Social Justice Art Looks at Mass Incarceration and Lynching, Past & Present
Deutsch Foundation Artist-in-Residence and Research Fellow Paul Rucker shares his work
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
We’re continuing our coverage of the Freddie Gray case, and you know here at The Real News we’d like to provide more context and talk about the systemic issues that are really at the root of this case. Now joining me in studio is Paul Rucker. Paul is a historian and installation artist, and he’s currently a research fellow, the Deutsch Foundation research fellow, at the Maryland Institute College of Art here in Baltimore.
Thanks for joining us, Paul.
PAUL RUCKER, RESEARCH FELLOW, MICA: Thank you for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So Paul, I was looking over your work–and we’re going to actually show our viewers some of his installations, really beautiful stuff. And the first one I want to bring up is this map that you created of prisons in America starting from the 1700s all the way to 2008. Can you just sort of explain what we’re seeing here?
RUCKER: Basically I wanted to cover 300 years of history. Since 1976 the U.S. has built on average one new prison a week. I wanted to chronologically show that growth in the prison system, so I animated a map. The early dots are, the green dots are prisons before 1900, and the yellow dots that are appearing now are between 1900 and 1940. now, the orange dots that you see now are between 1940 and 1980, and the big rise between 1980 to 2008. Even though the crime rate was going down in 2008, we had the privatization of prison, we had the war on drugs, mandatory sentencing. And there was also a motivation to put people in prison and incarcerate them.
DESVARIEUX: All right, let’s talk about 1980 though. That seems to be a critical turning point. What happened then?
RUCKER: Policy. Really bad policy ideas. There was really a war on drugs, but then it really turned out to be a war on poor people because it pretty much went to an industry of just street guys. Never really got to the main folks that were making the big money. But people on the way figured out that they could use this free labor. Like right now we have UNICOR, which is a–they have 109 factories and federal prisons right now. And these federal, these factories produce everything from electronics to mattresses to furniture for colleges. They also produce night vision goggles and helmets for the U.S. military. They’re the 47th biggest military contractor. Our U.S. government started this collaboration in 1935.
So after slavery there was this motivation to replace this labor, because the 13th Amendment did not just free slaves, it created a provision to where slavery could be still put in place for punishment. For punishment for a crime. So people could be in servitude if they had committed a crime.
DESVARIEUX: 1980 also we see the, basically Ronald Reagan’s administration take over as well. What was their major platform when it came to crime?
RUCKER: It’s a war–again, the war on drugs. And I think it’s, I think Reagan was really great at framing the debate and of seeing who the [evil] people were. I mean, I think when he made the welfare mother in a Cadillac reference, he–you know, you didn’t have to imagine what that woman looked like. It was kind of implied what she looked like. I think a lot of times when people like Reagan talked about crime, it focused toward certain communities. And usually communities of color.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. I want to take a look also at another installation that you had. This postcard of a lynching, let’s see if we can pull it up right here. It really is interesting because what we’re seeing right now, you see it’s a bit animated. Can you just describe the scene, and where you got this idea?
RUCKER: Well, I created this idea–I wanted to show the parallels between past lynchings and current lynchings using bullets, or choking, or other methods. This is a postcard from 1915 that I brought to life through animation. I wanted to use this postcard because it has four, five, and six year old kids in the front. And you see now it’s the original postcard, and I brought it to life through colorization and other methods, and also add music to it. I also play cello and other instruments as well.
This series is called Stories from the Trees, and I’ll be showing it here in Baltimore this fall.
DESVARIEUX: That image, though, is it too far off to think of what we’ve seen play out here in Baltimore recently with the Freddie Gray case and other cases of police brutality?
RUCKER: No, not at all. Lynching was used as a show of force, for power, to keep power in place. Any time there was an uprising like John Brown, they took the bodies and they hung them from trees, and it was used as a source of intimidation. If you do this, this could happen to you.
And when police come through a community, they feel that this could happen to you. We heard about this other guy who got beaten up, or this other guy who was killed, and nothing happened to them. So it’s this power element of doing something like committing murder without it having any accountability. That is the power that I think that certain law enforcement don’t want to lose, the power to be able to do that.
