Thanks to social media, police brutality is not the shameful secret it once was. With the tragic deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin igniting global outrage and defiant hashtags, it feels like we’re now more attuned to it than ever. We know that US police are killing five times more black men than white men. We know that many of the victims are unarmed, and the crimes were racially motivated. We also know that, despite everything, the police are probably going to get away with it.
For artist Daryl Wells, this injustice was too much to bear. Spurred on by the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 – which saw Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson escape charges from a grand jury – Wells turned to art; creating portraits of the murdered men, and starting up her own collective. “It immediately took me back to the aftermath of the acquittals in the trials of the four LAPD who beat Rodney King,” she remembers. “I got out my laptop and posted the portrait I'd made of Mike Brown to commemorate his memory. That posting got a huge response and a number of people urged me to continue making these.”
A few days later, a New York grand jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner – whose final words, “I can’t breathe”, became a defiant slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement. That was then swiftly followed the devastating death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. “I was uncovering more and more cases,” Wells continues. “ I got in touch with other artists who had also created work about police brutality, and I wanted to create a forum to share all of it. So I started the social media community to provide a place for artists in all media to share their work.”
“Today, we have images of killings on camera, including a man being mauled to death by police dogs while bystanders cry out in disbelief – and these people haven’t even been charged”
The result was Art Responders, an art collective aiming to respond creatively in the immediate aftermath of these cases. Their first show collecting these works, titled VIRAL: 25 Years Since Rodney King, is now on show at the Durón Gallery in LA – and it’s not just tastefully-painted portraits that are making the cut. Fusing street art, virtual reality and first person shooter games, the show wants to educate and inspire change in a whole new way.
“Like many people who came of age in the nineties, the Rodney King beating was a huge moment where the problem of police violence became undeniable,” Wells explains, of the black LA taxi driver who was filmed being beaten by police in 1991. “But the Rodney King incident, compared to those of today, looks almost quaint... Today, we have images of killings on camera, including a man being mauled to death by police dogs while bystanders cry out in disbelief – and these people haven’t even been charged! There is so much of this kind of evidence that people are starting to become numb to it.”
VIRAL also holds more personal value to Wells. Her older brother Paul – a well-known violinist who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia – died under equally tragic circumstances while living in Geneva. According to Wells, he had mysteriously stopped contacting his family in October of that year, though it was only when the family investigated the matter themselves that they discovered that he’d died from a heart attack. Swiss authorities had left his body in the morgue for nearly three months, without any attempt to contact his family – an action which, Wells believes, was down to his status as a mentally ill black man.
“When I saw pictures of Mike Brown laid out in the sun for four hours, it provoked something in me,” she remembers. “Not just his death, but the thought of his family seeing his body carelessly left out in the hot sun for hours like that reminded me about Paul, who I'd imagined sitting in a morgue refrigerator for months while we went about our business in the US, oblivious. The same thing happened when I saw the Eric Garner video – I kept thinking of his family and their awareness of how frightened he was in his last moments.”
“The issue of police brutality always affected me, but never as deeply as it did after Paul's death,” she concludes. “I decided to commit myself to fighting this issue through my art; I thought Paul would have been proud of me for doing that.”
VIRAL is showing at The Durón Gallery in LA until June 4. Read more about it on the website here
Follow Dominique Sisley on Twitter here @dominiquesisley