Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
On Friday a collective known as Never 21 staged a performance and action at the 21 Club, a high-end eatery in Midtown Manhattan, calling attention to the police killings of black youth. Two members of the collective posed as waiters and distributed “menus” to patrons who listed the names of 11 people killed by police in the US before they turned 21, including Nicholas Heyward Jr., Michael Brown, and Aiyana Jones. Meanwhile, other members of the group climbed to the balcony of the restaurant’s historic 52nd Street building and hung signs that spelled “BLACK LIVES MATTER” from the distinctive jockey statues that stand there.
The entire action, a follow-up to the group’s takeover of the Forever 21 store in Manhattan’s Union Square in April, was over in a little more than 15 minutes but, as a video (see below) of the event shows, it caused quite a stir. Hyperallergic asked members of Never 21 to explain the impetus for their actions, and the appeal of targeting establishments like the 21 Club and Forever 21 — beyond the obvious numeric correspondence.
* * *
Benjamin Sutton: There are any number of ways you might have infiltrated the 21 Club, what made you decide to go with the “menus” of black children killed by police?
Never 21: We wanted to follow the idea of our first action, which was basically to infiltrate in a way that would blend in, and essentially cause people to second-guess whether or not it was an infiltration or a sign of support from the company we were infiltrating. As for the names listed within the menu, the whole point of Never 21 is to shed light on the large number of black children (under the age of 21) who have been killed by police officers. It kind of just made sense to present this information to diners in menu form.
BS: Beyond the numeric resonance of the 21 Club and Forever 21, and their visibility, was there a specific reason why you targeted these establishments?
N21: To us, both of these companies serve as representations of corporate white America — our target audience. We aim to make these spaces slightly confrontational. This way they are forced to encounter these issues face on, outside of the comfort of their homes, in front of their television and computer screens.
BS: What was the response from 21 Club patrons when they were handed Never 21’s “menus”?
N21: Some of them laughed and made jokes — one person even went as far as saying he’d “like to order a VonDerrit Myers,” which we obviously found disgusting. Other people were just extremely confused and looked visibly uncomfortable.
BS: Police killing young people is a tragically common occurrence in the US; what do you find especially significant about the age 21, and the fact that these children were killed before they reached it?
N21: One of the main driving forces behind why we’re doing what we’re doing is the fact that black children are being dehumanized and painted in a way that makes them appear older and more aggressive than they actually are. They did that with the murder of 13-year-old Tamir Rice, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, 18-year-old Mike Brown, etc. The number 21 is significant to us because it forces people to remember how young these kids were, and to face that simple fact that police officers are killing children and getting away with it.