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Deliberation: A Study of the Michael Brown Grand Jury Case

by Ruth Stanford, Associate Professor of Sculpture, Georgia State University

Photo credit: Cynthia Farnell

It was clear from the beginning that the Michael Brown case was significant. It came on the heels of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and many other young African American men dying in situations full of questions about what really happened. Reading the Michael Brown grand jury testimony reveals a complicated story. Witness testimonies differ. There are truths on both sides, and those truths come into conflict. I wanted to explore this in my work.

As I was watching the Michael Brown case unfold, I happened to be working on a gallery piece using model cars as self-portraits. Shortly before I was asked to participate in Dialogue: Conflict/Resolution at Atlanta’s Dashboard Co-op, the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson and the resulting chaos was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. When I began planning the work for Dialogue, I decided an actual police car would be a powerful medium.

The riots and protests continued in Ferguson, and I saw the backlash against the police department as people stricken with anger and grief began destroying police cars. I wondered what those damaged cars in Ferguson had to say. That’s how I began thinking about the work I would make. I chose a police car because it represents many things. To some it might be an entity that protects and keeps order. To others it might symbolize power or an abuse of power. It depends on who you are and what your experiences have been.

Deliberation is my response to the significance and overwhelming complexity of the Michael Brown shooting. The police car, which has been moving around Atlanta and will be shown in Pittsburgh and other cities later this year, displays excerpts from the Michael Brown grand jury testimony. In the Dashboard Co-op gallery on North Avenue downtown is a replica of the car made from plastic drop cloth, packing tape, and PVC pipe, surrounded by the entire grand jury testimony. 

For me, art does not necessarily answer questions. Art provides a starting point for people to consider what questions we should be asking. That’s my intention with Deliberation. And that’s why I chose to include both the officer’s testimony and the primary witness testimony and mix them together so that no clear narrative emerges.

When we read court documents, we’re looking for facts and, as a result, answers. But facts are fluid. They differ from witness to witness, and they don’t always reveal clear-cut answers. Court documents leave out so much context. In the death of Michael Brown, the history of social injustice comes into play. The ready availability of firearms. The hyper-militarization of police. None of these things are discussed in the court documents. The facts in this case have failed us.

Also in the grand jury record are countless moments of humanity that I never encountered in a media report. Darren Wilson was responding to a call about a sick baby right before he encountered Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson. Michael Brown’s grandmother had been in the hospital. These little details come from the lives of real people. Knowing about them provides an entry point for empathy, a way to understand the people in the Michael Brown case as real individuals whose lives have been irrevocably changed by his death.

As an artist, I often focus on difficult moments and ask people to think carefully about them, to look beyond the surface. You can learn things from difficult moments if you take the time to consider them. If Deliberation makes you think about the moral way to respond—the response that makes you more human—then it’s valuable. Michael Brown’s death speaks to larger, longstanding issues of economics and social justice. Those issues are difficult to pull apart, but unless we put some effort into exploring them, we’ll continue to see such tragic things happen.

Deliberation will be on view at the Center for Civil and Human Rights on February 28, 2015.

To learn more about the artist: http://www.ruthstanford.com/

To learn more about Dashboard and the exhibition: http://www.dashboardcoop.org/

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