Before the Philadelphia-based artist Russell Craig became a successful painter, he spent seven years in jail for non-violent drug crimes. Instead of throwing out all his court papers after he was released in 2013, Craig pasted these papers on canvas and used them as the basis for a self-portrait. “Art was completely necessary,” said Craig, who learned how to paint while behind bars. “It’s what got me through it. I really took to it because it was an escape.”
This artwork is now part of a new art exhibition entitled Museum of Broken Windows, which runs from 22-30 September in New York, and features 60 artworks by 30 artists critical of the “stop-and-frisk” procedures used by New York police – which police say target petty crimes such as vandalism so more serious crimes are thwarted.
But the policy, rooted in the “broken windows” theory coined in 1983, has been severely criticised. Stops have decreased from 700,000 to 11,000 from 2011 to 2017, but the NYPD has received more than 1,500 complaints of racial profiling since 2015. Many of the artists in the New York exhibit are affected directly by the broken windows policy, or are incarcerated themselves.
“Broken windows policing is a strategy tested by the NYPD, and we think it has failed,” said Johanna Miller, the advocacy director at New York Civil Liberties Union. “It has caused so much harm in communities. We want to make sure New Yorkers know it’s not an isolated tactic, it’s right in their own backyard, and is causing enormous damage in communities of color.”
The stop-and-frisk policy has been called heinous and immoral; it has also been called unconstitutional and humiliating. According to the NYCLU, stop and frisk is not an essential crime-fighting tool, and breeds mistrust between New Yorkers and the NYPD.
The artworks include a flag by artist Dread Scott, which reads: “A man was lynched by police yesterday.” There is also a sculpture by Jordan Weber, who has filled a NYPD police car with soil from the burial site of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“In the exhibition, there are wildly different opinions on whether broken windows has any impact on public safety,” said Miller. “It’s not making New Yorkers safer; it’s making many people’s lives more dangerous by exposing them to armed police officers at every juncture in their life. We think it’s time to let go of BW policy.”
“The artists are able to protect the dignity of the forgotten victims who have lived and died as a consequence of broken windows policing tactics,” said Daveen Trentman, co-founder of the Soze Agency and executive producer of the Museum of Broken Windows. “It will uplift people working in this movement of decades, it’s a retrospective of the past 50 years. It didn’t start and end with Giuliani.”
The voices of those behind bars are also on view. The artists Hank Willis Thomas and Baz Dreisinger are showing an installation called Writings on the Wall, which puts the poems, drawings and hand-written letters from incarcerated people around the world on view.
Meanwhile, Ann Lewis is showing a piece entitled And Counting, a 20ft artwork featuring the names of people killed by police in 2016. There will also be footage from the 1980s when Keith Haring was arrested for making public art in New York City and commissioned portraits of mothers who lost their children or loved ones who have been killed by the NYPD. There will also be a painting entitled The Talk by Michael d’Antuono, which shows a black couple about to warn their son of police racially profiling young black men.
“We hope the exhibition will be a jumping-off point for conversations with police officers and people affected by the policies, as there was such a low correlation between ‘stop and frisk’ and getting guns off the street,” said Donna Lieberman, director of the NYCLU. “As a society, we have bought into the narrative into the war on drugs, designed to be a war on black people, perhaps the most success war this country has fought in recent memory, which is a sad commentary.”