“The following pages and their attendant objects are an archive of misrecognition,” writes Elena Gross in her introduction to This Is Not a Gun, a book project organized around objects “mistaken” for guns by police officers during shootings of unarmed Black or brown people. Edited by artist Cara Levine and co-published by Sming Sming Books and Candor Arts, the book invited 40 artists, activists, and healers to respond to each of these objects, and is an extension of a long-term, multidisciplinary project of the same name. There are essays, poems, silkscreen prints, lyrics, illustrations, texts, and typographic flourishes. All contributors were given the same writing prompt by Levine, which encouraged them to choose an item that held personal significance, using it as a creative gateway for their own thoughts, unbounded by formal restrictions. Levine also sent along news articles detailing the various shooting incidents and their victims.
The project began four years ago, after Levine came across a list published by Harper’s Magazine in 2016 called “Trigger Warning.” The objects on the list were far from extraordinary: cell phone, tinfoil, hairbrush, Wii remote, underwear. Taken from shooting incidents that occurred in the United States since 2001, “Trigger Warning” unsettled Levine. As she explains in the foreword, “It felt empty of the most crucial information,” even in its passive critique of police brutality. By highlighting just the objects, the list expressed an absence of names and ages, historical precedents and personal narratives.
In December 2016, Levine started carving the objects from this list in wood, while learning the names and stories of every victim. From there, her private studio practice ballooned into a collaborative project, morphing into a series of public ceramic workshops with individuals and organizations dedicated to racial justice. Participants molded clay into wallets and Bibles and pizzas, a tactile exercise that provided space to unpack the historical and contemporary ramifications of racism.
The carvings appear throughout the book, resembling ghostly relics. While reading, I felt like I was shuffling through a box of precious keepsakes, provoking a sour sense of deja-vu. I repeated the names: Amadou Diallo, LaTanya Haggerty, Charles Kinsey. Some pieces, like poet and activist Sonia Guiñansaca’s “Therapist, patient, toy truck,” a poem written for Kinsey and Arnaldo Rios Soto, circle around the fractured details of the shooting. Other works, like professor Kemi Adeyemi’s essay for Esau Castellano — murdered by Chicago police even though he complied with orders and held his hands up — consider the mental gymnastics we perform in order to avoid the violent racism at the root of policing.
Most of the responses revel in personal memories. Visual artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo’s entry is dedicated to Bobby Canipe, an elderly man shot by a police officer who thought his cane was a shotgun. Branfman-Verissimo recreates a portrait of the canes used by their great-grandfather Harry and grandfather Reuben via drawings and micro reminiscences. Skittles and AriZona iced tea remind choreographer and community organizer Shamell Bell, an original member of the Black Lives Matter movement, of running to the corner store, the innocent pleasures of her childhood. Now, she cannot separate the items from Trayvon Martin’s death. Where she saw innocence, the right-wing media saw “ingredients to concoct” purple lean. Innocence was denied and rewritten as an imminent threat, a predilection for trouble.
I pored over the pages as protesters nationwide spilled onto the streets in outrage over the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McCade, and the innumerable lives lost, past and present, to state-sanctioned violence and white supremacy. They are still on the streets, risking arrest, teargas, physical injury, and disappearance. Their resistance against militarized police terror has catapulted the movement to defund the police into the mainstream media. Guided by the work of abolitionists like Dr. Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba, people are rethinking our approach to public safety and community care. Although the words abolition or defund do not appear in the text, I couldn’t help but hold those calls in the back of my mind as I read the responses. This Is Not A Gun feeds into these conversations, a quiet intervention, a tome of mourning and exhaustion.
Gross reminds us in the introduction, referencing feminist theorist Sara Ahmed’s Strange Encounters, that “the figure of the stranger is produced…through the act of recognition or being known.” The stranger is made unfamiliar because that is what we are looking for, a scapegoat. We want to objectify and project our nightmares onto an external force, validating our fears and upside-down beliefs. This Is Not A Gun collects a coterie of objects made strange by racism and power. Rather than pointing to the obvious, the archive of misrecognition reveals our nation’s inability to truly name the hate constricting our hearts and minds.
This Is Not A Gun, edited by Cara Levine and co-published by Sming Sming Books and Candor Arts, is currently available for pre-order at Sming Sming Books.