Sarah Goodyear

During Art Basel, a tagger called Demz was run down by police protecting street-art fans from street artists. His death has more than one connection to Eric Garner's.

Does the name Michael Stewart mean anything to you? No? Let me refresh your memory.

Thirty years ago, Michael Stewart’s name was known as well as Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s are today, and for much the same reason. Stewart, a 25-year-old New York artist and model, was arrested one early morning in 1983 for writing graffiti in the First Avenue station of the L train. He was a black man. According to several eyewitness accounts, the arrest, by an all-white group of cops, turned violent. As he was wrestled into a police van in Union Square, students at the nearby Parsons School of Art heard him crying out, “Oh, my God, someone help me! What did I do?” Less than an hour later, he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in a comatose state, his body hogtied by the police. Thirteen days later, he was dead.

The 11 police officers involved in the arrest were acquitted of all charges, including criminally negligent homicide, by an all-white jury, after a prolonged and contentious trial. The judge, defense and prosecuting attorneys, and all the officers of the court were also all white.

The case epitomized the deeply troubled state of race relations in the city at the time, and it sparked angry demonstrations. The problems laid bare in the Stewart case resonate still, a generation later. Spike Lee used Stewart as an inspiration for the character Radio Raheem, choked to death by NYPD officers, in his classic 1989 film Do the Right Thing. (Lee recently made the echo between Raheem’s death and Eric Garner's explicit in a brutally moving mashup of footage from Garner’s arrest and Do the Right Thing.)

Graffiti at Wynwood Walls, which attracts tourists and art aficionados for its famed street art. (Sarah Goodyear)

I thought of Michael Stewart when I read about the death of a graffiti artist named Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez, who was known as Demz. He was tagging a wall in the trendy Wynwood neighborhood of Miami last week when an anti-gang unit of cops saw him and moved to make an arrest. When Rodriguez ran around a corner, they pursued him in a car. The chase ended quickly when they hit him and he was knocked down in the street, receiving a serious head injury. He died at the hospital not long after.

“The officer is devastated, and I understand the family is devastated as well,” Miami police chief Manuel Orosa said after the incident. “It’s unfortunate that the young man tried to run from police.”

The Miami police have a history marked by controversial police shootings and brutality, often with racial overtones. Demz was the second graffiti artist to be killed by cops in Miami in the last 18 months. In August 2013, 18-year-old Israel “Reefa” Hernandez died after being Tasered by cops who caught him tagging an abandoned McDonald’s. Miami New Times, which broke the story of Reefa’s death, reports that witnesses say cops “laughed and high-fived after shocking Hernandez.” Hernandez, who weighed 140 pounds, died of heart failure. The medical examiner’s office ruled the death “accidental.”

The aggressive pursuit of graffiti taggers is part of the “broken windows” approach to policing, which holds that going after smaller, quality-of-life crimes helps prevent more serious criminal behavior. There’s been endless debate over the merits of the approach, with detractors saying it contributes to police brutality against people of color and leads to an endless cycle of incarceration. Opposition to the broken windows strategy, which has long been championed by past and present New York police chief Bill Bratton, has been a focus of the protests against the death of Garner, who was targeted by police for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner.

The aggressive pursuit of Demz in Wynwood for tagging, and his resulting death, is especially jarring. The neighborhood is a multiblock expanse of low-rise warehouses that has been gentrified over the past several years almost entirely because of its reputation as an outdoor gallery of street art. At its center are the Wynwood Walls, a complex of buildings bought in 2009 by real estate developer Tony Goldman, who was earlier instrumental in the transformation of New York’s Soho into a high-end retail and residential neighborhood and Miami's South Beach into an international tourist destination. Goldman, who died in 2012, envisioned Wynwood Walls as “giant canvases to bring … the greatest street art ever seen in one place."

Graffiti at Wynwood Walls. (Sarah Goodyear)
Graffiti in Wynwood. (Sarah Goodyear)

His vision has come to pass. World-renowned street artists such as Os Gemoeos, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, and many others have been commissioned to do pieces at Wynwood Walls, and now the whole neighborhood is a global mecca for outdoor artists. You can walk the streets of Wynwood for hours discovering fresh and exciting work on the walls—both “official” and unofficial.

Meanwhile, upscale restaurants, boutiques and galleries have popped up in the surrounding streets, and Wynwood is now a must-do stop for attendees of the high-rolling Art Basel art show, which was in full swing at the time of Gutierrez’s death. According to the Miami Herald, Art Basel, indeed, was the reason the cops were on heightened alert for taggers in Wynwood the night they chased down Demz. Apparently, well-heeled aficionados of street art needed to be shielded from street artists.

Back in Michael Stewart’s day, graffiti was still a mostly underground art form, just beginning to be accepted by mainstream culture as a valid form of expression. The people who made it, even those creating elaborate and beautiful pieces on abandoned walls, were hounded and harassed in the name of bringing down violent crime rates that were far higher than those in cities today. In the generation since, while graffiti is still often condemned as vandalism—sometimes with good reason—it has also become commercialized and tamed to the extent that even The Economist last year asked, “How did graffiti become respectable?” Graffiti is now a business, a fashion accessory, a marketing tool.

But while real-estate developers like Goldman Properties are making bank by promoting and showcasing street art, young artists of color who continue to tag in the old-school, illegal way continue to be actively, sometimes aggressively, targeted by cops. Sometimes, those police actions escalate quickly and end very badly.

In the case of Rodriguez, the cognitive disconnect is huge. While the moneyed art world partied at Wynwood Walls, admiring the “real” street art that surrounded them, a young man lost his life for tagging a wall in Wynwood.

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