run, because he will have a fight-or-flight response and just doesn’t know.
There are many times when people say that they're pro-life, and when you start thinking about situations like this, “Are you really pro-life? Do you really care?” Yeah. When you see somebody on the street that looks different or is different, are you thinking about them as somebody’s child, brother, husband, family member? I think that if people were to pause to think about things in that way, they might treat other people differently.
I think it's important that I tell you that I'm 69 years old. And what that also says is that I have lived and, remember, when Emmett Till was killed. I grew up in terms of social consciousness during the 60s. So, I was 17 years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Medgar Evers, the whole social movement of the 60s. So I lived through that.
And so the last two to three weeks confirms that America hasn’t really changed a whole lot in terms of the social impact of African-Americans in America. I think what has happened in the last two or three weeks is a greater consciousness, more than I've ever seen in my lifetime about people having a sense, for doing the right thing.
People are coming to a realization that black lives do matter in every part of the world. I think it's making people that are not of color pay more attention to just the rules of conduct and not take for granted so many things perhaps they've taken advantage of in the past.
It has reacquainted me with part of yesterday that I would not have thought a year ago the possibilities of recreating some of the outright hatred and disrespect. You know it's there,but to make it so unequivocal, with Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and with the most recent circumstance it just makes you really realize that America hadn’t really changed a whole lot.
I was on jury duty last year and during the jury selection process one of the attorneys in the jury asked anybody if they have had any incidents in their lives involving law enforcement. So, I rose my hand and she said, “Can you tell me a little bit about it? I said, “Well, what decade would you like me to speak about?”
It just says that it's a continual thing. Even in my 60s, I've had circumstances where I've been pulled over by the police, and you can tell by some of the statements, one guy last year pulled me over and first thing he says to me is, “You're not going shoot me are you?” I'm a gray haired, at the time, 68 year old! So things like that just remind you that we haven't changed a whole lot.
I’m a local poet, and I just finished shooting a video of one of my poems, kind of on this subject matter. Seeing those shackles, that's in my poem. There is stuff about being shackled and slave ships; and I walk in and see that, I know it’s important historical stuff but, I wouldn’t want them… I really wouldn’t.
I was talking to my wife two hours ago, or three hours ago about this, how that [The George Floyd murder] was kind of a lightning rod, and the lightning has been hitting all around all the time, but, with him, it hit at the perfect moment. With COVID, with people being out of work and when this hit, I don't want to say people had time, but in essence, they had time to deal with it instead of, “I got to go back to work. I protested once, you know, but I can’t protest all week. I’ve got a mortgage to pay.” With COVID going on, I think this was the perfect storm. That's why we had 12 days, thus far.
It’s not anything new, this shirt I’m wearing is old. It sounds bad to say this, but I can’t remember which person was murdered when I got this shirt.
So, it's not new, it’s not surprising.
The only thing that’s surprising to me is the way the nation has gotten behind it thus far. However, I'm in my 60s, so I've seen a lot, but until I see actual results, this is all good and dandy, but nothing has changed yet, nothing has happened yet.
From my perspective, with all of this going on, I'm looking at 45. I refuse to say his name, he’s trying to set up a dictatorship with his black-shirted unnamed police force and the judicial system coming in and taking over the Secret Service. I'm also going to keep my eye on that. Are we going to lose our country? Does democracy die? Don’t let me get on a soapbox.
I’m scared. I have a son and two daughters. I'm scared for them. I’m scared, not so much for me, but I could go out and not come back and then how does that affect them?
But at the same time, you’ve got to live! I’m old enough to know you can't go around with your jaw tight all the time. It wears you out. You have to find love, you have to find peace, you have to find beauty. There’s an old Earth, Wind, & Fire song that says, “and if there ain’t no beauty, you got to make some beauty.” In our society, that’s what you have to do, otherwise you’re going to go stone crazy.
I wouldn't say I experience racism every day. If you're talking about me, the individual. But the effects of racism, with me living this society it does affect me every day. Even if I don't realize it at that very moment, it’s just the way society is set up. There are enough days where it can ruin your day or ruin your week. When things are going well, your family is doing well, and then something happens that puts it in your face. You can't react like a 22-year-old because you have a family. Then you just have to tighten your jaw.
I started my schooling as a first grader in a segregated school. I started in segregation and went through the process and now I’m this old man in society. Racism, it's gotten better overall. Where I'm living, I couldn't live when I started out as a first-grader. But it's there and no matter how hard we try; it just keeps rearing its head. You know, we think we mash it down, you think it's getting better, and then it just blows up again.
I have a poem, and it's about Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On”. When I wrote it, the song was 40 years old, now it's closer to 50 years old. When you're listening to the radio, when stuff like this happens, some DJ will play it and say, “Listen to this! He knew what he was talking about even then.” Well, I think Marvin wrote that song, he was hoping that there'd be no need for that song, that people would hear him and then there would be no need for that song. We are in 2020 and there's still a need for that song, “What’s Going On”.
