Blog Post: 10 Stories of Artists Responding to Police Brutality

Detail of mural by graffiti artists DISTORT, Gabe Tiberino, Ntel, and T.F. Dutchmanin in Miami

Across the country these past few weeks, people have taken to the streets to protest the no-indictment verdicts for police officers in the shooting deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Police brutality in this country is nothing new but increasingly painful for communities of color. Now, perhaps more than ever, is the time many of us look upon the power of art to bring visibility and recognition to these traumas, and to become a source of potential healing. All around the nation are stories of artists addressing these continued injustices. Here is a small list of articles discussing artists at SOMArts and beyond speaking back to police brutality in their work.

1. “Art Broadens Conversation about Police Brutality.” (Geoff Gilbert, The Indypendent, October 2014)

As protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, artists gathered at the Mayday Space in Bushwick on October 24 to raise funds for Millennial Activists United and Lost Voices, two youth activist groups operating on the ground in Ferguson. Through poetry, graphic art, film screenings and music, the participants explored connections between recurrent police brutality and larger problems of systemic racial inequality and state and economic violence that, in today’s supposedly ‘post-racial’ America, affect communities of color.”

Artist Dread Scott performing “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide,” 2014. Photo credit, Dread Scott

2. “Artist, activist to incite dialogue.” (Samantha Kohl, The Miscellaney, November 2014)

“The Demands of Dread Scott.” (Jacquelyn Gleisner, Art21 Blog, November 2014)

Dread Scott is a prominent artist and activist who has addressed police brutality in much of his work since the 1980s. The first article discusses his most recent performance “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide,” in which the artist attempts to withstand and walkthrough blasts of water from a fire house, causing viewers to “connect police brutality in Birmingham, Ala., 1963 to police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., 2014.” The second article discusses the artist’s long career in activist art and his continued exploration of racism, police brutality, and class oppression.


Installation shot of “Not One More.” Photo by Jason Moffett

3. “Police Brutality Zine Resources from the Altar “Not One More.” (SOMArts, November 2014)

“Wanda’s Picks Radio Show: Justice for Alex Nieto.” (BlogTalkRadio, November 2014)

Two altars featured in this year’s Diá de los Muertos exhibition at SOMArts focused on police brutality––  one featured footage from a freedom ride to Ferguson alongside the words of youth from Richmond, CA,  and the other addressed the death of San Francisco-native Alejandro “Alex” Nieto at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department.

4. “Chicago Playwrights Respond to Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases with We Must Breathe event.” (Carey Purcell, Playbill, December 2014)

The Chicago arts community will gather for the one-night only performance of We Must Breathe: A Response from Chicago Playwrights and Poets. The performances will speak to the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as well as Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice and countless others.

5. “Hands Up: Testaments from the Policed.” (Keith Josef Adkins, HowlRound, December 2014)

It’s the silencing that inspired me to commission six African American male playwrights to bring voice to the black male through monologues. I call it HANDS UP: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments. I want this new collection of ten-minute monologues to give voice to silenced black men, to break open the institutional image of the suspicious black man, and provide stories of complexity, vulnerability—simple humanity.”  

Are We Really Free? Are We Really Equal?, 2014. Via Tumblr,

6. “Artists Activate in Response to Ferguson Shooting.” (Brian Boucher, Art in America, August 2014)

Art in America spoke to artists on the ground in Missouri after the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Arts-community members interviewed include painter Cbabi Bayoc, Dail Chambers of Yeyo Arts Collective, and gallery owner Philip Slein.

7. “Broadway unites to protest police violence and honor Eric Garner.” (theGrio, July 2014)

In the YouTube video 100 people wearing black T-shirts harmonized in a solemn hum while poet Daniel J. Watts recited a fiery poem entitled I Can’t Breathe — a reference to Garner’s fateful encounter with police.”

Mural by Greg Lamarche

8.  “Correction: There were Two Murals Addressing Police Brutality at Art Basel.” (Bucky Turco, Animal New York, December 2014)

“Hundreds Take to the Streets to Seek Justice for Artist Killed by Miami Police.” (Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic, December 2014)

During the annual art fair Art Basel in Miami, at least two murals were created in memoriam of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and graffiti artist, Israel Hernandez aka REEFA, killed in Miami last year by police. For more information about the ensuing protests during Art Basel in memoriam of Hernandez, see the second article from Hyperallergic.

9. “Robert Indiana Fans Ignore Artist’s Ferguson Protest.” (Ben Davis, Artnet News, August 2014)

Young actors staged a performance in iconic Robert Indiana LOVE Park in Philadelphia as a silent Ferguson protest. Actor/student, Keith Wallace, laid on the ground, as if dead, with fake bullet holes in his back, for more than an hour as tourists continued, undeterred from taking “selfies” in front of the famous sculpture.

Others, however, were too eager to snap a picture with LOVE to be bothered with Wallace’s statement, willfully ignoring the protest—and unintentionally reinforcing its message about how the reality of police brutality is often ignored by society.”

Ferguson artwork by Howard Barry

10. “‘American’ becomes canvas for Ferguson-inspired protest art.” (Kenya Vaughn, The St. Louis American, September 2014)

Missouri-based artist and graphic designer Howard Barry uses pages of local newspaper, The St. Louis American, as canvas to talk about high emotions that he, and others within the Ferguson community, are feeling in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.

About the Author:
Elena Gross is a CCA Extern for SOMArts Cultural Center and a graduate student in the Visual & Critical Studies program at California College of the Arts.