“The Modern Equivalent of Jim Crow”: Arresting Patterns and the Fight to End Police Brutality

“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”[1] This powerful statement is the foundation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, in which the author explicitly details the racism, hatred, violence, and inequality thrust upon the black body in the United States. Coates targets the Dreamers, privileged white Americans, who find the need to, “ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them.”[2] It is through this lens of racism that Coates lays out the truths of what it means to be black and posses a black body, especially when faced with the very real danger of police brutality.

arresting patterns web thumbnnail BETTER
Exhibit Logo

Police brutality towards African Americans is rampant in today’s society, which is why Artspace in collaboration with the Yale University Art Gallery, created the exhibit Arresting Patterns: Perspectives on Race, Criminal Justice, Artistic Expression and Community. The exhibit was on display from July 17 through September 13, 2015 in New Haven, Connecticut. Arresting Patterns, brought together a group of artists, whose works dealt with the, “collective frustration around the question of whether every citizen is protected equally under the law…and a call for a more transparent dialogue between citizens, law enforcement, and policy makers.”[3] Artists such as Jamal Cyrus, Maria Gaspar, Titus Kaphar, Iyaba Ibo Mandingo, Adrian Piper, Laurie Jo Reynolds, Dread Scott, and Andy Warhol used repetition in their works to highlight, “how one action, repeated over time, may accumulate, spread, or evolve into another version of its original self.”[4] The exhibition is arranged to tell the narrative of racial violence in American from 1700 to the present day, and is inspired by the work of Titus Kaphar’s work on The Jerome Project. Coates echoes this theme of repetition, when he explains to his son that he, “must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements.”[5] It is through the violent and repetitive actions and the lack of punishment of police officers, that Coates and Arresting Patterns argue that police brutality was born.

titus kaphar for web
Titus Kaphar, selection from Asphalt and Chalk series

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Arresting Patterns is its accompanying exhibition created under the guidance of Kaphar. The exhibit showcases the work of eighteen high school students from the New Haven Public School district. These young artists worked with Kaphar, Collective Consciousness Theater’s Aaron Jafferis, and hip-hop poet Dexter Singleton over a period of three weeks to create, “works that spoke not only to the present moment, but to their present moment.”[6] Students’ created works of art, spoken word poetry, skits, and hip-hop poetry that followed the theme of repetition and police brutality. Artspace’s inclusion of young artists illuminates the reality of Coates’ statement that, “every time a police officer engages us, death, injury, [and] maiming is possible”[7] and shows the fear these teens must live in everyday.

At the closing of the exhibition, Artspace held a free two-day conference at the Yale University Art Gallery. The conference opened with a peer resource exchange in which community members could discuss and learn more about local and national initiatives working to end police and racial violence. Thirty-seven diverse panelists spoke on different issues such as: race in the media, racial disparities in the justice system, stigma and mercy, effects of mass incarceration on families, and decarcerating America. A book reading and community round-table discussion were also included in the conference. The issues discussed at the conference parallel Coates’ argument that a police officer, “carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and some disproportionate number of them will be black.”[8] Essentially, Coates and Artspace believe that the system must change in order to end police brutality, and the conference was meant to be a catalyst for inciting this change.

Ultimately, Coates argues that, “On the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped beaten and jailed.” It is the Dreamers who control, beat, rape, and jail black bodies and police brutality is an extension of the Dreamers’ racism. Like Coates, Artspace’s Arresting Patterns seeks to end police brutality by examining the root causes of racism and through the understanding that in order for things to change, the Dreamers must confront their own racist ideology, because “to challenge the police is to challenge the American people.”[9]

Arresting Patterns is set to open as a traveling exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) on April 29 and run through September 11, 2016. In order to engage with the community and start a dialogue, AAMP has scheduled a town hall discussion and a viewing and discussion with the director of the documentary, “Evolution of a Criminal.”

For More Information:

“Stop” Installation by Dread Scott

Arresting Patterns Teen Performance Piece

Video from the two-day conference

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Melbourne, Australia: The Text Publishing Company, 2015), 103.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Artspace, Arresting Patterns: Perspectives on Race, Criminal Justice, Artistic Expression and Community, Accessed on April 27, 2016, http://artspacenh.org/galleries/gallery%202/jerome

[4] Ibid.

[5] Coates, Between the World and Me, 71.

[6] Lucy Gellman, “The ‘New Jim Crow,’ Through New Haven Eyes,” New Haven Independent, July 27, 2015. http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/new_jim_crow/

[7] Coates, Between the World and Me, 103.

[8] Ibid., 131.

[9] Ibid., 62.

Photo Credits:

Featured: Arresting Patterns exhibit announcement 

Arresting Patterns exhibit logo

Titus Kaphar, selection from Asphalt and Chalk

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