As Zakiya Harris finished performing her song, she gasped for air. As she danced, she clutched her throat. More heaving than singing at this point, she repeated into the microphone, “I, I, can’t, breathe, breathe, breathe.”
This, of course, was a reference to the words of Eric Garner––an African American man whose death at the hands of police officers in 2014 was captured on video and shared widely. Garner, an asthmatic, died after police officers placed him in a chokehold.
Harris was performing at Betti Ono for the downtown Oakland gallery’s celebration of its sixth anniversary and of its current exhibit, “Viral: 25 Years after Rodney King,” which runs until October 22. The exhibition traces the history of police violence against African Americans—particularly instances that have been captured on camera—from the beating of Rodney King in 1991 to the shooting and killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana earlier this year. Portraits of these victims, among many others, hung on the gallery’s walls, in media ranging from animated videos to embroidery to printed posters, and organized as a timeline.
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was severely beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers. The incident was videotaped by a nearby witness, George Holliday, who sent the footage to local television station KTLA. It was one of the first times police violence was caught on camera. The station aired the footage, leading to public outrage and charges against the police officers. The officers were later acquitted by a nearly all-white jury, which triggered riots in Los Angeles in 1992.
“I really feel like [Rodney King was] the first moment in modern times that people could not deny this happened,” said Daryl Wells, the curator of the exhibit, explaining why she had started its timeline in 1991, with multiple works and historical information about King. She pointed to another piece in the exhibit: a photograph of Emmett Till—an African American teenager who was beaten, mutilated, shot, and thrown into a river in Mississippi in 1955 after supposedly flirting with a white woman. “Even in Emmett Till’s time, it was somewhat unspoken. And because there was no internet, and no personal video cameras, people could still to some degree deny that it was a big problem,” she said.
She added, “But when [Till’s] mother insisted that they have an open casket for the funeral, that was one of the things that caused a lot of outrage and kicked the Civil Rights movement into higher gear. So you can look at that as a pivotal moment, and I think people seeing Rodney King’s beating was another pivotal moment in terms of undeniability.”
Sandra Bass, the director of the UC Berkeley Public Service Center and an academic who has studied police violence, said over the phone that what stands out about the video of his beating is its “visceralness.” “Something about restraining and subduing a suspect––that’s not what that looks like when you see it on video,” she said. “And there’s that moment where you realize something else is happening there.”
Spurred on by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Wells began creating portraits of victims of police violence. She then launched a Facebook community called Art Responders, where she shared her work and gathered other art and commentary about police brutality. This effort snowballed into the current exhibition, which premiered in Los Angeles at the Social and Public Art Resource Center’s Durón Gallery in early 2015.
“Viral” includes paintings, audio, video, animation and interactive pieces. On one wall are pieces like Brett Cook’s “Protect and Serve,” a photograph which shows two portraits of King’s swollen face, with the words “to serve” on one and “to protect” on the other. According to the gallery label, the portraits were created on the night of the acquittal of the four Los Angeles police officers and is a reference to the Los Angeles Police Department’s motto.
On the adjacent wall hangs one of Wells’ pieces, an animated portrait of Ousmane Zongo––an unarmed immigrant from Burkina Faso who was shot and killed by a police officer in New York City in 2003, during a warehouse raid that targeted a CD counterfeiting ring. The animation shows the portrait rapidly interspersed with images of news coverage of the event, Zongo’s year of birth and death, broken CDs, and the African continent. Wells showed several of these animated portraits throughout the exhibit, which she said were efforts to depict victims of police violence as fully-fledged people.
Scattered throughout the exhibit is Susan Mah’s site series, black and white photographs of the places where police violence has taken place in the Bay Area and Memphis, Tennessee. One of these photos is named after Jamil Wheatfell—a man who was beaten and killed by police on the streets of Oakland—and shows a blurry, empty street scene. Another is named after Alex Neito—a man who was shot and killed by police in San Francisco—and depicts a cross in a garden, covered with prayer beads, with a graduation photo of Nieto at its center.
Sprinkled throughout the exhibit are audio boxes with playlists of hip-hop songs assembled by local DJ Ren the Vinyl Archeologist, as well as Kate DeCiccio’s illustrations of mothers of police violence victims. The exhibit also features a piece called “First Person Shooter Task,” a video game created by sociologists at the University of Colorado, Boulder as a way to study implicit bias among police officers.
During Friday’s event, Wells showed an attendee how to play the game on the black computer monitor set up against the gallery’s wall. “You’re asked to shoot the person holding the gun by pressing ‘j,’” she said. “If he’s holding something else—a soda can or something else—you press ‘f.’” As the attendee played the game, images of different scenery popped up, as did people of different races holding both guns and benign objects. The goal of the game is to see if its players reveal an unconscious racial bias in deciding whether or not to shoot.
On the far wall near the end of the timeline hangs Sophie Sanders’ work, “One Day This Kid,” a series of four panels that show images of the artist’s son alongside text about the racially-dictated future that his mother worries awaits him. Each panel is a piece of paper, framed by a matte, that shows two burgundy-sepia toned photographs of her child lying in different positions––sometimes face up, sometimes face down, on what appear to be bedsheets that wrinkle underneath him. Interspersed with these images is burgundy type. A portion of the second panel reads: “One day this kid will do something that causes people in police uniforms, men who inhabit certain stone buildings, to call for his arrest, punishment, and death.”
The exhibit was accompanied by musical performances from Zakiya Harris and MJ’s Brass Boppers, a New Orleans-style second line brass band, which performed in a procession that started outside on the street and moved indoors. Additionally, several youth groups performed, including participants in Youth Speaks’s “Under 21 Open Mic,” who performed spoken word poetry, and members of Young, Gifted, and Black, who performed songs, chants and poetry.
With a grant from the Akonadi Foundation, the gallery had hired five youth fellows—high school students—who gave tours of the exhibit and helped prepare for the evening. Wells, a former teacher, said that part of the reason they pulled in young people was to educate them about the efforts of previous generations of black activists.
On October 22, the fellows will help host a youth summit at Betti Ono as part of the National Day of Protest to End Police Brutality. The day-long summit will include three workshops on knowing your rights, the art of political graphics, and hip-hop as protest, as well as performances and art making.
Anyka Barber, the owner of Betti Ono, said that she intended the gallery’s celebration to be one of “performance as resistance.” For Barber, this means taking into account the role that performers have played in addressing historical moments of trauma for communities of color, from slavery to today. Barber said, in a phone call ahead of the event, that all of performers would be “articulating a particular stance around resistance and people of color being able to exist and survive during really, really critical times.”
She added, “Right now, it’s really, really serious. And a lot of folks on a daily basis are dealing with a lot of trauma—whether that’s personal, social or community trauma—in relationship to racism or violence against bodies of color.”
After singing on Friday night, Harris shared her thoughts on performing for the exhibit’s opening. Referring to the victims that the exhibit portrays, and to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, she said, “I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of those ancestors and I’m able to give my contribution to maintain the struggle and maintain the fight towards something different.”