MIAMI — This evening, amid the well-kept art fairs and glitzy parties of Miami Art Week, at least 300 people — possibly as many as 600, according to some reports — descended on the Miami neighborhood of Wynwood to protest police brutality and the death of artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez. Inspired by the waves of momentum rolling through the country in the wake of grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in St. Louis and Staten Island, the #Ferguson2Miami vigil and protest connected the dots between Mike Brown and Eric Garner, whose deaths have made national headlines more recently, and Israel “Reefa” Hernandez, who was killed by police in Miami more than a year ago. In August 2013, officers caught Hernandez, an 18-year-old graffiti writer, tagging a McDonalds restaurant. They proceeded to chase and then taser him, causing his death. Investigations and lawsuits are under way, but to date there’s been no trial or legal resolution.
“I think it’s really important for artists to be involved in this conversation for many reasons,” Alexandra Perisic, a member of the Miami Committee on State Violence, which organized the vigil, wrote to Hyperallergic over email earlier in the day. “First of all, Reefa was an artist and we’re asking for the art community to stand up for him. But also, Art Basel is one of the biggest art festivals in the US and yet there has been a complete disconnect with what’s happening in the country. We’ve wanted to open up a space where artists can claim art as political.”
Art Basel was, perhaps inevitably, on many people’s minds as the crowd gathered at the corner of NW 36th St and NW 1st Ave in the late afternoon. “Everybody comes to town thinking it’s business as usual, and it’s not business as usual. People are getting killed in Miami, and no one thinks it’s happening here. Everything’s getting covered under the rug,” said Ruth Jean Noel, an organizer of the event who works with the grassroots Power U Center for Social Change.
“Israel could be painting murals right now. Painting on walls is hot right now, so it’s funny that that’s what he was killed for,” said Sharika Shaw, an artist and organizer with Dream Defenders. “Art is about resistance — it’s about making the uncomfortable comfortable and making the comfortable uncomfortable. That’s what we’re doing here. It’s about how we use it.”
Some of it was used for signs: artists Molly Crabapple, Davon Davis, and Kenneth Pietrobono sent images and banners, which mingled with more typical handwritten placards. The protest got underway just after 5pm with a series of chants and four and a half minutes of silence (to represent the number of hours Mike Brown’s body lay in the street after he was shot in Ferguson). Members of Israel Hernandez’s family came next, handing out buttons that said “Art is not a crime!” and speaking to the crowd in English and Spanish. “There’s so much death in the streets by the police,” yelled his sister, Offir, before announcing that the family had brought the case to the United Nations.
By the time the protest took to the streets, the crowd had swelled to at least 300 people. After walking only two short blocks, the group entered I-195 on foot, shutting down traffic in both directions. The police followed and hovered close by (including at least one drone flying overhead) but did not intervene. Protesters linked arms on both sides of the highway barrier as cars honked loudly — a mixture of support and extreme frustration.
When the group began moving again, they walked down the highway one exit, getting off in the northeast quadrant of the city. Energy remained high, with chants — “I believe that we will win”; “Tear it up, don’t tear it down, we’re doing this for Mike Brown” — resounding. The protesters took over streets in the Design District and then back into Wynwood, with periodic stops at intersections to chant and get energized and make traffic wait.
“This is the best thing I’ve seen in Miami,” an older woman told Hyperallergic, explaining that she’d retired to the city three years ago. After the recent protests across the country, “it’s good that Miami said, ‘come on out,'” remarked Gary Cool Beasley, who was wearing a shirt printed with the stars and stripes and an American flag around his neck. “If you can’t respect a man, a black life, maybe you respect the flag, so kill me in this,” he said of his outfit. Asked if he was an artist, he responded, “I’m many things — I’m up and coming.”
The most common reaction from onlookers, who ranged from women in tight sequin dresses and mega-heels to crusty muralists painting walls in Wynwood — was to take out their cell phones and shoot pictures or video. But their faces betrayed surprise, as if they’d never seen anything like this in Miami. One teenager with a skateboard lit up like a kid in candy store when he saw the protesters march by. A woman named Fernanda Hedmont, who wore a heavy tan and a perfectly shaped all-white outfit, and would say only that she was in town for Art Basel, commented, “I think they’re making their voices heard. Art Basel is just a polish color on your nails — there are deeper things that we don’t see.” Not everyone, of course, was positive: one man booed loudly from the balcony of a chic apartment building.
The event wound down with another powerful four-and-a-half-minute silence, this time done as a lie-in at the intersection of N Miami Ave and 29th Streets, followed by a silent march back to the corner where the group had started. There, one of the organizers ended the night with a speech using the people’s mic technique, the words echoing throughout the crowd.
“Tonight is not the end. Miami has never been shut down like we shut it down. But if we’re satisfied with this, there will be more Reefas,” he said. “This is not about a single night — this is about a movement. Tonight we shut down Art Basel! We will keep shutting shit down!” And even though they hadn’t actually shut down Art Basel, or any art fairs or events, it certainly felt like they’d woken something up.
Update: This article originally estimated the number of protesters at 300, but some news outlets have reported up to 600 people in attendance. It has been revised to reflect that.