The outlines of the words “Black Lives Matter” stretched across Indiana Avenue. Black artists sat and knelt, filling them with color and the names and faces of victims of police brutality. The names Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon Reed and Michael Taylor had already been written in white chalk.
When the artists finish, Indianapolis will join New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles and a growing number of other cities with major streets carrying those three words. On June 5, artists and activists in Washington D.C. painted the first of these murals following the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“When this is written in the history books, people are going to read that Indianapolis was part of this movement too,” said Mali Jeffers, an organizer of the event.
Indy10 Black Lives Matter and other community groups organized the mural painting event, which included speakers, live music and spoken word performances. The Indianapolis City-County Council approved the mural in a resolution against racism, and community organizers chose one Black artist to paint each letter of the mural on the road between the Indianapolis Urban League and the Madam Walker Legacy Center.
‘I hope they stop and think’
Artist Gary Gee kneeled on the asphalt, painting the face of Michael Taylor, a 16-year-old who was shot and killed while in Indianapolis police custody in 1987. Beside him, his notebook was open to a sketch of Taylor’s face alongside the words “WE THE PEOPLE HOLD THESE TRUTHS 2 BE SELF-EVIDENT” in all caps.
Gee said he was a teenager when Taylor died. It was one of the first stories he heard about police brutality.
“It was unreal,” he said. “I was a teenager just like Michael Taylor was, and I was realizing how Black people are treated in this country.”
Gee, who painted the “I” in “lives,” said he’s been racially profiled multiple times. He said people are finally starting to listen to Black people tell their stories of injustice, and he wants to amplify the message that Black lives matter through his art. He was also excited for an opportunity to showcase Black artists, who he said don’t get the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
“I hope when people stop and see these faces, they remember the people who were killed,” he said. “I hope they stop and think.”
‘We have to pay attention’
Artist Kevin West painted the “K” in “Black.” West said Michael Taylor was his cousin. He was only 5 years old when Taylor died but remembers him walking through the streets in his characteristic tank top and gold chains. Beside him, Gee painted Taylor wearing a tank top.
“I want to challenge people to understand,” West said. “And to honor my cousin’s story and memory.”
As West spoke, the song “Time for Change (Black Lives Matter)” blared through the crowd.
“The cops just killed another Black man that look just like me,” lyrics of the Trae tha Truth song go. “An nah, this ain’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.”
Then the music stopped, and a volunteer read names of people killed by police with a moment of silence after each. The last one named was Dreasjon Reed. Reed was shot and killed by Indianapolis police in May, prompting outcry from the community.
West said it was important to remember the names of victims of police brutality nationally but also to remember the ones in our own backyard.
“This is happening everywhere,” he said. “It’s in our city. We have to pay attention.”
‘Why does my Blackness offend you?’
Jeffers said she had heard rumors of counter protestors, but what stood out to her was the support she saw from the community.
Near the painting site, a car drove by, and a man raised a fist in the air through his window. In response, volunteers raised their own fists into the air.
At Cleo’s Bodega Grocery and Café, Debbie Long, the widow of Mack Long, who was killed by Indianapolis police in 2015, joined family members of victims of police brutality in front of the crowd. The words “No Justice, No Peace,” were printed across her mask.
She said she is disappointed she still has to speak out against police brutality in 2020. Every time a Black person is killed in police custody today, it brings back memories of her husband’s death.
“When they kill one of us,” she said, “they kill all of us because we all stand for the same thing.”
Long ended her speech with a poem.
“Why does my Blackness offend you?” she spoke. “Why does my voice make you mad?”
Tomi Rose, the aunt of McHale Rose, a 19-year-old who was shot May 7 by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers, took the stage, thanking Indy10 Black Lives Matter for making sure her nephew’s name was heard.
Rose said Indianapolis and the country needs to make systemic change to make sure what happens to McHale doesn’t continue to happen to others.
“Until I have no more breath in my body,” she said, “McHale will never be forgotten.”
A meaningful location
On Indiana Avenue, artists continued to paint. Jeffers said painting the mural on that street was intentional.
In 2004, the Avenue became Indianapolis’ sixth Cultural District, owing to its rich jazz history. But for Indy’s Black community, the avenue was so much more. Jazz music spilled from clubs, where cabarets, burlesque shows and drag performances also attracted crowds. The street was also home to shops, restaurants, doctor’s offices and shoe shine stands. It was the center of Black life in Indianapolis during segregation.
Many local historians point to the 1960s as the beginning of the end for the area due to urban renewal projects and the construction of Interstate 65. IUPUI also expanded onto Indiana Avenue and now sits in what was once a Black neighborhood. The area was dealt its final blows in the 1970s and ’80s when the city began bulldozing its historic buildings to raise skyscrapers.
Gee remembers riding his bike on Indiana Avenue in the late ’70s and early ’80s, looking at the Black businesses that remained.
“It was still just barely alive then,” he said. “Now it’s been completely gentrified. It’s gone corporate.”
As he painted the “I” in the mural, he thought of the letter as standing for “Indiana Avenue” as well. While he knelt, the One America Tower rose behind them, four decades after the 200 block of Indiana Avenue was razed for its construction. On the other side stood the Madam Walker Legacy Center, one of the last buildings of the old avenue that remains.
“This is an opportunity to remember what was here and how it was erased,” Jeffers said. “This is reclaiming the block. It’s reclaiming the Avenue.”
The mural painting event finished with performances by Black musicians as part of a celebration of Black joy and art, both visual and musical.
“If you believe in freedom, you can’t rest,” one performer, AshLee Baskin sang. “If you believe in freedom, you can’t rest until it comes.”
Contact Pulliam Fellow Christine Fernando at firstname.lastname@example.org.