Graffiti artist Saber has created a bold piece of art to confront the topic of officer-involved shootings. Here is the background: Pow! Wow!, a graffiti and Pop Surrealism arts organization, recently worked with the Long Beach Museum of Art to help bring street art and graffiti into a museum setting, with Saber as a contributor. As Saber approached the blank wall, aesthetic and abstract concepts seemed insignificant in the midst of other societal and socioeconomic issues. Concerned with our broken system of (in)justice, Saber instead produced a mural featuring a list of more than 550 people of all different racial backgrounds, this year alone, who were killed in officer-involved shootings in the United States.
Death by Cop: This term used to be applied to someone who committed suicide by threatening police, which in turn forced an officer to take lethal action that would often result in death. However, in today’s society with social media’s ability to disseminate the frequency of such lethal action by the perpetrators, the overwhelming statistics have shown that suicide was not the victim’s goal.
Death by cop has now become literal. Often witnesses come forward and maintain that the victim neither threatened nor provoked the officer, thus discrediting police statements. One shocking example happened in Long Beach: On November 10th 2013, Dante Jordan was murdered by the Long Beach Police Department. The Department then publicly reported that two fatal shots in the back caused Dante’s death. However, upon hearing witness testimony and after reviewing the autopsy report, Dante’s mother, Pamela Fields, discovered that her son had been racially profiled, shot twelve times in the back, and was never ordered by law enforcement to stop, turn around, or given the commands officers use to facilitate an arrest. As a result of her son’s execution-style murder, she has joined organizations including Families of Justice, Back Lives Matter, and Grieving Mothers of Long Beach to help bring awareness via protests and rallies, and to establish support groups for victims’ relatives in regards to loss of life.
The most recent killing by the Long Beach Police Department was that of Hector Morejon on April 23rd of this year. Hector was a 19 year old skater and tagger who was shot in an alley near his home. His mother, Lucia Morejon, explained to me that she heard the distant shots in the background and felt an eerie chill throughout her body. At once, she ran outside and saw people she recognized, friends of her son’s. She saw police and an ambulance and felt a premonition that something dreadful had happened to her child. She looked inside the ambulance and saw a victim lying on a stretcher and recognized her son’s shorts. She called out to him and Hector sat up in pain and said,
Mama, ven! (Mama, come!)
But Lucia Morejon was not allowed into the ambulance and was not allowed to ride with her son to the hospital to comfort him or support him in this moment of tragedy. She felt something was wrong since police and health care workers were apprehensive and cold. She noticed her son had a tooth missing and that medical staff didn’t provide respiratory support while they transferred him to the hospital. Hector’s mother was sure her son had been beaten. Eleven hours later after surgery, he was pronounced dead. Outraged, she went into a frenzy, convinced her son was murdered.
According to Lucia Morejon’s attorney, Sonia Mercado, the family have been refused an autopsy report by the Coroner’s office, they have been denied medical records, and they have not been given a police report. The family is currently pursuing a lawsuit of wrongful death and are holding the Long Beach Police Department, the City of Long Beach, and especially the Chief of Police accountable for misconduct and neglect. Attorney Mercado maintained that the police department has failed to take corrective action against rogue police officers, who in turn are compensated time and a half wages while being investigated and during trials. Moreover, the district attorney works with the police department and red tapes the process when there is an officer-involved shooting, thereby stalling the process and avoiding discussions about police reform. Lucia Morejon also said that many families of slain victims are scared to come forward and challenge the power structure because they are afraid of the repercussions, since, as she said:
The United States has become a country of murderers.
To commemorate the death of Hector Morejon and others, Saber painted a monochromatic U.S. flag in grey and white, a haunting ghost of historical inequality. He then began to spray paint the names of victims in black, but soon he discovered the 550 names didn’t fit. The piece was subsequently titled Too Many Names, and the name HECTOR was superimposed over the roll-call to bring light to the most recent local concern; the use of Morejon’s name was appopriate to because because he was a tagger.
Hector Morejon’s clandestine art adventures tagging resonated with Saber who thought that perhaps he and his friends influenced Hector with their graffiti and art success trajectory; thus Saber felt it was his duty to not turn his back on this tagger demographic and instead celebrate their existence in a commemorative plaque. The families were overjoyed an artist of his stature actually cared and volunteered to have a photo-shoot and press conference with the media on Friday July 31st.
I asked Saber why he didn’t use red to paint Hector’s name in an effort to draw attention to the city of Long Beach and the Police Department as a reminder that they had blood on their hands, instead he used blue because immediately after Hector’s death, conservative media tried to portray the dead youth as a member of the Crip gang wearing blue clothing, an effort to defame his character and to justify his murder. According to Saber, blue is reflective of this demonization and is more subtle. Saber says that even if people think Too Many Names is haphazard, chaotic, and messy, it is a representation of the current social condition.
For more information visit: The Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E Ocean Blvd, Long Beach, CA 90803
Photo Credit: Laura Vargas, 2015