Monday, August 10, 2020

Behind the Canvas

I recently completed the painting “Say Their Names”, which consists of portraits of 13 unarmed black men, women, and children who were killed by police or vigilantes.  This was the first political painting that I’ve done in maybe 15 years.  And I have another political painting on my easel right now.  So what brought this on?

Well, this is a very political time right now.  The country is divided over pretty much everything: right/left, Democrat/Republican, mask/no mask, reopen schools/keep kids home, deficits are bad/deficits are good, you name it.  So people have to take a stand on something every time we turn around.  But one thing that is lost in all the shouting is that the stands we’re being asked to take are never as simple as they appear.

In “Say Their Names”, I am explicitly taking a stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  I think this is important.  For all my life, and for well beyond that, blacks have suffered under prejudices that should never have existed in a country founded on “all men are created equal”.  Blacks have never been treated as equal.  They are disproportionately in poverty, subject to less support in education, have higher unemployment, are discriminated against in employment, have worse medical care if they have it at all, are pulled over by police at higher rates, and are killed by police and vigilantes at much higher rates than whites.  This is intolerable.  It must change.  This is what the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s was all about and it still has not been resolved.  I think the BLM movement and general unrest of the past couple of months may finally be moving the needle a bit in the right direction.  My painting is a way of supporting that effort.

Some people respond to "Black Lives Matter" with “All Lives Matter” or similar phrases.  They miss the point.  Of course, all lives matter.  But when some lives don’t matter as much as others, it’s time to focus on correcting that imbalance. 

And you can say “Black Lives Matter” while still supporting the police.  Yes, there is prejudice and racism built into our society, meaning it’s built into police forces everywhere.  But I firmly believe that the vast majority of our police officers are truly committed to doing the best they can for the citizens they deal with, no matter the race.  It’s only a small minority of officers who are causing the problems.  That small minority should be corrected, or rooted out and dismissed.  The rest of the officers deserve our utmost respect and admiration.  These are people who go to work every day and never know when the shit is going to hit the fan.  They could get killed in a traffic stop for a broken taillight, or gunned down when responding to a fight between a husband and wife.  They put their lives on the line for us every day and deserve our support.

So when I hear the cries to “defund the police”, that ticks me off.  That’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard in a long time, including in the time of Donald Trump.  Our police don’t need to be defunded at all; if anything, they need more resources.  But the resources and police forces need to be better aligned to the missions that they’re having to deal with.  A husband-wife fight doesn’t necessarily need a police officer, it may need a social worker.  So maybe police forces need to shift some resources from violent responses to softer people skills.  But at the same time, these different types of responses need to be tightly integrated.  Situations can go from talking it out to shooting it out in a flash, so we need to have the ability to have a variety of responses available at all times.  You can’t do that if the police departments are defunded. 

One response that has been utilized quite a bit over the past month or two is that of sending “federal agents” into the streets of our cities, regardless of whether the cities want them or not.  I put the term in quotes because these are NOT police officers.  Anybody who’s wearing an Army camouflage uniform, Army helmet, Army boots, Army body armor, and using Army weapons, is not a police officer.  They’re soldiers.  Only dictatorships use soldiers against their own people.  The United States is not a dictatorship, but many of our highest ranking government officials are behaving as if it is.  I remember the Kent State shootings of 1970, when armed National Guard troops fired on a large group of protesting students, killing four and wounding nine.  That was wrong then, and the approach is wrong now.  I will fight any attempt to deploy armed soldiers in my city.  Meanwhile, this issue is the subject of the painting that’s on my easel right now.

So I’m taking a stand in support of Black Lives Matter with my painting “Say Their Names”.  But there are many other aspects to that support that are not covered by just those three words.  And I’m taking a stand against soldiers in American streets with my new painting.  But there are many other aspects of that stance that are not covered in just a few words.

Take a stand.  But don’t let the sound bites define you.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Say Their Names

Say Their Names
Oil on canvas, 36"x48"

"Say Their Names" is finally done.  This painting is of 13 blacks who were killed by police or vigilantes.  All were unarmed.  One of them was killed after this painting was already well under way.  This useless killing is the antithesis of what the United States is all about and it must stop. 

