Monuments that Matter

Men on horseback. Men with weapons. We’ve had enough of the usual statues.

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Monument to New Immigrants by Tania Bruguera. Philadelphia

Philadelphia has a fresh take on public art: An 8-foot Afro pick topped with a raised fist, All Power to All People. A faceless, genderless Monument to New Immigrants.  A mash-up of pedestals sans sculpture called If They Should Ask, spotlighting the absence of women monuments.

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If They Should Ask by Sharon Hayes. Philadelphia has just two statues dedicated to women, Joan of Arc and a Bostonian, Mary Dyer.

You can savor the city’s twenty eye-catching creations the through November 19. The artworks are part of Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project, which asks, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”

Given this year’s attention to outdated Civil War statues, Philadelphia’s question is timely, but Monument Lab has been working on this project for five years. I hope more people start seeing public art and asking questions. What is a monument that matters? Who are we honoring? Who are we ignoring? Why?

Statues tell stories, about who matters and who doesn’t. In Philadelphia, William Penn is top dog, or at least top statue. No building in center city can be taller than Penn’s statue atop City Hall. Penn is part of Philadelphia’s history, as is Frank Rizzo, a racist police chief and mayor, whose statue may not remain long in the city.

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People appreciating Hank Willis Thomas’s All Power to All People. In background sits another sculpture, Government of the People. Philadelphia

I thought about Philadelphia’s history as I stood across from City Hall recently, watching people taking selfies by Hank Willis Thomas’s 800-pound Afro pick. A group of young African American men smiled broadly for the camera. Then two women took their turn, then another, then another. No one glanced at a massive sculpture, Government of the People, hulking just a few feet from the All Power to All People pick.

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Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Minneapolis

What makes a hair pick art? Maybe the same thing that makes a spoon art. People connect with ordinary objects, especially those made in dramatic fashion. The Black Power comb makes a necessary statement when so many people, including the president, don’t understand that black lives matter.

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Two Me by Mel Chin, standing above right. Philadelphia

In Philadelphia’s City Hall courtyard, ordinary people become the art. Mel Chin’s Two Me lets people step up to the pedestal, literally, and become the monument. I watched a little boy who just wanted to run up and down the long ramp, and a young woman in hijab stand up, tentative but smiling, atop the pedestal.

Monumental messages can come from simple stuff. A spoon, a cherry.  A comb, a fist. The ordinary becomes iconic. Monuments that stay with us, that matter.

 

 

 

 

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Why I blocked a freeway

Your honor, I respect how you have listened to all of us protesters. You have said freeways aren’t safe places to protest. I went on Interstate 94 not to put my life in danger but because other people’s lives are in danger. I don’t think freeways, roads, really anyplace in America, are safe for people of color. Philando Castile was not safe here, in Ramsey County.

The prosecutor has said we protesters destroyed “the peace and tranquility of the interstate.” What kind of peace and tranquility did Philando have while driving? It’s likely he felt fear, rather than peace and tranquility, during the more than four dozen traffic stops he endured.

Last July, Officer Jeronimo Yanez panicked and killed a compliant driver. This June, Yanez was acquitted by a legal system that respects people who wear blue more than they protect people who are black.

We who have power– because of the color of our skin or the authority of our jobs—allow separate and unequal law enforcement and separate and unequal courts.

We allow officers to pull over people of color for unnecessary traffic stops. We allow cops who kill civilians to walk free.

Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds live-streamed racial injustice as vivid and painful to see as civil rights protesters being attacked by dogs and water cannons.

We watched a man bleeding, dying. What did we do?

Philando shrine BIGGER

Many of us rose up. We went to the Governor’s Mansion, an urgent and spontaneous vigil, using our bodies more than our voices to demand justice.

Your honor, you have spoken of police mistakes. When we repeat actions hundreds of times, they can no longer be considered mistakes. Police shootings of civilians are not mistakes. Police shootings are racial injustice which we who have power allow to continue. We need to change laws. We need to change ourselves. We who have power, because of the color of our skin color or the authority of our jobs– judges, prosecutors, lawmakers— we need to accept our responsibility for allowing racism.

Until Philando’s killing, I had been silent about racial injustice. I watched Philando’s blood seeping across his body. I cannot unsee it. I cannot unsee the racism seeping across our history, staining America, for longer than we have been a nation.

Philando died because we who have power did not demand justice for all.  I will stand with and behind people of color. They have spoken out for centuries against the injustices by my people.

John Lewis calls protest “necessary trouble.”  We need to stand up, sit in, kneel on a sideline, block a freeway. Civil disobedience is as serious, as patriotic, and as necessary as voting.

I cast my ballot for justice standing outside the Governor’s Mansion. I cast my ballot for justice blocking Interstate 94. I cast my ballot for justice this morning in court.

We watched a man bleeding, dying. We need to make necessary trouble.

 

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Poster by Leon Wang