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Given this year’s attention to outdated Civil War statues, Philadelphia’s question is timely, but Monument Lab has been working on this project for five years.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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Hearing the sirens

Talking about the weather, and race

Next Wednesday, July 5th, at noon, sirens will blare, piercing Minnesota skies with sharp warnings of impending danger, severe storms and all manner of natural and unnatural disasters, from toxic leaks to power plant failures.

Minnesotans know the drill, literally, about extreme weather. We can handle droughts, floods, straight-line winds, sub-zero and triple-digit temps. We’ve got basements for shelter from tornadoes, cold weather rules blocking utilities from shutting off heat and community cooling centers so people won’t overheat. Our phones beep updates about volatile storms.

We know what to do about weather.

We don’t know what to do about race.

Philando shrineNext Thursday, July 6th, marks one year since Philando Castile was killed. To many white people like me, the killing seemed shockingly out of the blue, a sudden squall that couldn’t be predicted. The jury’s verdict almost two weeks ago seemed nearly as stunning. The dash cam video shows Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting seven shots into a parked car with a 4-year-old in the backseat. Diamond Reynolds’ livestreamed Facebook video shows her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bleeding out. We watched a man dying in his car, and the man who shot him walked free.

Philando’s killing and the jury’s verdict weren’t fluke eruptions that came out of nowhere. Police killings and police not-guilty findings are as commonplace as summer rains. A day before Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando, two cops in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling while they were holding him down. The day after a Minnesota jury found Officer Yanez not guilty in Philando’s killing, a Wisconsin jury found an ex-cop not guilty of killing Sylville Smith, a black man who was seen on video throwing his gun away, with his hands near his head.

How can we ignore the torrents of racism that have drenched our country? We knew about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others. The casualties mount, still many people—white people– refuse to hear the alarms. People of color can’t ignore the warnings. They live buffeted by sometimes deadly cyclones of racism while whites carry on comfortably in our bubble, shielded by invisible umbrellas, an unacknowledged wall of whiteness between us and reality.

The fact is, we own racism just as surely as we own climate change. Humans have spread greenhouse gasses along with far more toxic waves of hate and fear. Yet many of us just duck our heads, ignoring the inconvenient truth of racism. Continue reading “Hearing the sirens”

A month of pain

A month ago today, July 5, Philando Castile was still alive.

The cell phone video that Diamond Reynolds livestreamed on July 6 after Saint Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot her boyfriend multiple times during a traffic stop has been viewed millions of times.

It’s a been a month of pain.

July 5. Police fatally shoot Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.

July 6. Police fatally shoot Philando Castile in Falcon Heights.

July 7. A man fatally shoots five police officers, and injures 11 others, in Dallas.

July 17.  A man fatally shoots three police officers and injures three others, in Baton Rouge.

In this month of pain, our community has come together, joining hands in prayers and protests. Our community has also come apart. We see the same video, Philando bleeding out, and yet see it so very differently. Continue reading “A month of pain”

Where can we stand for justice?

In the past 24 hours, police have arrested 69 protesters outside the Governor’s Mansion.

People have been standing, sitting, singing, dancing, praying and sleeping outside the Governor’s Mansion since July 6, when Philando Castile was fatally shot by a cop during a traffic stop.

We have stood outside the Governor’s Mansion, asking Governor Dayton to show his leadership. We have stood, black, white, Asian, straight, gay, trans, able-bodied and disabled, old and young, asking for justice for a 32-year-old Minnesotan whose last moments have been seared into our state and national history, our collective memory.

IMAG3876When we stood on Interstate 94, blocking traffic, disrupting ordinary life, many Minnesotans, including some of my family and friends, complained, saying freeways are no place for protests.

When we stood outside the governor’s mansion, some Minnesotans, including some of the Governor’s neighbors, complained, saying the Governor’s Mansion is no place for protests. Continue reading “Where can we stand for justice?”

White blindness

Books and blogs to learn more about our racial divide

Philando Castile’s death two weeks ago forced me to see how little I knew.

I was blind. White blind. I was ignorant about the racial divides, the racism, where I live. I thought the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, and Alton Sterling were tragedies that happened somewhere else. Not here.

Now I know. We are Ferguson and Cleveland and Baltimore and Baton Rouge. We are a place where a cop can fatally shoot a black man because he is black. I don’t want another Philando Castile to die because people like me are white blind.

So here’s what I’m reading and following, to see what I should have known years ago:

A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, Sun Yung Shin, ed.

Showing Up for Racial Justice Minnesota

Continue reading “White blindness”

Too much violence

We’ve seen too much violence.

We’ve seen violence against cops— twenty officers hurt during Saturday’s Interstate 94 protest; twelve officers shot in Dallas on Friday, including five killed.

We’ve seen violence by cops—Philando Castile killed on Wednesday in Falcon Heights, and Alton Sterling killed last Tuesday in Baton Rouge.

We’ve seen violence against gays—forty-nine people killed and 53 injured in Orlando in June.

We’ve seen too much violence. Too much hate. Too much fear. Too many guns.

Not enough peace.

Some have compared this bloody year with 1968, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed. Continue reading “Too much violence”