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.

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