Three years ago, 18-year-old artist Israel Hernandez, also known as Reefa, was fatally tasered by police officers who found him creating a piece of illegal street art. The news split Miami in two. Some accused the cops of unwarranted brutality; others condemned Hernandez as a criminal. But filmmaker and producer Stan Jackubowicz wanted to dig deeper.
"From the moment that I heard about the story, when it was in local media and all over the place, it really touched me personally," Jackubowicz explains, "because Reefa was an artist, was a young guy, was an immigrant, was a Latino. I have a lot in common with that. I'm Latino as well, I'm an immigrant, I was that kid who wanted to do what he wanted to do. I wanted to take photographs and video, and I didn't want anything to get in my way. So it connected with me a lot."
Next Sunday, Jackubowicz's young-adult graphic novel, Isra & Lito, will launche at Books & Books' pop-up space in Wynwood. Inspired by Reefa, the book is the culmination of three years of investigating Taser policy, studying Reefa's life, and advocating for his family.
At the time of Reefa's death, Jackubowicz, who immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela about 20 years ago, was a TV producer at Fusion, where he and his news team were prepping to launch their first news show. "It touched us all," he recalls. "A couple days afterward, we were interviewing the family. At that point, we were about to do our first show, and we opened the show with that story. That's how much it touched us."
But the tragedy of Reefa stayed with Jackubowicz even after that show aired. He soon began work on a TV documentary that examined Taser policy in light of the artist's death. The special aired on Fusion in 2014, one year to the date of Reefa's death.
Still, Jackubowicz says, "I didn't feel that the story was done. It was still in my heart." After a year spent producing the Reefa documentary, Jackubowicz had forged strong ties with the Hernandez family; he still calls and meets with them and has assisted in organizing events with them to raise awareness of the issues surrounding Taser use by police forces.
"I connect to [Reefa's] story because I connect to the character a lot, but I connect to the parents too," says Jackubowicz, a father of two. "I've seen these parents still grieving for their son who was taken... I felt that I had to keep doing something."
Because of Jackubowicz's relationship with the Hernandez family, readers might expect a graphic novel full of rage at police and political policy. And it was — at first. "My first version had a lot of descriptions of how the whole thing went down," Jackubowicz recalls. "It even had a description of what a Taser is and what it does to your body. It was very graphic."
But as Jackubowicz refined his work, he realized he didn't want to add another angry voice to the mob. He wanted to celebrate the kid he had spent the past three years getting to know through the memories of his family.
"I'm telling the story of this character who, to me, was kind of like an angel who came to this world for a little while and touched us all," he explains. "I didn't want to point fingers at the police... because it would've taken attention away from this beautiful, amazing character who got taken away from us too soon."
The result is a story full of hope. Alongside simple, graphic illustrations by Jefferson Quintana, it tells the tale of two boys with twin passions, art and skateboarding, who meet and embark on a secret project. The tale reads like a children's book — appropriate reading for Jackubowicz's 6- and 7-year-old sons, who collaborated with him as he wrote — but still resonates with bittersweet emotion to adults familiar with the real-world events that inspired it.
That was the goal, Jackubowicz says: to introduce Reefa to a world of readers, young and old.
"For my 7-year-old, Reefa has become a character in his life," he says. "I don't know if he understands that Reefa was a real [person], or understands the whole thing, but Reefa is now a character in his life. That's exactly what I wanted to achieve with this book."
Isra & Lito launches with a free event at & and Books + Bikes + Lebo at 5 p.m. Sunday, August 28. Jackubowicz will read from the book before a group discussion and book signing. Illustrator Jefferson Quintana and members of the Hernandez family will be in attendance. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.