Four years ago, artist-activist Ann Lewis debuted her …and counting installation on police shootings at the Democratic National Convention as part of Rock the Vote’s Truth to Power exhibit and then joined the Race and Revolution show on Governor’s Island in NYC. Lewis is a major advocate fighting against racism and police violence, but this particular work revealed another factor contributing to the violence: widespread mental health issues. With current events being what they are, we thought this was a good time to repost our interview with the artist. (Lewis is hosting an anti-racism webinar on Sunday June 7.)
Ann Lewis — better known to some as the street artist and activist gilf!—created an interactive installation called …and counting with more than 600 toe tags identifying every person the police killed so far this year. Lewis researched every single life taken by a police bullet, and the toe tags include the objective facts about the person and his or her death. …and counting is a dramatic and heartbreaking piece, but Lewis emerged from its creation with a new perspective that shows the complexity of the issue. “I went into the work believing that my disdain for police would be overly justified,” she wrote. “It wasn’t. Not at all. Time after time I read about insane violence, heartbreaking mental illness and a heavily armed society — over 75% of the people killed were armed and 94% were men. It has given me pause in considering the solutions to this problem.”
The following are Lewis’ thoughts on the installation, what she learned about police shootings and her ideas for finding solutions.
Tell me about the exhibit.
Race and Revolution discusses race relations in response to forms of power today versus what they were like when that building on Governor’s Island was used during the Revolutionary War. There were letters — between the British and their admirals and the Americans and their commanders — discussing how to manipulate the black and Native American communities to fight on their sides of the war. They claimed they would offer them freedom once they fought successfully. That was the impetus for the show.
I was reflecting on what these communities look like now when they are faced with the forces of the state. To me, police brutality is such a tremendous problem, and it’s a quantifiable problem because we have such amazing access to data at this point. We’re able to track how many people die each day [from police shootings], which on average is more than three.
I used two different sources to get the information about each person. The website killedbypolice.net is like a spreadsheet: the date, male/female, their race, their name, and then a link to a local news site where you can learn about how they died. One of the links sent me to this project called The Counted by The Guardian, and it’s much more interactive: You can search by cause of death, by state, see the [ethnic] percentages versus the regular population. White men are killed more than anyone else, but the population percentages show that black men are much more likely to be killed than white men.
It was really heartbreaking to see those sorts of numbers. Once I made it a physical piece, the gravity of the issue became much more evident. It’s one thing to scroll through a website and see name after name after name after name, and it’s another to be physically faced with all of them.
You created tags for each person who passed away, correct?
Yes. I used the toe tags that morgues use to identify cadavers. I needed to have thousands of them printed because I had to do the piece twice [for Philadelphia and New York]. The internet’s a wonderful place and you can find anything, but I had a very hard time finding those. There’s a company in Brooklyn that just prints whatever kind of tag you want, so they made me a bunch.
Toe tags are a weird thing for somebody to sell randomly.
Yeah. Exactly. I’m sure they were like, “Who is this person buying thousands of toe tags? What are they doing?” I’m sure there were questions. It’s a very morbid thing to spend lots of money on.
When you were researching the different victims, you wrote that you were surprised at how many were heavily armed and had serious mental health disorders.
Yeah. That was really what absolutely shocked me. The amount of people who were armed was staggering. It doesn’t mean they actually brandished the weapon. I think it’s very easy to manipulate the story of how these people died, unless of course it’s recorded. Seventy percent of the people killed either had a gun or a knife. What’s interesting, too, is that often times the police said the person used their car as a weapon.
The mental illness was staggering, and two stories in particular really haunted me. One was a woman in her 50s who had her child in the house, and another was a 16-year-old boy. They each called 911, described themselves as an intruder in their own home, and when the cops showed up, they had a weapon, and the cops shot them. Then they found suicide notes. These people used the cops to kill themselves, lots of suicide by cop.
I went into this thinking, “These cops are terrible people, and they’re just reckless.” I still believe there’s recklessness, and I still think a lot of innocent people — or maybe not so innocent people — lose their lives when they deserve to be alive today. Cops show up to a tremendous amount of crazy situations: People are armed, not in the right state of mind, and it’s me or you, really, in these situations. It’s like, “If you’re going crazy and you might kill my partner, I’m going to kill you first.” The police don’t choose to be in these situations — they choose to be cops and they know that’s part of it — but having to deal constantly with such a tremendous amount of armed instability is not necessarily what I expected to find.
What are some problems with police policies, and what are the problems they can’t control?
I absolutely think we don’t need to send cops to every situation where there’s someone dealing with a problem stemming from a mental illness. We need to develop another group of people, another type of social servant that will show up and deescalate. I don’t think cops have enough training in mental health. I read a paper released by someone working for the Department of Homeland Security that stated the average police officer only gets six hours of training to learn how deal with people with mental health issues. That’s nowhere near enough time. They don’t know what they’re doing. That must change.
