An elderly art collector, her hair dyed and twisted into a J.M.W. Turner seascape, lowered her cell phone from her ear long enough to listen to the protestors gathered at the entryway tothe Art Basel Miami Beach fair
"What is a Reefa?"
Her companion, an aubergine-suited man with glossy skin, shrugged.
Four months after the promising 18-year-old street artist Israel "Reefa" Hernandez died after being tasered by Miami Beach police officer Jorge Mercado, friends and family in the Justice for Reefa Coalition used last week's series of art fairs to raise awareness for what they believe to be an unjustified killing. The group has been joined by the Dream Defenders, the same group that occupied the Florida state capital building for 31 days following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Though the alliance staged actions every day of the fairs, their main events were a protest outside the Miami Beach Convention Center on Friday night, a flash mob-style gathering inside the building at the main entrance of the fair during a high-traffic period, and a weekend spent petitioning and talking to graffiti-receptive out-of-towners in Wynwood.
Subhash Kateel, a radio broadcaster and community activist, said of Officer Mercado, "He's a Miami Beach veteran who has been here long enough to know if he was really was in danger. We've done our homework, and it's just really clear to us that the law is on our side. The only way the level of force used on Israel was justified is if everyone, like him, were a 150-pound 18-year-old. And we're not. We do not believe that all of those officers that day were in fear of a 150-pound 18-year-old boy.
"It's been four months with no autopsy or toxicology reports released. Leaks come out that we believe to be from the police department, saying that Israel was on drugs. Well, show us the evidence."
Some of the assembled activists were street artists like Hernandez, friends of his or merely drawn to the cause as kindred spirits. Most of the group, however, were young minority activists. They would have liked to have gone inside the fair to protest, said one who declined to be named, but "tickets are too expensive for people like us."
"Basel Week is a time of year when the city purports to care about art and artists. So if you really care about art and artists, care about Reefa," says Yesenia Garcia of the Justice for Reefa Coalition. "This is a time when Miami Beach is making millions and millions off of the Miami art scene. But why don't they care about artists the rest of the year?"
As the sun set on Friday, protesters held a banner reading "We Demand Justice For Israel Hernandez" across the street from the fair. Miami Beach police stood by to keep the group from setting foot on the sidewalk, asking curious passersby to keep moving when they stopped to ask questions about Hernandez. The plan was to then have a second group flood inside the convention center to the passageway where the crowds bottleneck as they enter and exit. The group would sing protest songs and make a brief speech about Reefa and the circumstances of his death.
After tagging the first letter of his name on the side of a graffiti-covered abandoned McDonald's -- which was also plastered with illegally posted political campaign posters -- Hernandez fled from police. He later died from what protestors consider to be an unjustified level of force.
"For anyone who has grown up in Miami, police corruption and brutality is a fact of everyday life," Garcia said. The protestors across the street called for justice in English and Spanish, and the others prepared to enter the Convention Center. "That system corruption is so engrained here that it can feel overwhelming. This is the moment when we as citizens need to say that's enough.
"It bothers me that young people and people of color need to worry about the police department. It's the reason why I don't usually go to the Beach. I don't go to Pembroke Pines. There's a lack of respect for citizens."
When the protesters entered the building, they did so separately, watching their phones for the signal to begin. Careful as the protesters were, the fair's security and Miami Beach police began pacing as they noticed a steady influx of young people in jeans and t-shirts rather than the stilt-like heels and asymmetrical hats favored by other attendees.
"Israel was part of the fair in the past," Garcia said as she got ready to join the others. "Not in the main fair, but he would exhibit his art in events around it, just like so many other artists. We want Basel to hear us and the Miami Beach police to know we're here."
Daniel Agnew of the Dream Defenders was the one who would be sending the signal and leading the call-and-response song about Hernandez's death. His group became involved "while we were in the capital, when we got a call telling us what had happened with Reefa. We couldn't do anything just then because, well, we were kind of involved. But after we came back to Miami, we couldn't not do something."
Though many of the participants knew Hernandez personally, many like Agnew or the graffiti writers who have taken to tagging "RIP Reefa", "Reefa Lives" and -- on what would have been his 19th birthday two weeks ago -- "Reefa 19" on walls around the world, see the death as emblematic of something larger.
"We want the outside world to understand that although Miami Beach is a beautiful place, it has an undertone of negativity to it," Agnew explained. "There are kids and adults getting killed and nothing is happening about it. Reefa would have probably had his art in Art Basel one year, so what better way to let people know what is really going on? If they won't listen to us and our marches, when we send petitions or go to city hall, then we have no other choice but to come where their biggest money maker is."
Moments later, Agnew texted his partners who then burst into song from their positions around the fair's lobby.
"Mama, mama tell me why: why your artists have to die?"
Security and police, many of them persons of color, half-heartedly herded the group into the center of the lobby. Once they were huddled together, the broadcaster Subhash Kateel ended the singing and stepped forward.
"Israel 'Reefa' Hernandez was tased to death by the Miami Beach Police Department," he bellowed. Some visitors stopped to listen; others covered an ear and continued with their cell phone conversations. "If you love art, if you love artists, remember Reefa Hernandez."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Outside the convention center, fair employees were seen accepting handbills from the protestors, not unlike the other confused visitors who paused to ask questions. On Saturday and Sunday, the activists continued their efforts, relocating to Wynwood in order to raise awareness about alleged police brutality and to get signatures on their petition to reform the laws around supposedly non-lethal force that became lethal for Israel Hernandez. One signature came from Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard, who represents a district that includes part of Miami-Dade county.
According to Muhammed Malik of the Coalition, who was at the Miami Beach and Wynwood actions, "Local, national and international visitors and local residents and artists are signing our petition. Momentum is growing."
To follow the activist group's continued efforts, visit justice4reefa.tumblr.com.