In the back row, left to right:

  • George Floyd, 36, was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin.  Chauvin and his partners were investigating a complaint that Floyd had passed a counterfeit $20 bill.  Chauvin had a previous bad history with Floyd dating back to their time when both worked as bouncers at a bar.  Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes, choking him to death.  
  • Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was jogging near his home in Georgia.  He was chased down by three white vigilantes and shot.  Local police refused to arrest them.  It wasn't until a video of the encounter was released to a news station and an international outcry forced the state to step in.  The vigilantes, Travis and Gregory McMichael, along with Roddie Bryan (who made the video) were arrested two and a half months after the event for felony murder and other charges.  
  • Rekia Boyd, 22, was killed by a Chicago police officer, Dante Servin, who was responding to a noise complaint in a park.  Rekia and three others were partying.  One of them pulled out a cell phone.  Servin claimed he thought it was a gun and he fired, striking Rekia in the head.  Servin was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter but the case was dismissed by a judge.  Subsequently, Servin was forced out of the police department and the city paid $4.5M in damages to Rekia's family.
  • Sean Reed, 21, had been in the US Air Force before returning home to Indianapolis.  He was observed to be driving recklessly and led police on a vehicle and foot chase.  Reed was live-streaming the event on Facebook Live to a large audience.  Police tased him and then shot him 13 times.  One was heard on the livestream to say "It looks like a closed casket, homie."  The police officers were placed on administrative leave.
Middle row, left to right:
  • Eric Garner, 43, was approached by New York city police and accused of selling single cigarettes from a package without tax stamps.  The situation escalated and one officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put Garner in a prohibited choke hold.  Garner said "I can't breathe" 11 times before losing consciousness.  He lay on the sidewalk an additional seven minutes without medical attention while the officers waited for an ambulance.  Garner was declared dead at the hospital.  A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.  Eventually, public pressure forced the city to fire Pantaleo five years later and reach a $5.9M settlement with Garner's family. 
  • Freddie Gray, 25, was arrested by Baltimore police during a neighborhood counter-drug campaign for carrying a knife.  The knife was legal under Maryland law.  Gray was loaded into the back of a police van without being strapped in, then given a "rough ride".  When the ride ended, Gray was in a coma with his spinal cord 80% severed at the neck.  He died a week later.  Some of the officers were tried, none were found guilty of any charges, and many charges were dropped.
  • Walter Scott, 50, a US Coast Guard veteran, was stopped for a broken tail light by Michael Slager, a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer.  A confrontation ensued and Slagle tased Scott.  Scott ran from the scene and Slagle shot him in the back five times.  Slagle was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
  • Yvette Smith, 47, called 911 for help in de-escalating a confrontation between two men that involved a gun.  After police officers arrived, the situation calmed.  A police officer, Daniel Willis, called for Smith to come outside.  When she did, he shot her twice with his personal AR-15.  Willis was fired and charged with murder, but was acquitted.  The county settled a civil lawsuit for $1.2M.
Lower left:
  • Dontre Hamilton, 31, had a history of mental health issues.  He was sleeping in a Milwaukee park when he was approached twice by two police officers who found nothing wrong.  Shortly afterward, another police officer, Christopher Manney, approached Hamilton.  A scuffle ensued, Hamilton got control of Manney's baton, and Manney shot Hamilton 14 times.  Manney was fired but never charged.  A civil suit resulted in a $2.3M settlement.
  • Breonna Taylor, 26, was an Emergency Medical Technician in Louisville, Kentucky.  She was sleeping at home when police executed an unannounced, no-knock search warrant targeted against two men who knew Taylor but did not live there.  Taylor's boyfriend thought the police were intruders and fired once.  The officers fired over 20 times, hitting Taylor eight times.  One of the officers was fired and the police chief was fired after a black business owner was killed by police.  Other investigations are ongoing.
  • Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, was killed by Detroit police when they raided her home, looking for a murder suspect.  The officer, Joseph Weekley, was charged with involuntary manslaughter.  Two trials ended in mistrials and charges were dismissed before a third trial.  Weekley is still on duty.  A civil lawsuit is in progress.
Lower right: 
  • Elijah McClain, 23, was walking home from the store in Aurora, Colorado, when he was stopped by police.  They had received a call about a "suspicious person" and Elijah was wearing a ski mask.  Police wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, and put him into a chokehold.   Elijah repeatedly said that he couldn't breathe.  When paramedics arrived, they injected him with ketamine, a sedative.  He went into cardiac arrest and died three days later.  Three of the officers have been fired and one more has resigned.  No action has been taken against the paramedics.  
  • Tamir Rice, 12, was playing in a park in Cleveland with an Airsoft pistol, a highly accurate toy gun.  Police officers arrived and, thinking it was a real pistol, immediately shot him twice.  The officers faced no charges, although Cleveland later settled a civil lawsuit for $6M.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Quick Update

I haven't made any posts in over a month now.  Had some health issues that gave me a couple of scares, but they're over with and all's good here now.  Well, getting a lot better, anyway.