We need to bring in mental health experts, treat people with mental illness and give them more access to quality care. I’d be curious to see how much higher the incident rate is now compared to the ʼ60s before thousands of mentally ill people were just allowed to walk out of the institutions that were already failing them, but at least containing them.
I also saw a lot of people running away from the cops because they robbed someone. The only reason people are robbing others is because they don’t have enough of what they need. Whether that’s money or food or drugs, people aren’t getting their needs met. We need to figure out how to take care of our society in a more comprehensive manner.
Do you see a lot of police issues in NYC?
As an activist in New York City, I see a lot of brutality and intimidation tactics when I’m protesting. I see a lot of disregard for others. If you’re not a police officer, they just don’t see you as human, there’s this “otherness,” a tremendous separation. There needs to be a lot of dramatic changes in how police interact with activists and even the average person. Why is the Anti-Terrorism Task Force assigned to be present at protests? Are we considered terrorists because we are demanding justice? Why are they filming us illegally? Why are they taking still photos of our faces, and intimidating us by casually mentioning our loved ones and family members by name? Why are they falsely arresting people for jaywalking when we have the light? These men and women who have chosen to “protect and serve” sure feel more like an occupying army of an authoritarian regime than the people I would call if I needed help.
What improvements can be made to lower the number of shootings?
Cops need to be taken out of a lot of situations, and they need to be replaced with groups like The Shepherd Community. In my opinion, police officers should be the last resort when dealing with someone that is unarmed, breaking the law or needs help. There’s no trust there, and their presence can often times escalate a situation because people expect bad things to happen when the cops show up.
I also think police officers should look like the communities they serve, be the same demographic. A lot of racial tension exists in communities of color where cops come in, mostly white, who don’t understand what the residents are going through. They haven’t lived that life so they don’t understand the challenges people face. Of course, then that whole conversation leads to, if they’re embedded in the community, there’s more space for corruption and bribes. A lot more conversations need to be had to find a comprehensive solution.
I’ve spent time writing and trying to flush out ideas. The one that stands out to me is the idea that we need to figure out how to respond to people with mental illness in a manner that’s not so threatening. There was a call because somebody was mentally ill and freaking out. The person wasn’t armed, but the cops showed up and the person was killed. Why is that happening? These people need real help, but instead they’re being shot by police. It’s just tragic.
Also, body cameras. Why are there “off” switches on body cameras? The fact that officers are shutting them off at opportune moments is disgraceful and absolutely should be illegal. The cameras should be designed so that they cannot be turned off.
Studies show cannabis arrest rates are several times higher for minorities despite similar usage rates to whites. Does this create added tension between poor minority communities and the police?
Of course it does. There are so many things that add tension between minority communities and police. I was with friends in Brooklyn Bridge Park a couple days ago walking along the waterfront, and there were all these people hanging out having a barbecue. There was a group of black people, probably 30 or 40 hanging out in this large area, and there was a big cop van, bright lights flashing, with about 15 cops watching them. Nobody in the group was doing anything wrong, but the cops were there with a very significant, bright, alarming presence. A few steps down the path a group of white kids were totally in peace. The racial profiling is just so blatant.
It happens all over the place. It happens in Bed-Stuy near the Marcy Projects as well. There are these loud generators fueling these gigantic bright lights blaring all night long. How do people rest when they have 1,000-watt lights blasting at their windows? These communities know they’re being watched, and the cops create this foreboding presence of surveillance along with stop and frisk. The Broken Windows theory and current policing strategies are absolutely ineffective and don’t create a sense of community and safety when people feel watched. It’s manipulative and oppressive. You don’t create a sense of trust and community-building with police officers if they treat everyone like criminals, and yet they wonder why there is such hatred towards them. They’re confining these communities, and surveilling them, and it’s this continuous degradation of their humanity. It’s disrespectful, manipulative and most definitely on purpose. The fury that lives inside me when I see these things fuels so much of what I do.
Last question. If the leaders of Black Lives Matter wanted to ask what ideas you might recommend, what would you say?
I’d tell them a lot of what they already know, which is that our policing structures have to be drastically reformed or completely destroyed. I would also say that we have a very significant problem with the amount of people who are armed. We have too many people with easy access to weapons, and while that may be a necessary means of self defense, you’re so much more likely to be killed by cops if you’re armed. I’m not sure I have the answer there, but that was a big lesson I learned.
I think it also goes back to developing strong communities by investing in education, health and support networks for those who need it. A lot of people would expect that to mean we have to elect people who have the community’s best interest at heart. I think that ship has sailed, our government hasn’t ever served these communities well. It’s up to us, members of each community, to spend time, dig in and create strength, after school programs, plant gardens and to participate. No one is going to save us, we have to do it ourselves.
I look to Detroit as a perfect example of people taking back their communities with power and developing a very necessary network of support for one another. But I guess the most pressing questions I have now are how do we build communities that don’t necessarily feel they need to be armed, especially when they’re faced with cops? How do we develop community discussions around how to stay safe around cops until the implementations of the changes we want have happened? How do we save lives right now? I think that’s really my biggest question.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.