The Old African Who Came to the Dinner Party
she asked the group,
“If you could meet anyone
alive or dead, who would it be?”
as the gathered,
(truly a distinguished illustration of
les bon vivant) began to answer,
their voices seemed to fade
into a lethargic air of academia.
my attention, my mind, my focus went elsewhere.
for some reason this question, on this grey-black night,
surprised me … as in i had answered this question
during countless soirees previously.
yet on this grey-black night i thought of
someone i had not considered before.
a faceless ancestor, the man … woman … or even child
who was the fulcrum of my existence between Africa and America.
if i could meet anyone
alive or dead,
it would be my ancestor
who stood shackled before
“The Door of No Return” on Goree Island.
or perhaps crossed a plank onto a slave ship
docked in a port in Cameroon, Benin or Sierra Leone.
that is with whom … i would meet.
my family’s very existence is because this human being … chose to live.
one of perhaps four hundred human beings
manacled in the intestines of a slave ship.
this ancestor lay in vomit and piss and shit … and tears
and chose to survive.
he or she or even this child chose NOT to escape … to the final freedom,
by diving into the depths of the middle passage.
that is with whom … i would meet.
and when my ancestor arrived to be sold
as chattel, he or she or this child
chose to endure a slave’s existence,
knowing the lash and rape and murder loomed.
and how, in such torment,
does one find the courage and strength, to go on
and fight for a family, hundreds of years … away?
that is with whom … i would meet.
my ancestor … like Atlas,
legs sturdy in the mire of bondage,
shouldered three hundred years of future generations
and survived … stayed alive … for us.
if given a chance,
i would embrace this man, this woman, this child
and affirm, “your family is free!
you have survived, through us and we through you.”
“you, my ancestor, have prevailed … you have won.
and because of you … we are a family of poets, healers and philosophers.
we are a family of educators, mathematicians and horticulturalists.
we are a family of warriors, clergy and peacemakers.
your family has even carried the Olympic Torch.
it is the greatest symbol of man’s collective world hope.
an example of how humanity can live together in peace and equality.
we are your family … beyond slavery!”
that is what … i would say.
but then through teary eyes … whisper, “thank you, thank you.
your suffering and pain were not in vain.
your blood and courage and hope, still flow through the hearts
of my parents, myself, my children and grandchildren.
thank you, old African, you have wrought more than you could ever know.
and this descendant is thankful and proud,
so very proud … of you.
Bill: For me, these last few weeks, there's a stirring inside me now that wasn't there before.
I work with folks, African-American, Hispanic, people from different cultures. The feeling is it's different now for some reason, particularly what I'm learning that I don't know. I haven't educated myself to where I can actually feel like I can support a cause or support something, and it’s all my ignorance. This has motivated me in a different way that I’m saying, “I need to do more.”
I need to educate myself more and know that, I don’t know the experiences that different folks in different lives are leading.
What happened up in Minnesota and what's happening around the country even before that, is wrong. We should all stand up for what’s right. It doesn't matter what it is. It should be, “what is the right thing and do the right thing.” I think that's what's got me stirred and has got me energized in a way that in my 57 years on this earth that I don’t remember being this way. I’m immersing myself now in different things and different books, movies, and documentaries to understand better what I don't know.
Karen: We've had lots of conversations in the last week or two. Part of what we can't figure out is why now? Why this death? Why not the three deaths before this? Why not the other injustices that I’ve known about?
My parents grew up in Dallas in the 50s, and I remember even as a kid, my mom talking about the white water fountains and the colored water fountains. I remember just knowing, and she would even talk about how wrong it was. But it was almost always followed up by, “But there's nothing we can actually do about”. So, I don't know what it was, or what it has been, that triggered something different. Rather than putting things out on social media, this is the first time we're doing anything beyond our household. Partly because we needed time to listen, to sermons, TED talks and watch movies, read articles, learn the history, and find a way to listen more.
I'm afraid if I get in front of people, my tendency is to talk, I’m a preacher, right? That's what I do, I have lots to say. I have lots that I think. But not this time. We're trying to figure out how to go public with all the things that we're feeling and thinking. We’re realizing, good and bad, that most of the people we’re around, our friends, our close family don't have the same stirrings we’ve had or the same feelings. That makes it even harder and more important.
Bill: I also think too, with Covid-19, the quarantine and everybody being home, filters have fallen off now. With what you hear in the media is not the truth. It's talking to the individuals that are going through whatever they're going through and understanding that and creating relationships. The hustle and bustle before the COVID-19, I think was blinding us too, a lot. We have short attention spans in this country. There were so many things happening, the next thing and the next thing and we just blew it off. But we can't now. We've been sitting together and we're having these conversations that we've never had. This is the first time in our 40 years together that we've had conversations like this.
Karen: People who say it's made up [racial injustice] are blind. It's an ignorance that we can even claim ourselves. Being a female pastor, I've experienced a tiny amount of being in a place where you are not accepted. But I cannot imagine what that’s like in your whole life.
The more that we've been reading and watching and listening, the more we realize. Yeah, we wish it was over in the ’60s. It just became more covert in some places, or societies were so used to it, it was so overt and we’re desensitized to it. I just think that’s crazy, I don’t know what else to say, it feels crazy if that’s how people really feel.
Bill: Our media and politicians thrive on this fear. It's fear, the fear of getting to know somebody from a different race, the fear of getting to understand. Fear is a greater motivator, too, because people don't want to address it. It keeps it separate and that keeps us divided. And as long as the media and politicians keep us divided, there's their power base.
But if we come together and unite and treat each other exactly the way we want to be treated then, we can break the cycle. Until then, we stay divided and let fear drive, we're never going to get past where we are today. The cycle has to break. Everybody should have the same justice; everybody should be treated the same way and call out what’s wrong as a society. I applaud the younger generation because they are more motivated right now to break the cycle. We're just getting on board. I feel like I'm just catching that train and I'm like, “I want to be on that train, because that’s the right train.”