In the summer of 2016, the political climate in America was being revved up as the Democratic and Republican presidential candidate were facing off. The Republican presidential candidate was in the news frequently with wayward comments that showed an insensitivity to diversity. The news reported incident after incident of police brutality against people of color. I noticed on the Seacoast that a clear division in philosophical differences between the parties were quite evident. People actually were saying and thinking that somehow Black Americans were of less value to society. I overheard many people talking about the violence in society. Prejudices were clouding peoples’ minds. Somehow, people of color were being shot and killed by police. Incident after incident of surveillance cameras capturing violence perpetrated against young black men by the police force were shocking. I personally witnessed on television police using unnecessary force to contain young black men. No one was talking about the racial divide and then I began hearing far out comment from neighbors in my community. One such comment was made to me. The individual said, “Have you ever seen them at a basketball game? They jump around like apes”. That was the final comment that unhinged me.
I have always had friends of many different nationalities and races. I am Jewish and was taught about prejudice from a young age. My parents taught us, “If you don’t like Jews, then you don’t like Blacks. If you don’t like blacks and Jews then you probably don’t like any diversity.” This lead me to believe that there were so many hateful people filled with prejudice.
I decided to take the matter into my own hands.
I began hearing “Black Lives Matter”. I questioned it. I asked myself why would people say Black lives Matter when all lives matter. I started hearing people say “All Lives Matter”. Then people were saying “Police Lives Matter”. I questioned everything. I asked a Black friend, “Why are people saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ when all lives matter?” My friend explained to me that the issue is really about the fact that for as long as we have been a nation, US citizens were insensitive to the lives of Black people. Black people disappeared and no one did anything. Black lives were overlooked, discounted, and negated. The more I learned about the issue the more it became important to me to speak out against this. I felt compelled to do something.
As an artist I wanted to make a statement. I too wanted to talk about the issue of racism as it plagues American society. I began thinking about why the subject was so upsetting to me. I honestly cannot tolerate injustices of any kind. I get riled up and can easily become quite vocal with my beliefs. I decided, as an artist, that it was my JOB to record history as I was seeing it. I began thinking about all my friends who were not Caucasian. I was trying to understand what it was like to NOT be Caucasian. All I kept thinking about was how broken hearted people must feel when their concerns and their well being are not taken into effect. Broken hearted was how I felt that my friends of color were treated unfairly and unjustly. Broken hearted was what I wanted to project. I felt broken hearted and I felt my Black friends must also feel broken hearted.
I came up with a concept and I drew up a crude mock up of what I wanted to do. I wanted to paint a great big American flag, backwards and instead of 50 stars, I would replace them with black broken hearts. The graphic was very strong, and I loved my idea. I set out to find help to pull it off. I placed an advertisement for an artist assistant on a local Facebook group set aside for alternative art and artists, and a veteran of war showed up to help. He told me he too believed in my mission and wanted to help me with the project. We set out to paint this huge mural on an underpass located on a rural back road in New Hampshire. While we were painting, drivers by were honking their horns in support of this giant backwards American flag with the black broken hearts.
We worked for 4 or 5 hours in the heat, and had to wind up the project early. I ran out of paint and my vet cohort was exhausted, he did all of the very physical work of painting the overpass. We left the scene. I drove my new vet friend home and went back with some spray paint to put the hashtag #BLACK LIVES MATTER on my piece of art. I felt this was a piece of protest art.
I signed the piece of artwork with my initials. Typically street art isn’t signed because it’s illegal. I didn’t have permission to paint where I did and I wasn’t concerned about the legality of what I was doing. All I wanted to do was make a statement that fueled a bigger dialogue.
Not long after, I was contacted by a different veteran who was very upset about the backward American flag. I started to receive dozens of comments on my Facebook page and a discussion about racism ensued. Angry individuals kept contacting me to voice their concerns. For a couple of days my art was a big deal. People were going to the site and spray painting over my art — someone had crossed out the word BLACK, someone painted the word back, then someone painted it out again. Spray paint wars as I like to call it. This went back and forth.
Eventually, I was contacted by the police and by the local newspaper.
I made arrangements to meet a reporter, a photographer, and a videographer at the site to take my side of thew story. I was arrested by the police and charged with a felony for vandalism. Over $1500 in damage made it a felony charge. A lawyer stepped forward and approached me. He took my case pro-bono. I discussed the case with anyone who would engage with me.
As I was waiting for the reporter, a man in a truck crossed a double yellow line and nearly pinned me between his truck and the wall I painted. He got out of his vehicle angry and aggressive. He spat on me. He said, “We don’t want that here. We don’t want those people here”. I tried to calm the man down and he pushed me against the wall. He yelled at me in my face and I yelled back. For a split second I thought I was about to lose my life. NH has a conceal and carry law, so you never know if who you are talking to has a gun on them. This guy looked like a regular NH guy. A great big truck, baseball hat, tattoos, T-shirt and jeans. This could have been anyone. I encouraged him to stay and tell the newspaper and police his point of view. As soon as I told him the police would be coming he got in his truck and drove away. My heart was beating super fast. I was just standing there shaking waiting for the reporter. They came about 5 minutes after the aggressive white guy in the truck took off. I was visibly upset and rambling. The videographer asked me some questions and started the video rolling, but I don’t remember the conversation.
The paper reported on the story 3 times in a week. The first time it hit the paper, on the front page above the fold was then candidate Donald Trump accepting the nomination of his party. Below the fold was an enormous picture of me and my artwork. The next time it hit the paper, the lead story was about me and my illegal artwork, and below the fold ran a story about the First Lady Michelle Obama. I then made the gossip section of the paper, and the Associated Press picked up the story and it ran from Boston, Massachusetts to Portland, Maine. The story made TV news with my mug shot. People got really wrapped up in the fact that I painted illegally on a wall that belonged to the state of New Hampshire. No one was talking about what I wanted to talk about — racism and inequality. But at that point it didn’t really matter what I wanted to say, what mattered most was that my artwork struck a cord.