Social Justice Street Art
Tuesday, July 6, 2021
Over the past year, there have been Black Lives Matter protests and marches all over the country, especially after the death of George Floyd. However, another type of protest is happening, a much quieter one - street art and murals.
Depicting the victims of police brutality in this artform memorializes them. The art not only symbolizes the unjust way that they died but also celebrates how they lived, who they are, and who they could’ve been.
In Austin, TX, artist Chris Rogers completed a mural with this haunting message "If HE can't breathe, then WE can't breathe" to honor the victims of police brutality. The mural includes George Floyd, Mike Ramos, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin. (1)
In Boston, MA, artist Jorge Morfin, along with a community non-profit, covered a Dorchester building with a Black Lives Matter mural that depicts the faces of 100 victims of police brutality.
In New York City, artist Vince Ballentine completed a portrait of 23-year-old Elijah McClain with his violin. “McClain died in 2019 while walking home from a convenience store in Aurora, Colorado, after police stopped him, placed him in a chokehold and EMTs later gave him a dose of a powerful sedative.” (3)
These are just a few examples of street art and murals that memorialize the victims of police brutality. It’s important to point out how this is more than art; it’s a form of activism and part of a movement. The art brings awareness and acts as a constant reminder of how these individuals lost their lives to police violence. Still, it’s also a way to celebrate their lives. Street art and murals of police brutality serve an essential purpose. Read on to find out why this art matters.
Street Art & Murals Are Considered a Form of Activism
Due to the Black Lives Matter movement, many have a newfound appreciation for street art, but this is only the latest history of art speaking to social injustices. “Art in public spaces could be seen as far back as the Great Depression and continued to emerge during the Vietnam War era and the AIDS epidemic.” (3)
For those not comfortable participating in a protest march, art is a different form of activism that allows their voices to be heard and for them to be seen for the first time. Street art creates a space to have conversations about how social injustices affect their community and find a different way to be part of a movement.
Most volunteers that help install the murals aren’t necessarily artists, “but they’re showing up to leave their mark. Murals serve as an active process that continues to go on whether people are in the streets or not." (3)
The Lives of Police Brutality Victims Should Be Celebrated
Police brutality should be remembered, not just how they died but how they lived. Many street art installations and murals can help us better understand who these victims were and what makes their deaths so painful.
When talking about what inspired the artist Ballentine to paint 23-year-old Elijah McClain, he says, “the part that ravaged me the most was the fact that while he was being brutally murdered, he spoke kind words.” On that fateful day, Elijah pleaded with the officers, “I’m just different. I’m just different, that’s all. That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff.” (3)
The officers tackled Elijah McClain to the ground, put him in a carotid hold, and called first responders, who injected him with Ketamine. Elijah had a heart attack on the way to the hospital and died six days later after being declared brain dead.
"I've met a lot of those just young, brilliant minds that are a little different, a little introverted, a little to themselves, but still have these talents and qualities and this love of life." Ballentine said he made the mural to celebrate "that life that was taken and the lives that are still here that are very similar."
3 Reasons Why Police Brutality Street Art & Murals Matter
#1: Street art helps keep the conversation going. These conversations make people think, give them a different perspective, and make them want to act. “Many of these artists see it as their mission to continue amplifying the voices of those who feel unheard.” (3)
#2: Protests end, but the art remains. As long as the art is on a wall, it’s a continued opportunity for people to engage with it. Once the protests are over, art lives on as a reminder that people have the power to create change.
#3: Continues to inspire and empower the movement. "People are supposed to come in front of the painting, and if they are hurting because they lost a family member, if they are hurting because of what’s happening in their community, they’re supposed to be inspired. They’re supposed to be uplifted.” (3)
Walls of Justice is an online gallery and community forum inspired by the peaceful demonstrations worldwide following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020. We hope our gallery helps spread a message of positive change, in the model of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, John Lewis, and Nelson Mandela.
You can learn more about how Walls of Justice began, view the Walls of Justice Gallery, or submit photos of street art and murals in your community focused on racial justice, social justice, positive reform in law enforcement, police accountability, and more!
1. Garcia, S. "If HE can’t breathe, then WE can’t breathe: East Austin mural in tribute to police brutality victims complete". Austonia, Inc. https://austonia.com/city/east-austin-mural/particle-1. 2020, 22 Jun.
2. Kohli, D. "In Fields Corner, a mural memorializes 100 lives lost to police violence". Boston Globe Media Partners,LLC. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/10/26/lifestyle/fields-corner-new-mural-memorializes-100-lives-lost-police-violence/. 2020, 26 Oct.
3. Singh, A., Muldofsky, M., Fasano, S., Rivas, A., & Ghebremedhin, S. "Street artists memorialize Black lives lost to racism and police violence". ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/US/street-artists-memorialize-black-lives-lost-racism-police/story?id=73095622. 2020, 18 Sept.