DESVARIEUX: I’m glad you talked about that, because today the police union out of Baltimore recently issued a statement and had a press conference where they addressed now the six officers who were involved in holding Freddie Gray in custody in that van. Those officers have been criminally charged, and the police union has come out really saying that they, those officers have done nothing wrong. They’ve really attacked the character of the state attorney, Marilyn Mosby, essentially saying that her husband has political ambitions and that is what has been clouding her judgment. And things of that nature.
So now that we know the union has really come forward and been really adamant that this investigation was not conducted properly, what is your reaction to that considering the history, as you mentioned before?
RUCKER: I’ve been doing this work for a long time. And one of the–but my birthday was two days ago, April 29th, which is also–.
DESVARIEUX: Happy belated.
RUCKER: Thank you. Which is also the anniversary of the LA riots. Because I spent my 24th birthday at a bar sipping a cider looking at LA begin to be destroyed. It was four days of mayhem, 53 people died, 20,000 people hurt and 11,000 people arrested. You know, and a billion dollars in damage.
That was–there’s a lot of parallels between that case and what’s happening now. For the police to say that they’ve done nothing wrong is, they’ve had a blank check. Rodney King was clearly seen on video being beaten–mercilessly beaten. But those cops were charged, but they were also released. And the LA riots started after the verdict. And what happened here in Baltimore the other day happened after the funeral service. And I think there’s a lot of fear in the area of what could happen if these officers were not charged, especially on May Day.
But I think the police, they don’t feel like they should be kept in check, I feel, for their actions. I think they feel that they’re above the law because they’re protecting the people. But they’re not–it doesn’t really always feel like everyone’s protected. If you talk to certain people, they don’t feel that. When they hear sirens, that this is good, I’m comforted by this. But some communities aren’t comforted by the sound of sirens.
This goes back a lot longer than Freddie Gray. I know you’ve heard people say that. But in rare cases, if you look at the New Orleans shooting, the bridge shooting. Where the six people were shot, two people fatally and four people were injured. Those officers–I mean, they’re getting retried again. I mean, one still hasn’t been fully–he’s not locked up now. But the main reason they got those officers is they conspired to cover up the crime. And that was the main reason they got them.
And then there are other incidents too, with the grandmother in Atlanta that was shot by the police. They got in trouble for trying to cover up the crime. So as far as–Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times.
DESVARIEUX: You can go on and on, yeah.
RUCKER: If you go to Sean Bell, 50 times. All those officers were acquitted. Oscar Grant, he wasn’t even an officer. He was a BART officer. There’s this long history to where we don’t have to–I guess the police don’t feel like they have to comply to anything. They feel that if they can always say that they feel threatened, even with the young Rice kid in Cleveland, they feel, they felt that was justified. He was 12 years old.
DESVARIEUX: How do you hold the police more accountable? What are some solutions, in your mind?
RUCKER: Well, we need to look at the union, and we need to look at policy. Right now police officers get ten days before they’re actually interviewed after a shooting. They also, there needs to be some kind of mandatory drug testing for steroids, alcohol, drugs, and everything after a shooting.
DESVARIEUX: Steroids, a lot of people don’t say that.
RUCKER: Yeah, a lot of officers there’s a–I’m not, I don’t want to quote numbers. But it’s well known that police officers are, use a great amount of steroids. And I mean, I think if you’re under this amount of stress and you need to feel a little stronger, a little more confident, think a lot of them resort to that. It’s not just athletes, you know. It’s not just Lance Armstrong, or other football players. I mean, police officers need to be kept in check with that, with random drug checks, as well.
But I think the police union is really strong. Even on the federal level right now, why are we having such a hard time on the federal level getting the police camera legislation passed? Because it’s–there are people that have special interest groups and lobbyists that are making sure, that are probably part of the police union, that are going to make sure that it’s not going to be so easy to make it mandatory for policemen to have these cameras. And you look at what happened in–I mean, Walter Scott in South Carolina. You see what happened with him. If that wasn’t caught on camera–and that’s my home state, by the way. We grew up seeing these things happen, but we didn’t have the ready availability of cameras.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Paul Rucker joining us in studio. Thank you so much for being with us.
RUCKER: Thank you very much for having me.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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