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Black Artists Sue Miami Beach Over Censorship of Memorial Day Artwork

A piece by Rodney Jackson memorializing Raymond Herisse.EXPAND
A piece by Rodney Jackson memorializing Raymond Herisse.
Image courtesy of Rodney Jackson

Last year, Miami Beach officials sought to "reframe the narrative" surrounding Urban Beach Week by hiring Black artists to create a series of art installations for the tens of thousands of visitors typically expected over Memorial Day weekend.

Miami artist Rodney Jackson created a piece for the project, known as ReFrame, memorializing Raymond Herisse, a 22-year-old Black man whom police fatally shot during Memorial Day weekend 2011. Police fired 116 bullets, 16 of which struck Herisse.

Not long after the installation, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales ordered that the piece be removed. ReFrame curator Octavia Yearwood and art programmer Jared McGriff said at the time that the piece was removed "under duress" after being told the entire exhibition would be canceled if Herisse's memorial wasn't taken down.

A lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in Miami federal court alleges that the City of Miami Beach, Mayor Dan Gelber, and Morales censored Jackson, Yearwood, and McGriff and violated their First Amendment rights by ordering the artwork's removal.

"The actions of the defendants constituted viewpoint censorship and flatly violate the First Amendment," the complaint says.

Melissa Berthier, a spokesperson for the City of Miami Beach, says officials can't comment on the lawsuit because they haven't yet been served.

Jackson's piece was supposed to be exhibited in an installation titled "I See You, Too," at a venue on Lincoln Road. Other pieces included an audio recording of police chatter, a video of Black men and women relaxing outdoors, and a healing space where visitors could sit, read, and reflect on the subjects of the installation, the lawsuit says.

The complaint says the pieces in the "I See You, Too" installation were "consistent with the city's understanding of the ReFrame project," and that this was confirmed by the city manager in the days leading up to Urban Beach Week.

The lawsuit hinges on Gelber's subsequent public comments about why the piece was removed. During an event called "Community Night: For Freedoms Town Hall" at Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) this past November, an audience member asked the mayor why the Herisse piece was censored. A video on PAMM's Facebook page shows his response around the one-hour-and-21-minute mark.

"Our manager said, 'I don't like it, and I don't want it,'" Gelber said during the event. "And, frankly, I supported that decision."

Gelber said he didn’t second-guess Morales' choice, although he probably could have. But he ultimately agreed with the manager's viewpoint.

"I don't think it was appropriate for us," Gelber said.

When another audience member pressed him, Gelber said that because the city commissioned the work and paid for it, the city had the right to decide "as a consumer and purchaser" whether it wanted the piece or not.

"In this case, the city manager said, 'That's not what I paid for,'" Gelber said. "That was the beginning and end of the discussion. It might upset people, but I think he had the right to make that decision."

Alan Levine, a civil rights attorney representing the artists, disagrees with the mayor's assessment.

"They paid for it with public money," Levine says. "[The city manager] is not a private patron of the arts. If a private person commissioned to paint something and didn't like it, they can take it down. But this was paid for with public money. The First Amendment doesn't allow government to decide to pay for things or not pay for things just because they don't like its point of view."

Miami Beach has a history of hostility toward Black visitors on Memorial Day weekend. Officials over the years have banned coolers and speakers on the sand, installed license-plate readers and closed traffic lanes on the causeways, prohibited loud music, and hosted an air show as "alternative programming" to "take back Memorial Day weekend."

For last year's ReFrame event, the artists were under the impression their work would "promote conversations about race relations on Miami Beach."

"We were hired to do a particular thing," Rodney Jackson tells New Times. "They hired us to reframe the conversation, but we can't have a conversation about it? It just seemed contradictory to what they wanted us to do. It really felt like someone was trying to take away my voice."

Jackson says he felt violated when he learned his work had been taken down. He'd created the digital illustration of Herisse's face on vinyl with white rays of light in the background and white candles beneath the image. A placard installed with the piece outlined his intentions for the illustration: "This memorial is to honor Herisse, to affirm #blacklivesmatter and call into question the excessive force, racial discrimination, violence, and aggression often present in interactions between police and unarmed Black civilians."

To him, the removal of his work was an indication that Miami Beach officials didn't want to see part of the city's history reflected back at them.

The lawsuit seeks a judgment that the city violated the artists' First Amendment rights and the issuance of a permanent injunction requiring that the city display Jackson's piece in a public space comparable to the space in which it would have been originally displayed and for a comparable amount of time, in addition to monetary damages.

Matthew McElligott, another attorney representing the artists, says it would be symbolic for the court to enter a judgment saying that what the city did was unconstitutional. The monetary damages the plaintiffs are seeking, McElligott says, would address the harm to their finances and reputations.

"The curators, their reputation was harmed within their own community," he says. "They had to choose between shutting down an exhibit or censoring one very valid viewpoint that was being advanced. They faced backlash. Artists in their communities and circles see this as caving in to government pressure."

McGriff, the art programmer, says he fielded a lot of questions after ReFrame from people insinuating that he helped censor art. He says he views artistic expression as sacred. McGriff says the idea behind the Herisse memorial was to reflect on a person who lost his life because of an encounter with police and how that death affects the broader community. That the community was denied that opportunity because of censorship was a frustrating situation for everyone, he says.

"It seemed like there was obvious intent to silence Black voices and silence Black art, and silence a memorial to someone," McGriff says. "And as a Black artist, it's painful to even be associated with it tangentially that I was involved with censoring another Black artist, or being involved with helping execute censorship on behalf of an unsympathetic [government]."

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McGriff says participating in the lawsuit is a way to affirm the rights of artists and, in particular, Black artists who are "doing the work of documenting the Black experience in America."

In 2016, Jackson curated and contributed to an exhibit called "The Force," which used Star Wars imagery to explore state-sanctioned violence against people of color. He believes his experience working on that exhibit is what got him an invitation to participate in the Miami Beach project.

But since ReFrame, Jackson says, he hasn't been able to produce an original work of art.

"The whole experience has kind of left me drained," he says. "I think I just need to rest and recover. I have plenty of things to say. I have a strong desire to do so. I just need to gear up and then fight the fight again."

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