I've got several projects in progress in the studio.  One is a painting related to the Black Lives Matter movement.  It's coming along slower than I want, primarily because I haven't been able to work on it as much as it needs.  But it's looking promising.  No, I won't share images right now, but if you want to see some, go take a look at my studio Facebook page, where there are some teasers.

Even though the BLM one isn't done yet, I started a new painting related to the Portland protests/riots and the deployment of "federal agents", all of whom look remarkably like combat soldiers without any identifying tags.  A video of them beating the crap out of a former Navy officer, a Naval Academy grad, made me blow my top.  He went up to talk with them and they beat him with truncheons, broke his arm, and sprayed him with pepper spray.  He wasn't fighting, wasn't looting, wasn't burning, just went up to talk.  These unidentified thugs have taken protesters off the street, often just releasing them later somewhere else.  This is too much like the Nazi Brownshirts, like the "disappeared" in Argentina in the 70's, or the same thing during military junta in Chile in the early 70's, or normal ways of working in China, Russia, Syria, or other dictatorships.  Or you could compare it to the beatings at the Edmund Pettus Bridge that galvanized the Civil Rights movement.  Only dictators, or wanna-be dictators, behave like this.  So, yes, this particular event has really gotten under my skin and I'm going to fight it as an artist: with paintings.

Unless they come to Asheville.  I'll be out there on the lines to protest.  This must stop.  Now.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Confederate Battle Flag

The Marines and NASCAR made the news this past week when they banned the Confederate flag at all Marine bases and NASCAR events.  Both came down hard on the idea that the flag is a symbol of white supremacy, black oppression, slavery, and racial divisiveness.  In my opinion, the actions are absolutely right and the rationale spot-on.  It was long overdue.

I say this as a guy who was raised in the South in the mid-20th century.  I learned to think that blacks were not the equal of whites.  I thought that a "Rebel" exemplified independence, individualism, pride, a reverence for a code of honor, and a refusal to kowtow to authority.  This was reinforced by movies and TV shows that played up those characteristics with their white heroes.  Blacks were relegated to supporting roles, if they were even present at all. And the Rebel Flag was something to be proud of.  Heritage, you know.

My attitudes began to change while in high school.  I had a job one summer where I worked in a small plant alongside quite a few black men.  I discovered that, even though these guys may not have much education, that didn't mean they weren't smart.  They taught me how to do my job, and then how to do it better.  In the process, they taught me that those at the top (in this case, some college-educated white guys) don't always know the best way to do things.  And they opened my eyes to some of the unfortunate assumptions I had about blacks.  That began a change in my thought processes about race that continues to this day.

I've been working on my family history for a long time.  A few years ago, I discovered that two of my great-great-grandfathers, three of their brothers, and one of their cousins all fought in the Confederate Army.  Another, one of my great-great-great grandfathers, made saddles for the Confederate cavalry.  None of them were wealthy: they were all small farmers eking out a living.  None owned slaves.  But all were apparently very tough, capable, resourceful, and fought like hell.  They all came back from the war, although almost all suffered badly from wounds, disease, starvation, imprisonment in a POW camp, or various combinations.  They returned home to a South that had been devastated.  They survived there, but didn't prosper. 

So, when I see a Confederate battle flag, I see a flag that my ancestors fought for.  I think of men who did the job they thought they had to do, did it well, and survived some unbelievably bad times by toughness, tenacity, and giving it their all.  I wouldn't be here if they didn't.

But that doesn't mean the Confederate flag is something to celebrate today.  This was the flag of states that wanted to perpetuate and expand the enslavement of black people.  That was the sole purpose of the war.  It wasn't to "resist Northern aggression", it wasn't for "state's rights", it wasn't for any of those other reasons.  It all goes back to slavery.  And that is totally counter to the Declaration of Independence's phrase "all men are created equal".  So, while I can honor the personal characteristics of my ancestors, I can't honor the cause for which they fought.

