Michael Stewart: On Thirty Years of Remembering and Not Forgetting

Recently the wonderful and brilliant Keisha N. Blain wrote a striking remembrance of Michael Stewart in Huffington Post. Which if you know me, will not be linked to, because my ideological repulsion of that outlet and its heinous behavior for the entirety of its existence. That said, you should still seek it out, and read it. Framing it against or in tandem with #BlackLivesMatter movement, a mention in one paragraph of the years of protest, the various art created, movies made, and tributes to never forgetting. It felt like it deserved more.

On the 15th of this month, the day he was arrested, the Tweet thread below was created to juxtapose current activism against the histrionics, and oft violent erasure of the activism of the 80’s & 90’s.  Today much is made in comparison to the Civil Rights Movement, or lately a resurgence in the Black Panthers period that followed. Then apparently all of the conscious and politically active people went to sleep until Trayvon Martin sparked the BLM, or Ferguson kicked off direct action and uprising. There is more talk of Black Wall Street bombing then there is of the MOVE bombing in Philly or Mumia.

That is willful obfuscation, it even beggars disbelief, but yet there isn’t a great deal of scholarly or academic discussion around it, and even the current activists inspirations seem drawn from those things. While the age and the era, graffiti, hip-hop, see a resurgence today — in shows like ‘The Get Down’ — often times they ignore the other marginal areas, like its overlapping punk and LGBTQ intersections. Even the Ballroom culture, and the many avenues of creativity which it inspired, and continues as an inspiration for many is ignored. The specter of AIDS, the activism that spurned, all these things are collapsed.

Jean-michel Basquiat Death of Michael Stewart 1983

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Defacement

Leaving only Reverend Al Sharpton & Jesse Jackson as examples, which they see as failed or polarizing. Not many today will remember or fathom the Tawana Brawley case, Bernard Getz, The Central Park 5, and the furor these created. The climate it fomented and how a whole set of youth were fed up and tired. The crack cocaine epidemic and the inner-city turmoils were wielded to delegitimatize and further dehumanize, and yet people persisted. Somehow an entire generation’s righteous indignation, and organizing or protesting is given zero representation. The artistic remnants of it, like Michael Stewart dedication in Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ and Basquiat’s seminal piece, along with others seem to have been created in a vacuum. Not the natural outcropping of many very dedicated people fighting an uphill battle for justice.

When originally posting about Michael Stewart, a person on Twitter was so enamored they went and found a protest flyer from that time and tweeted it to me. Which as a time capsule shows the level of activism, and action that had to be taken. Someone had to draw the flyer, typewrite information at the top, then go to a copy center (or use one in their school) to make enough to distribute. We Michael Stewart Protest Flyer Union Squarecouldn’t call or text people, because everyone did not have a telephone in their pocket then. Sure we could leave a message on their answering machines, or message with family/friends, but a great deal of it had to transpire in person. On the street, and getting the word out. Then there had to be someone who would make sure the media was present, because they weren’t following prominent activists on a social media network.

All of this is not to discount those activists today who do get to steer and create conversations around these latest movements. Yet, to contextualize it, that in the information glut, the messaging, the petty politics, the social capital and envy that inspires, often makes it relegated to media overload. That simply put, two years since Ferguson, it is time to ask what has changed? Today we wake up to a man having an epileptic fit that was killed by the responding officers.

Another hashtag, another string of stories, video and pictures will emerge, without warning or seeming justice. That they will play out for more clicks to media properties, who often perpetuate these stories because they will great a glut of traffic to their sites. It is becoming so numbing, especially since we have often back-to-back occurrences. Last week it was Keith Scott and the Charlotte Uprising which quickly eclipsed the Tulsa shooting over the weekend of Terrence Crutcher. So today it is Alfred Olango, and soon it will be someone else. That sounds complascent or even apathetic, but it is the fatigue which has been mentioned many times before, and repeatedly on here, when after Sandra Bland’s death, the subsequent release of her video which made me swear off videos of black death.

That coupled with the previous young girl in McKinney, Texas and the violent video of a girl being yanked from her chair which was spread far and wide, to no effect, just showed to me personally, the futility of these tactics. Where do we go, and how do we evolve this message further? Visible high-profile protests help, open avenues of conversation (debate and the backlash), but how do we move forward to stop the next one? The media eats it up, using “race relations” as a flash point in an unequal and unending support of white supremacy. Using tweets (the intellectual property and critique) as free labor, while getting the clicks and pageviews which keeps their advertisers happy. If it bleeds, it leads.

When story after story emerges of Black people who end up dead, over crimes for which they should never even have had to exit their cars, we should stop giving police the benefit of the doubt. Those of us with Black lives cannot afford such gambles. And the police should not be afforded such luxuries.There is a tabloid sensational aspect of exploitation to these moments of public grieving and calls to action. Who then receives the benefit of the doubt? Yet the story quickly devolves into an ever-increasing trolling of “All Lives Matter” or other disruptive and deflecting conversations to purposely derail. In this election climate trolling has become a viable and legitimized way to run a campaign for the highest office in the land, or a debate tactic, mirroring our daily interactions around tweets. The post-truth atmosphere of everything creates a reality-distortion field. False Equivalency the order of the day. Today, and everyday.

