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Since the chilling deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and several others, protesters have taken to the streets to vocalize their concerns, while others have exercised their First Amendment rights in a different medium. Murals and paintings throughout neighborhoods and cities have taken over as another form of resilience.
Zeroing in on Miami Beach, the relationship between law enforcement and the Black community has never been a positive one. In 2011, Raymond Herisse, a 22-year-old Haitian-American man, was killed by Miami Beach police during “Urban Beach Weekend” in a hail of gunfire that consisted of more than 100 bullets shot into his car. Four years later, prosecutors for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office declined to charge the officers involved in the shooting and the next year, the city of Miami Beach reached an $87,000 settlement with Herisse’s mother, Marcelline Azor. Though there was monetary compensation, the outrage of the community was not gone.
Last year, the city of Miami Beach commissioned Miami curators Octavia Yearwood and Jared McGriff for a series of art installations to display on Miami Beach during Memorial Day weekend, which was later named “ReFrame Miami Beach.” The project was conceived to drive forth open and honest conversations about race and shed a bright light to the issue of racial justice in the city. Now, several groups have a filed lawsuit against Miami Beach for censoring Black artistry — ultimately violating First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. This was done after Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber publicly acknowledged that he and Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales ordered the Raymond Herisse memorial taken down because they did not like its point of view. Furthermore, since Miami Beach paid for it, the city was free to order its removal.
“They hired us to start a conversation on racial injustice and when we attempted to engage the public in that conversation, they wanted to shut us up,” said award-winning artist Rodney Jackson via a press release. “The political climate is demanding that we have this conversation. The public at large is demanding that we unpack historical injustice. We need to put up the image of Raymond Herisse and engage in that conversation.”
REVOLT spoke to Jackson, curator Octavia Yearwood, and attorney Matthew McElligott about fostering honest conversations about race, bias and privilege throughout their community through art; The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, and how to support Black artists during this time. Read below.
What inspired your Raymond Herrisse memorial painting?
Jackson: When the “ReFrame” team gathered to objectively open dialogue surrounding the Memorial Day experience on Miami Beach, we attempted to create a safe space to address the good, the bad and the ugly of past “Black Beach Weekends.” As a collective, we decided memorializing Raymond Herisse was a critical piece of that conversation.
How would you say that Black artists are engaging in conversation and unpacking historically racial injustices?
Jackson: Through song, literature, photography, graffiti, and multi-media expression; Black artists have been making art in response to their pain. As for myself, in 2016 I curated a show at KROMA gallery titled “The Force: A Visual Exploration of State-Sanctioned Violence.” It featured the work of Caiphus, Grey Williamson, Santiago Restrepo and myself. We appropriated Star Wars iconography using Storm Trooper imagery as a metaphor for excessive police violence. The goal was to make the conversation accessible and pay homage to the approximated 962, according to The Washington Post, unarmed people of color that were killed due to excessive police violence that year, by listing their names.
How has the censorship of Black art impacted alternative means of protesting?
Jackson: Since the Harlem Renaissance, Black visual art has articulated complex ideas with one image. This is because it has the power to present and contrast multiple concepts at the same time. Institutions such as the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland at College Park have documented these conversations extensively.
How does censorship of Black art go against our First Amendment rights?
McElligott: Any time the government endeavors to silence the voice or the viewpoint of a segment of our society, the First Amendment is under attack. It is a fundamental principle of this country that the government may not prevent, suppress, or exclude the peaceful expression of thought or speech. This case involves a far more specific and insidious type of censorship: viewpoint discrimination. In these types of cases, the government is allowing speech regarding a topic, but suppresses a particular opinion or viewpoint regarding that issue. With respect to ReFrame, the city of Miami Beach engaged our clients to artistically “discuss” a topic: Black race relations within the city of Miami Beach. The Raymond Herisse [piece], which they demanded be removed, was an artistic expression of the viewpoint that there is a troubling history of racialized police violence in Miami Beach that is directed against the Black community. By requiring the removal of the exhibit, the city of Miami Beach, and those involved in the decision, directly and flagrantly violated our client’s First Amendment rights. There is no Constitutional exception to the First Amendment for the criticism of the police.
Tell us about the city’s project “ReFrame Miami Beach” and how it played a role in the lawsuit.
Yearwood: “ReFrame: Miami Beach” was a concept myself and Jared McGriff think-tanked when brought the opportunity to curate various activations throughout Miami Beach. So, just to be clear nothing about ReFrame, including the name, came from Miami Beach. I was approached and asked if I would be interested in curating activations and that Miami Beach was looking for someone to create something and lead it. At first, I didn’t see the point because I knew a bit about the history, but because there was so much autonomy, I thought more and decided to move forward. Jared came onboard and we hashed it out in a really dope way. Our goal from the beginning was to tell our stories and have them told by us, Black people, and people within the diaspora. Miami has so many dope Black artists, so it wasn’t hard to envision artists when we created the proposal. The energy was always about relationships and the one Miami Beach has with Black people. They came to me pretty late in the game, so we had four weeks to make what you see in the recap video happen, which were six activations, seven artists/curators, three institutions, and building out all branding and promotional materials. Every stitch of what you see from the project was done internally with the ReFrame team.
