Miami really lives up to its good-time reputation each year at Art Basel Miami Beach — basically a huge party with some expensive art thrown in. What started as an art collector’s dream has morphed into the biggest beach party weekend of the year.
But on Friday things got real when a large group of activists staged a protest in the center of the Wynwood Arts District against police brutality. From that starting point, they marched onto I-195, a major highway bridging the cities of Miami and Miami Beach.
“This is a week when people come from around the country to Miami and believe that myth–that it’s beautiful, that [the city doesn’t] suffer from the same problems that New York and Chicago and L.A. do because we have palm trees and it’s warm all year,” said Phillip Agnew of the Dream Defenders, one of the groups behind the protest. “This is a city and this is a police force in Miami Beach and Miami-Dade that murders, that profiles, that beats, that harasses and stops and frisks.”
The issue of unarmed minorities getting killed by police officers has a particular resonance here. Last year, teenage artist Israel Hernanadez was fatally Tasered by Miami Beach police after being apprehended for tagging an abandoned McDonald’s. The incident sparked public outrage and calls for charges to be brought against the officer. But similar to the recent Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases, no charges were filed. Hernandez was the subject of a Fusion documentary, ‘Tasered.’
“It’s not a just problem in Ferguson or New York, this happens in Miami, too!” said organizer Sherika Shaw with the Dream Defenders. “Israel Hernandez was from the art community here, and if he were still alive he would support us doing this during Art Basel. It was probably one of his dreams to be part of Art Basel, but that will never happen now. That’s why we’re here.”
In part in tribute to artist Hernandez, and in keeping with the week’s theme, protest organizers brought in a visual art element to the proceedings. Some hoisted flags by New York artist Kenneth Pietrobono, reading key words like “brutality.”
“We see that the art world [is not] not reflecting on what’s going on in popular culture, and the important social systems and political systems,” said Jacques Laroche, a member of the Miami Committee on State Violence, another group behind the protest.
“It’s kind of like, how do you have people in beds with art and stuff while people are being killed in the street–in the place that you are going to as well?” He continued. “So it’s kind of just bringing that home and trying to bring back this tradition of art that’s looking at and critiquing the social, and trying to push the social.”
Others carried portraits by Molly Crabapple of police brutality victims–including one of Hernandez she created especially for the protest. The other portraits were previous projects.
“I guess it really says something,” said Laroche, “when you ask somebody, ‘Hey, could you help?’ and they have six other pictures of dead people already.”
Ericka Brownlee and Rashad Drakeford are in Miami on vacation. “We came to see the art, but when I heard there was a protest going on, I had to come out,” said Drakeford. “I was out marching last night in New York. I’ve been marching and protesting for so long now, my feet hurt.”
“It doesn’t matter that I’m on vacation. There can’t be any more hashtags,” added Brownlee.
“We want justice to be blind. Too often there is no punishment for those who attack us of a different color or religion,” Hernandez’s father, Israel Hernandez Sr., told a crowd in Spanish. “We thank everyone for fighting our fight. In the end, we just want to be respected in the same way that [the police] expect us to respect them.”
His speech also set off crowd chants in Spanish.
“I’ve never been to a protest before, that’s why I’m so emotional right now,” said Elise Meade of Miami. “It seems so peaceful and heartfelt, and I hope that everyone who protests in this kind of way is protected.”
Ivana Gonzalez was in the first row of cars that were blocked by protesters. “I agree with this protest, it’s not bothering me at all,” she said. “We would do this kind of thing all the time in Venezuela, but it’s more peaceful here and I like that.”
Muralists turn to watch protesters taking over the highway.
“People are seeing that these things are not okay,” said organizer Ruth Jeannoel. “With Art Basel, people want business to go on as usual, and we can’t have that.”
All photos by Daniel Rivero