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  • NYS Writers Institute

Statement from Karen Davidson Seward, the artist behind the Memorial Field for Black Lives

Memorial Field for Black Lives Karen Davidson Seward Sunday July 5, 2020

Yesterday was the 244th anniversary of what Frederick Douglass referred to as, “the first great fact in our nation’s history…” 244 years… and we are still waiting to be unified in our admiration for liberty. In 1776, Americans numbered 2.5 million, and the multitudes were segregated and divided on breaking from the Crown. In 2020, Americans number 331 million… And, We, the People, are mad and restive once again, because we have been pushed beyond the limits of forbearance due to grievous wrongs.

The Memorial Field for Black Lives gathers evidence. It sets forth irrefutable violations. The Memorial Field cries out to those responsible for setting every one of these events in motion; to the perpetrators of chaotic and tense situations; to a nation that has set the stage for too many demeaning deaths.

“Reasonable suspicion,” then, is too vague a guideline for a policing body whose relationship with the people is broken. The New York Times reported after Ramarley Graham’s murder, “something about how he moved his hands near his waist.”

“Reasonable suspicion…” It is hinged to a mindset, to personalized discretion. It exonerates professional oversight. It provides an easy out after the deed is done.

Court narratives further victimize people. Claims “resisting arrest,” when evidence shows the assailant is compliant. And the media prints glib intimations of guilt. Reports “running” when video shows walking. Reports “gang member” when there’s no clear basis for that allegation. Reports on the gun culture in the neighborhood, when no gun was found on the dead body.


Every unjustified shooting… every choking, every kicking, every back broken, every botched police raid, every cellophane pack of drugs planted, every alleged weapon never found, every “street file” withheld from defense attorneys, every official account concocted to silence eye witnesses, every case that escalates to a wrongful death IS UNJUST.

We are turning on the spotlight so NO American is selectively blind and remains an unwitting accomplice to this ongoing conflict. If we don’t, we are implicated as part of the problem.

Think about a young man walking down the block in his own neighborhood…. Tyquan Brehon… targeted, stopped, frisked over 60 times by his eighteenth birthday. Patted down, cuffed tightly, threatened for insubordination for asking “why”, taken in, detained for many hours without food, and then let go because nothing was ever pinned on him.

The Center for Constitutional Rights reported a record number of Stop-and-Frisks in 2011 in New York City. Over 685 thousand police stops. 14% more than in 2010, 600% more than in 2002. In 2011, contraband was found in ONLY 2% of the cases. Arrests? only 6% of the time. Net net, policing by feelings, not facts, targets a perceived enemy, rarely a REAL one.

RELYING ON A HUNCH “that criminal activity MAY be afoot,” aligns policing with instinct, not professional practice. A snap character assessment quickly turns chaotic when each side becomes adrenalized and scrambles to save themselves.

Months after Ahmaud Arberry’s violent death on February 23, 2020, evidence surfaced. I was adrenalized reading about it. My heart raced. I wrote the first sign, intended for a sandwich board I’d wear in a grassroots march with a group of 5 North Country women. And I must thank Martha Swan and Jeri Zempel for encouraging me to keep going after they read the facts, synthesized down to a few words. Unarmed was the first word. Jogger. Hunted. Father/son posse. Shot at close range.

Every person memorialized in this field was UNARMED, except, of course, John Brown and his cohorts, and maybe Eleanor Bumpurs, a caring mother and grandmother who was so stigmatized with labels that 6 policemen wore full riot gear to evict her for not paying rent. This pack of men with shields, helmets and distancing poles, stormed into Eleanor’s apartment unannounced and in a matter of seconds, the terrified woman, who happened to be holding a kitchen knife, had her fingers blown off by a sawed-off shot gun, and her heart blown out.

Imagine a different outcome. What if a social worker had visited Eleanor Bumpurs that day with a notebook and a bag of groceries?

Politicians and law enforcement officers, making promises to revise procedures on police interactions, must do more to stop these killings than appease the masses until the next incident.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says, "The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country.”

March 13th, 2020. A botched police raid. The actual assailant was already in police custody. Plain clothed men, armed with a no-knock warrant, battered down the front door at the WRONG ADDRESS with guns drawn. They found Breonna Taylor sleeping off her day job as an EMT. Shot. Dead. We are in the midst of a pandemic and police are indiscriminately killing front line health care workers?

May 30th, 2020. Like millions of others, I watched the interminable recording of the uniformed officer snuffing out George Floyd’s life while his hands were stuffed in his pockets. I heard pleas for the officer to cease and desist. I asked myself, “What is this man thinking?” And the answer that came through loud and clear was, “Look Ma, no hands.” The world erupted in outrage.

My heart quickened and pounded in my ears like a drum. What empowers a man to act with profound callousness? What could possibly bring integrity back to Law Enforcement? If our system of criminal justice doesn’t send the message to police officers that there are consequences for unnecessary escalation in the line of duty, then it is our responsibility to deliver that message loud and clear. A police badge is not intended to be a license to kill.

Yo-Yo Ma asks, “How do we collaborate with the purpose of having legitimate hope? How do we do everything possible to rebuild toward the world that we really want to live in?”

The treatment of George Floyd was flagrantly out of proportion with the petty crime of which he was suspected. No one, in their right mind, can misconstrue that there is an epidemic of sanctioned police brutality carried out on a whim. Even I—a white woman, a graphic designer, a writer, an artist—feel like prey in the face of these predatory practices. I am galvanized to ply my trade and compile the evidence, my heart racing every step of the way. The Memorial Field is a work in progress.

The Memorial Field for Black Lives, an installation by graphic artist Karen Davidson Seward placed on a grassy field outside Campus Center West, features small placards highlighting the names of 50 unarmed Black men and women who were killed across the country by law enforcement officials and others.

Seward created the memorial exhibit in reaction to the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young, unarmed Black man in Brunswick Ga. on February 23 who was out jogging and was chased down and shot by two white men who believed he was fleeing a burglary.

Paul Grondahl (NYS Writers Institute) and Ekow King (UAlbany Office of Intercultural Student Engagement) place signs on the Memorial Field for Black Lives installation at the University at Albany.

The Memorial Field for Black Lives features the names of 50 unarmed Black men and women who were killed across the country by law enforcement officials and others.

The Memorial Field for Black Lives is a collaboration with UAlbany’s Office of Intercultural Student Engagement, the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, ASUBA (Albany State University Black Alliance), the New York State Writers Institute, and the Center for Law and Justice in Albany.


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