The protests of the 80s-90s had to, as a gold standard, rise to the attention of the MSM. Enticing them to cover it in the emergent 24/7 cable news stream. This could validate or raise your cause to a national level. Yet here we are at the other end of that, where a tweet, a livestream on Facebook can, with few barriers, broadcast your message to a global audience. This is how in so many ways a local NY issue like Michael Stewart’s death (among others) would inspire so many. Yet the art that fostered resistance also played a part, especially in sustaining the pressure. That outside of the NYT articles which many of us couldn’t access with a click, these stories were interpreted and presented through songs, art, and words. They left a lasting impact.

The actor Bill Nunn, who played Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing, passed away since my tweet thread above, in which I asked:

It became clear in the RIP of Bill Nunn that the most lasting image and first gif to be used was him in that movie. By people who weren’t even alive when it came out, at best saw it on a streaming service now, or their parents VHS.

Black Lives Matter has been spotted all around the world, in London and Palestine, along with others. It has been embraced by radicals and everyday people alike. It has been a force in the primaries, with protests and pushing the candidates on issues, but is largely missing from the national debate in the general election. That each time, as we saw in Charlotte just recently, the same tropes are quickly drawn out, recapitulated, as if we haven’t been through this several times before.

Tagged Subway BlackLivesMatter_NYC cover (comp)

The sustained protesting, on the ground action should inspire people, should be broadening the resolve. We’ve seen shutdowns of highways, boycott/sit-ins at Brunch, die-ins at schools, and many other creative responses. You see offshoots of this energy elsewhere in the #NoDAPL Protest, the Mizzou protests, and others. The point being that in decentralizing the power, eschewing (for the most part) messianic leaders, and giving everyone the power to participate that what will occur is a grass-roots led, community-action centered response.

Is that what we have? Doesn’t seem like it. While the network structure is solid, and the subsequent amplification of these incidents wide, there can at times rise, not only competing narratives, but widespread disinformation. This coupled with videos which have no trigger warnings or introductions, or links leading to pages (which is standard practice now on TV News websites) where the video auto-rolls. If showing these images actually achieved anything, then why two years in does it seem to be getting worse, not better?

As an example recently, a twitter account Fameolous, which usually posts gossip and other entertainment, posted closed-circuit footage of a young girl being raped by a policeman in jail. The outrage was swift and severe. Yet they joked after removing that people really hated them, and they thought they were doing a service. That baffles all common sense. They had posted it not only on Twitter, but Instagram, and when reported/deleted there, again on DailyMotion. They thought “their haters” really were coming for them, when what they had done was not only illegal and beyond any good taste, was done apparently for retweets & likes. To get a come-up and become internet famous by sharing vile acts takes doing it for the vine to the next level.

This does damage to all citizen journalists, all people who want justice, and desensitizes people who would be willing activists by colluding with the very forces you hope to defeat. Persons my age, in the midpoint in their life, often reminisce that we are glad social media and cell cameras didn’t exist when we were young, or there would be a laundry list of things forever available on social media and the web. Which brings me to the conclusion of this critique.

Much of what transpired in the early years of my life, protesting, organizing and activism-wise was ephemeral. Just as these names and hashtags come and go to rarely be revived. There is no digital archive, but probably with the proper access could find media reports dating back. One that caused a furor, long before our current Rape culture work today, was a rarely referenced Feminist Art Project at the University of Maryland which put up names and pictures of students labeled: POTENTIAL RAPIST. It was very provocative, but also indicative of the subversion possible through using the public space as both art project and critique on society.

We had marvelous graffiti, wheatpaste posters, and other street art. There were spoken word poetry or installations that would quickly evaporate. They fused punk, protest, anarchy, and a futurism and brandalism that is now seen as hip or modern. While being largely forgotten, both by academes or even your average tweeter.

This bothers me, just as the use of mixtape means something utterly different today, it is an idea, while not quite living up to the historic meaning it had for an entire generation. That feels vaguely similar but woefully inadequate. That isn’t to say that I’ve not, or do not, actively support this new generation, these new tools, and the movement. I do.

Yet with rumors of a sale of Twitter, it is worth pondering, when the platform changes (and it could drastically) what will happen to all the momentum or social capital invested there? Will these tweets then become ephemera, quickly papered over by whatever rises to replace it? There is noMike Brown AIDS Activism comparison great push to digitize or migrate an entire section of history on activism. These will not be scanned and uploaded like the Google Books Project, which will only leave sanctioned and recorded accounts which we all know will let someone else tell the story. A dangerous proposition if ever there was one.

So it is my hope that someday soon, someone can dedicate more time and resources to capturing just what it was like to fight or protest during these days. Often it is elided over, even as it is noted in art history or elsewhere. Perhaps someday we can even see the many ways in which these current protests fit in the long line of activism stretching back a century.