This week marks the culmination of street artist Cedric Douglas’ residency at Emerson College – the first time the College has engaged an artist to work with its Public Art Think Tank (PATT).
Douglas chose to focus on one of the most disturbing issues facing America today: police killings of black men, women, and children. The Emerson community has been both challenged and deeply moved by the often heartbreaking stories Douglas has brought to light in the public spaces of the campus.
All are invited to the final component of Douglas’s work, the Rose Memorial, on Friday, April 27, 4:00-7:00 pm. Douglas and members of the student organization Flawless Brown will hand out roses to pedestrians. Each rose will bear a tag memorializing a black person killed by police in the United States.
Douglas’s initial framing of the Rose Memorial called for a tribute to the “400 black people who have been killed by police in the last five years.” A shocking enough statistic, however, as Douglas collected names, stories, and photographs from the media, the numbers kept increasing.
In the end, the total number of these killings more than doubled. The memorial tags now read: “…more than 1,000 black people who have been killed in the last five years.” The magnitude of this tragedy has been revealed, although these numbers continue to increase due to both systematic underreporting and new violence.
Douglas and others collaborating on the project – staff, faculty, administration, volunteers, and most especially, the members of the student organization Flawless Brown – learned firsthand what it means that there is no single or authoritative source tracking police killings. Information is fragmentary and unreliable; killings are reported, but rarely any details of investigative results after shootings. Gaps in stories between how family, friends, and neighbors describe victims and official reports are never reconciled.
A significant project evolution came with Cedric’s decision to memorialize all police killings of black people, without trying to make judgments about complex circumstances. The Rose Memorial is not about guilt or innocence; some of the people memorialized committed significant crimes. It is about the fact that in the United States everyone deserves a fair trial and every life has value.
Douglas found allies in his research – individuals, organizations, and journalists attempting to bear witness. Chapters of Black Lives Matter throw light on cases in their localities, passionate volunteers maintain sites such as EBWiki and killedbypolice.net. The media conduct investigative reporting on individual cases, and The Washington Post has taken on the challenge to compile a national database on all police killings, coded by race, age, location, and other factors (starting with 2015 information).
Douglas is in high demand for his large-scale murals, street art tours, and innovative community engagement activities. But his residency at Emerson has given him the time and space to develop a critically important aspect of his practice: a combination of public art and social activism informed by reflection and thorough research.
Of course, The Street Memorials Project still leaves many questions unanswered. Maybe the ultimate value of projects such as the Rose Memorial is to engage our hearts and minds, educate, provoke thought and dialogue, and spur us to learn more and take action for positive change.
— Cecily Miller, independent arts consultant