After city officials ordered the removal of the Raymond Herisse memorial painting, what were the community’s initial feelings?
Yearwood: Everyone was completely outraged. The work was vinyl on the wall and candles on the floor in front, a memorial. The piece’s description shared about the tragedy and how it changed legislation on Miami Beach.
What immediate actions did artists take to combat its removal?
Yearwood: I was confronted while having lunch with a friend during a break from traveling to all the activations. My immediate reaction was to call those who had an issue to the table; publicly to have a discussion around the work, the message, the feeling and the relationship. The person who came to me said they would let me know if that was possible. I was then told they would be open to discussing later, but that the piece had to be taken down or the entire exhibition would be closed. I will admit that after countless hours over four weeks working to get everything done, including being present that weekend, I was drained in every way. I said if they are going to force us to take it down, I’m telling everybody, so I did. I posted a note where the work was telling anyone who came there after that the work was censored and posted it on Instagram. Then, everything exploded. In retrospect, my misstep was not consulting with the team, who at that point was also very burned out, as well.
How have you seen Black art uplift voices of our communities in times of injustice?
Yearwood: I think we are living in a time where we are seeing Black creatives, not only the visual arts and writers, but also cultural organizers who are creative thinkers, and Black organizations that uplift that work — like the Highlander Center, Liberation House, S.O.N.G. and the Marsha P Johnson Institute — are using the arts as a tool for liberation. They are using music, text, interventions, social media campaigns, online creative safe spaces! It’s so much. When you see those streets painted with text, understand that’s cultural organizing — and to me, another iteration of graffiti — we’ve been doing this! When you see any intervention where its message is in your face, that’s an example of cultural organizing and it’s political. Being Black is political, ain’t no way around it. But, as a people, we were born creative. It’s shown in our existence, resilience, and how we fight back, both individually and as a collective. We use art to elevate our voice, tell our stories, and as an act of rebellion, we are breaking free more and more every day being in our truest expression when we use art in this way.
How is artistic expression a medium of freedom of speech? How do our rights become blurred and misconstrued?
McElligott: The protections of the First Amendment have long been held to apply to more than just the spoken word. Paintings, photographs, political contributions, and even the refusal to speak — for example NOT saying the pledge of allegiance — are all included in the protections of the First Amendment. The expression in this case, a portrait of a man who was killed by the police, along with a plaque explaining the incident, falls squarely within accepted and protected forms of expression. There are recognized exceptions to free speech: obscenity, inciting violence, perjury, etc. But, none of those are implicated in this case. There is also a common misconception that the First Amendment applies to “private actors.” The First Amendment does not regulate, for example, private citizens, private businesses or other non-governmental entities. So, if Twitter removes a post from its platform for violating its Terms of Service, or a group of citizens boycott a company because of something controversial that the CEO says, there is no First Amendment issue. In this case though, it was the city of Miami Beach — a government entity — through the assistant city manager and mayor — government officials — who required that an exhibit be removed from the venue. This was clearly government action and comes within the purview of the First Amendment.
How frustrating is it to watch art do its job as a conversation driver, all for it to be removed?
Yearwood: The work was censored and removed, but it was not watered down. All the work was done in a deep and intentional way by all the artists and curators involved. It’s very frustrating in general because a lot about being a Black person and great is the feeling of always being tokenized, which then sometimes makes those artists start to doubt their greatness. It’s a lot of labor to be your best, and teach, and give, and be present; but perpetually be disrespected. The mayor of Miami Beach and I had an interview on NPR and it was then, several days prior to opening that I realized he wasn’t with us or for us. I wanted to believe otherwise prior to the interview in which he left the newsroom and said “Good luck! Don’t mess up!” to me. While we did what we wanted and made great work, this event really tarnished and overshadowed it all. ReFrame was the first museum show for one of our artists. That is the beauty and magic that should be uplifted. There’s a lesson here, and that’s to continue to never back down from uprooting systems that aren’t rooted in uplifting you.
How has The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida served as a dependable ally for artists and curators?
McElligott: The ACLU has a long and storied history of defending artists and curators throughout the country. While most Americans regard freedom of expression to be a core value of the country, these protections have come under repeated attack throughout our history. Free speech rights need constant, vigilant protection. The American Civil Liberties Union has been involved in virtually all of the landmark First Amendment cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and remains absolutely committed to the preservation of each and every individual’s freedom of expression.
What are ways that we can fight against the censorship of Black artists and continue to promote the importance of Black art?
Jackson: Supporting organizations such as the ACLU who have actively supported our efforts to gain exposure surrounding our case and by demanding that Black art be represented at venues that have shown historical bias.