Now in our third year, Harlem Arts Festival is committed to supporting social activism in the Harlem community through citizen journalism on our blog. Many HAF artists create and produce socially conscious projects, so each month we will explore issues that affect the Harlem community by sharing the artists’ perspectives and responses to these issues. Recently, we have been asking, how are artists responding to the injustices of stop-and-frisk? Here we asked HAF 2013 Artist, Lädy Millard to share her point of view on the issue and how we can see its influence in her work.
Harlem in particular has received its unfair share of stops and body searches. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly even admits to targeting Black and Latino communities by concentrating police presence in neighborhoods like Harlem as early as 2003. He justifies this action by arguing that in the years before Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, murders in communities of color were staggeringly high, but today they are at a record low.
The Bloomberg administration’s recent double down on providing justifications for stop-and-frisk policy comes in the wake of this demand for change, and Judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s ruling last month that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices are unconstitutional.
The city quickly appealed the ruling and Bloomberg and his administration have positioned themselves to argue that the increased policing of nonwhite bodies is for the greater good of everyone and in particular for communities of color. However, New York residents aren’t buying this rationale.
Residents like Lädy Millard especially, do not believe the hype. Drawing from personal experience with profiling and police harassment, she is currently working with DEFY Ventures. Founded by Catherine Rohr, DEFY empowers individuals with criminal histories through MBA training to open their own businesses. Such collaborations are key to bridging the gap between individuals and resources as Lädy asserts, “This group’s success could mark a change in the social dynamics that prevent people with criminal backgrounds from accessing resources.”
Lädy is a powerful voice and advocate for self-empowerment in face of unjustified policing. Lädy produces work that confronts social injustices in America through the use of popular iconography. Her projects, dubbed street anthropology, challenge audiences to examine their perceptions of reality. Race, racism and capitalism are reoccurring themes in Lädy’s work. Her talk back to the street and culture at large, reflect what is happening in our society and push the boundaries of change. Lädy reminds us that art can embody the passion behind societal transformation:
It is important that art reflect what is happening in our society as a reminder that change is necessary. We need people who feel the need to challenge the current system to champion the need for change. Our current system still allows us to voice our opinions.
Other New York artists are also working with organizations in response to police harassment. Through technology and public art in particular, artists are helping to empower individuals who are victimized by policies like stop-and-frisk. Visual artist and smartphone application developer, Jason Van Anden (also the creator of the Occupy Wall Street app, “I’m Getting Arrested”) in collaboration with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) created an app to help New Yorkers report abuse and hold the NYPD accountable.
Through their efforts, a brave 16-year-old Harlem student named Alvin was able to expose the NYPD’s racial profiling practices last October. Armed with his phone and the app, “Stop and Frisk Watch,” Alvin recorded and reported his encounter with the police.
The two-minute recording reveals Alvin was stopped several times, verbally abused and threatened with violence by three officers in plainclothes. The jaw-dropping clip provides evidence that stops by NYPD are racially motivated. In their own words, the officers attest to this reality when they tell Alvin he’s being stopped because he’s a “fucking mutt” and threaten to arrest him.
Speak with any man of color who lives or frequents Harlem and he will likely tell you he can relate to Alvin’s experience because he has been stopped, has witnessed someone getting stopped or knows someone who has been the victim of stop-and-frisk. The unveiling and dedication of the “Know Your Rights” mural at the corner of 138th and Adam Clayton Powell embodies that experience through public art.
The mural is a collaborative project between artist Sophia “I Am Wet Paint” Dawson, Peoples’ Justices for Community Control and Police Accountability (Peoples’ Justice) and Picture The Homeless (PTH). It joins several “Know Your Rights” murals around New York and exemplifies community-based activism. The Harlem mural spanned 6 months of planning, included multigenerational input and collaborations from over 80 community members and artists.
Individuals who wish to take matters into their own hands and get involved in stop-and-frisk protest through less time-consuming public art can obtain free “Stop Frisking Sticker” kits. The “frisking” stickers are intended to be placed neatly on stop signs to read: Stop Frisking. The campaign is a collaboration between AnimalNY and artist Jay Shells, the creator of the citywide ‘Rap Quotes” installation street signs.
As for witnessing work produced by HAF artists up close and personal, Lädy Millard’s new show titled “Luxury” at Con Artist Gallery addresses race, racism, class and freedom. In her piece, “Sold Out,” Lädy depicts the gun used by George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin; a commentary on the relationship between policing, race and social status in America. Go. See. Be influenced.
Photo source: Picture the Homeless