And not only does the Confederate flag say "slavery", it also says "treason".  This is a flag of those that actively fought against the United States.  To fly a Confederate flag says "I honor those who killed American soldiers".  You can't fly a Confederate flag to honor that legacy and still call yourself a patriotic American.  It's one or the other.

And last week, the Marine Corps and NASCAR both came to the same conclusion.  It's about time.  Let's put the Confederate flags into museums where they belong.  And leave them there.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Social Insanity

This country seems to have lost its mind.  All kinds of stresses are causing all kinds of bad behavior, all over the country, and they're feeding off each other.
- Police in Minneapolis kill a black man during an arrest.
- Rioting follows over several days and people destroy their own neighborhoods.
- More police in Minneapolis arrest a black CNN reporter while he's on the air, leaving his white team members alone at first.  They were arrested later.

That's just one stresser in the past several days.  Others have been building over months or years.
- A black woman is shot and killed by a police SWAT team while she's sleeping in her own apartment.  The cops went to the wrong address.
- A black man is killed while jogging.  The white attackers thought he was a burglar.
- A white woman in Central Park goes nuts and calls 911 over a black man who asked her to put her dog on a leash. 
- A white office worker calls 911 on two black men in an office building gym.  The two were authorized to use the gym.

And these are just a few of the most recent racist events regarding blacks.  There's so much more going on, all at once.
- People are being assaulted for wearing a mask.
- People are being assaulted for NOT wearing a mask.
- Hundreds of people jammed a pool party in the Ozarks in total disregard of their health.
- Thousands of people jammed beaches over Memorial Day weekend.
- Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately getting Covid, mostly due to environments and cultural habits that promote the spread of the virus.
- White protestors wearing body armor and carrying AR-15s invaded state government buildings to push for ending the coronavirus lockdowns.  (Imagine the outcry if they were black or Hispanic.)
- Angry people asserting that their rights to do whatever they want have precedence over everybody else's rights to stay safe and healthy.
- Angry people are blaming it all on the Democrats.
- Angry people are blaming it all on the Republicans.
- Angry people are blaming it all on China.

There are lots of very angry people these days and we're taking it out on each other in very destructive ways.

And where's the leadership to counter this?  Where's the leadership to calm things down, bring people together, find common ground, and develop some answers?  If you're looking to Donald Trump, you're looking in the wrong place.  He's fanning the flames.  Sowing division and distrust is how he ran his TV show, how he got elected, and how he runs the country.

If you're looking to news media, you're looking in the wrong place.  We used to have Walter Cronkite, whose calm approach made you feel like we would get through whatever the crisis of the day was.  And we did.  Now, the media flames passions on all sides.  "If it bleeds, it leads."  That's how you get ratings, baby.

If you're looking to social media, you're looking in the wrong place.  All I see there is anger.  Lots and lots of anger.  Little in the way of possible answers.  Or, if you look at my own posts, mostly levity as a relief valve for all the pent-up anxiety that's being spread.

The situation today reminds me very much of the late 60's and early 70's.  Then we had race riots, anti-war demonstrations, the Chicago national convention riots, a pandemic that killed over 100,000 just in the US (the Hong Kong flu in '68-69), armed white vigilantes, the Black Panthers, political assassinations, an unnecessary war, the Kent State massacre, high-level corruption, and a criminal President.  There was a lot of talk about "revolution" and even the Beatles sang about it.  It took a lot of work by a whole lot of people at all levels to bring the nation back to an even keel, make changes (never enough), and restore some semblance of normality.

I don't see many leaders with a Big Name stepping up.  What I do see are lots of us little people doing what we can.  The doctors and nurses who volunteered to go to New York to help with the pandemic response, for example.  The thousands of police officers around the country who are doing what they can to counter the image put forth by the four Minneapolis cops.  The workers in my local grocery store who wear their masks and wipe down their checkout station in between every customer.

