Hoping to amplify young black and Latino voices in a post-Ferguson New York City, journalist Rico Washington and photographer Shino Yanagawa have collaborated to organize “Finding Dante,” an interactive exhibit currently on display at the Kimmel Galleries at New York University.
At this stage of the multiphase project, the exhibit features photographs and video interviews that show viewers what it is like to live in the city and to interact with the New York Police Department as a black or Latino teenager.
Many Columbia students were impacted by last year’s incidents of police brutality incidents against black Americans. In particular, the death of Eric Garner in July 2014, exacerbated by a grand jury decision to exonerate the New York Police Department officer involved, sparked mass protests and die-ins on campus, in New York City, and across the country.
In the wake of these appalling acts of police brutality, Washington and Yanagawa pose an interesting question: How would Mayor Bill de Blasio’s multiracial son Dante fare in a hypothetical encounter with the NYPD, without his private security detail?
During his interviews with Afroed teens on the streets of New York City, Washington was surprised to discover that, despite their young age, some of his interviewees already had harrowing stories to tell about their encounters with law enforcement. In particular, Washington spoke about a black teenager from Brownsville, Brooklyn.
“He likened the police officers’ attitudes toward Brownsville—especially rookie cops—as being a training ground for new officers, a way to work out the kinks in terms of policing methods used in extremities,” Washington said in an interview with Spectator.
Washington described a particularly traumatic encounter between his interviewee and local law enforcement that occurred when the boy was 13. A police officer accosted the boy and his friends on the streets for no ostensible reason. One of his friends was pushed up against a wall and had his face smashed into it.
“He thought about it for days on end, trying to rationalize the sense of it, and he couldn’t. It’s just one of those things that happen with the black experience. It sticks with you and lets you know that [police abuse] is not too far from your own fate,” Washington said. “It could be something that happens to you tomorrow, or next year, or whenever.”
“You just have to accept this normalization of abuse that happens—that you should feel like, ‘This is going to happen to me at some point,’ or ‘It’s possible that it could happen to me at some point,’” Washington said. Washington credits the protests centered around the non-indictment in the Garner case—especially one in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn—as a source of inspiration for his exhibit.
“Among the crowd, I kept seeing boys with Afros. I kept looking and I said, ‘That guy could be Dante,’ and ‘That one could be Dante.’ And to think: What if one of them were Dante? I contrasted that with the line of police that were guarding the entrance to the Barclays Center from the protestors. … It was very interesting on the ride home on the subway [to think about] the questions: What if one of the guys were Dante? What if one of them were assaulted or arrested? Or even just [to think about] the conversation with the officer who recognized him apart from the other black boys with Afros,” said Washington.
Washington said that, whereas most of his interviewees were Afroed black or Latino teenagers who looked like Dante, their encounters with the police differed considerably in outcome.
“The [differences between the boys] could be the differentiating factors between [what happens to them, for example] walking away from the police car versus going to jail or worse,” Washington said.
In future phases of the multi-phase exhibition, Washington hopes to expand his exhibit into an educational space for black or Latino teenagers with similar experiences.
“[We plan] to be informative and provide people with resources and information they might not have. [It is important to be] informed on your rights—what police officers have the right to do and what they don’t have the right to do,” he said. “I’m also going to be pairing [some of the boys] up with mentors and give them this time and dedication to help them navigate challenges [on the way] to manhood.”
“We’re going to have different people coming in doing workshops and classes on different things, from refining your résumé or how to write an essay for your college application,” Washington said.
Phase two of “Finding Dante” is on exhibit at NYU’s Kimmel Galleries from Sept. 29 through Dec. 12.