Photos by Josh Huff.
As candles fight against the wind to remain lit, a projector gets plugged into an outlet just a few yards away from the doors of the Guilford County Detention Center. After the projector turns on and a screen is assembled, members of the Greensboro Mural Project (Izzy Brace, John Hunter, Tina Thomas, Ian Wilson and Alyzza May) emphasize the importance of the gathering: to commemorate the 950 lives taken in 2015 by police brutality or while in police custody up to that Tuesday evening on November 3.
Place has always been a focus of the Greensboro Mural Project. The detention center is located on South Edgeworth Street in Downtown Greensboro; land which the collective mentions belongs to the Occaneechi and Cheraw nations who still inhabit the state’s Piedmont region. The memorial, organized mainly through Facebook, and its location were kept quiet in order not to draw attention and successfully get community members together to honor and mourn the lives lost.
“A good portion of these deaths are happening in public space,” Project co-founder Alyzza May states. “The right to be in public space is being policed especially for black, brown, undocumented, native and white working-class folk. This isn’t being seen.”
May continues: “In honoring and remembering these deaths, this public space is critical. We’re in public space outside of this prison. We’re visible and not hiding our mourning, which is something that people are societally expected to do.”
“Any loss of life is worth commemorating, but a lot of times when life is lost to police, mainstream media reporting is washed over…”
Thick silence fills the air as people settle on the front entrance of the prison. Each name of the deceased emerges on the temporary projected mural as only one of the candles remains lit. “Matthew Ajibade, Lewis Lembke, Tim Elliott, John Quintero…” The names accumulated are thanks to The Guardian’s interactive tracker, “The Counted,” which has the list accessible online and updates it daily.
After a seemingly endless period of 25 minutes, the last of the 950 names pass through the screen and another minute of silence occupies space. Cakalak Thunder, Greensboro’s self-identified “radical drum corps,” breaks the stillness and bleak views of the future with a thumping cadence. The instruments also pound in hopes of reaching the individuals who reside in the detention center.
“Any loss of life is worth commemorating, but a lot of times when life is lost to police, mainstream media reporting is washed over; the culpability is not put on the police,” says May. “Though there has been a history of people saying, ‘That shit’s fucked up,’ these murderers walk free. At the end of the day, it’s because of white supremacy.”
The digital mural begins to repeat the names of the fallen. Members of the community share poetry and perform spoken word in solidarity with the black and brown bodies executed by US law enforcement agencies.
“I ain’t Eric Garner
I ain’t got cops on my neck just squeezing and squeezing and squeezing and squeezing
‘til they choke me lifeless and I finally stop breathing.”
– Demetrius Noble (D Noble)
“Yes, I am Sandra Bland. And Trayvon. And Eric. And Kenny. And ReMarley and Jordan and Gilbert and Rekia and all of the fallen never named in mass media but I am also
Alive. Breathing. Not yet there, but arriving.”
– Keisha “HisStory” McKane
“I’m not Tamir Rice
Trigger happy cops didn’t snatch my innocent 12-year old life in a park in broad daylight.”
– Demetrius Noble (D Noble)
“This morning, in the mirror, I couldn’t look away.
As I felt the weight of her life on my shoulders
The breath of her death on my neck
The responsibility of their legacies in my reflection
It’s a part of me.
And I never saw myself, my life, my future so clearly, as I did this morning
As Sandra’s eyes
Gazed back at me.”
– Keisha “HisStory” McKane
“Was it the wrong place at the wrong time
OR the wrong skin in front of the wrong eyes?”
– Brandon Brockington (B Rock)
The commemoration stayed true to the mission and vision of the Project’s roots. One of the Project’s main inspirations is driven by the Beehive Collective, a Maine artist collective which intensively gathers information to create large scale pieces based around present imperialism and colonialism. The other is Judy Baca’s the Great Wall of Los Angeles (one of the world’s longest murals) which hired youth to research, paint and invest themselves into the process.
Fresh out of Guilford College in 2011, it was May and Katrina Siladi who simultaneously had the idea to create the mural arts program alongside youth. After gaining access to the retaining wall of the Children’s Museum, the newly born project asked residents, “What would make Greensboro a healthier city?” Approximately 300 answers were collected, ranging from city dance parties to universal access to health care.
Over the next four years, four public murals were created with similar procedures. All are visible through GTA bus routes on Lindsay Street behind the Children’s Museum; Washington Street in front of the Interactive Resource Center; the corner of Mendenhall Street and Friendly Avenue; and Spring Garden Street on the outside of Recycles Bike Shop. Up next is a documentary which the collective plans on shooting in the near future.
“In five years, I hope to see the project large enough that it can be working on multiple walls at the same time,” Project member Alejo Salcedo says when asked about the future. “I want to see more collaborations with local artists, and more people participating in this urban dialogue of painting their own city.”
“I would love to see the Project in the forefront of the public art scene in Greensboro, while simultaneously being an outlet for unheard voices in the city’s various communities,” responds member Ian Wilson. “Within 10 years, similar to the Mural Arts Project in Philadelphia, we hope to be a safe space for students and individuals to come gain experience through social and political muralism.”
“If I’m going to dream,” ponders May before trailing off and finding her track again. “We will have lots of funding so we can run summer programs that pay youth to do mural work while developing interview, artistic and business skills. Have it expand by being an intentional learning space that provides job opportunities as well as exposure.”
“There are programs all over this country that have a youth job-training component,” May finishes with a smile. “It can be done. It’s being done.”