We got through it in the 60's and 70's and we can get through this if we want to.  It will take a willingness to quit demonizing those who disagree with you, to listen to other people's concerns, examine our own prejudices, and be more considerate.  It will also take a sea change in Washington.  We need a new set of politicians (they're not "leaders") to work together.  And we need to pay less attention to the opinion-makers and talking heads who sow dissension, and more to each other.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Coronavirus Lockdown

The coronavirus has really locked things down around this house.  We're keeping a low profile, doing stuff in our own private places (house, yard, studio), and venturing out as little as possible.  That part is fairly easy to accept: there's a deadly virus out there, so minimize your chances of catching it.  And we're pretty quiet and private people, anyway.

What's been much more stressful is the massive stupidity that is even more widespread than the virus.  Way too many people are way too eager to get back to "normality" RIGHT NOW, and to hell with any virus.  "It's just the flu, and anyway, it's a Democratic hoax, and by the way I HAVE A RIGHT TO TAKE MY AR-15 ANYWHERE".  The past two months, and especially the past four weeks, have shown that the spirit of the Greatest Generation is long gone.  People are way more concerned with their own petty wants, have no trust for people who actually know things about viruses and epidemiology, and are perfectly happy to fuck the rest of the world over so they can have a good time.  The just-completed Memorial Day weekend was full of examples, with people jamming beaches, restaurants, bars, pools, churches, parks, stores, you name it.  I expect we'll see many of them jamming ICU's before long.  I'll have no sympathy whatsoever for them, but I will have sympathy for those people that they spread the virus to.  And I'm doing everything I can to NOT be one of those people.

Keeping busy isn't a problem here.  I had a proposal-writing project that required a lot of time and effort.  Springtime demands lots of work in the yard and we've had way more rain than normal, meaning the grass and weeds are growing way faster than normal.  And my Alfa is in the garage with a big chunk of the interior removed so I can do some work on it.

In the studio, I've been reading, watching art videos and online demos, and experimenting with new-to-me techniques.  Most have gone right into the trash can.  Two paintings are nearing completion after being in progress for seemingly forever.  Both are small and I keep thinking they really should be bigger, as in 30x40 or 36x48, meaning I'd have to start over again.  Shouldn't take "forever" since the small ones are working out most of the issues with composition, color, and technique, but still, that's a lot of work.  And I have a couple of other ideas pending for new paintings anyway.

So: I'm off to the studio this afternoon.  Or the garage.  Whatever.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Kent State - 50 Years Later

The Kent State student massacre was 50 years ago today.  At the time, it was one of the worst events in a series of social conflicts that had been going on for years.  For me, it marked the point at which I began to realize that my values were different from many around me.

Quick recap: the late 60's saw increasing disruption over the Vietnam War and race relations.  There had been the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King a couple of years previously.  Race riots had torn up cities across the country.  The Vietnam war was getting bigger, the draft was underway, and a great many people didn't see any reason why we were involved there at all.  There were increasing numbers of anti-war protests at colleges all over the country. 

In May, 1970, I was finishing my junior year in high school.  My parents and most everybody I knew were staunch Republicans.  I supported the war without really thinking about it because everybody else did.  One guy from my neighborhood got commissioned in the Army, went to Vietnam, and was back in just a couple of months, minus one eye.  Everybody thought he did his duty.

Then the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a protest at Kent State University.  They killed four students and wounded nine.  Their claim, at the time, was that the students were throwing rocks and bricks at them and the Guardsmen were afraid for their lives.

I was horrified at this.  I couldn't believe that a troop of soldiers, armed with rifles and tear gas, would be afraid of students.  To me, it was murder, pure and simple.

And this is where I ran smack into the wall of my conservative environment.  My parents didn't have much sympathy for the students.  My high school friends had none.  "Serves 'em right.  They asked for it.  Damn longhairs."  I couldn't believe it.  They were just students.  But they weren't just students to most of those around me.  They weren't people at all.

I read everything I could on the event - Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, a few others.  It became clear that the initial reports of rock-throwing and "threatening" students were wrong.  They were unarmed.  Of the four dead, two weren't even protesting, they were just watching in the background, and one was a ROTC student.  It just reinforced my sense that it was murder.  But nobody else in my family or circle of friends saw it that way.  Meanwhile, more mass protests and riots erupted across the country, over both the war and the Kent State shootings.  I wasn't interested in protesting or rioting because I still supported the war, but thought the over-reaction of the Guard was totally wrong.

Over the next few years, some members of the Guard faced criminal charges that were dismissed.  Then they faced civil charges that were also dismissed.  It made me sick.

Still does.