The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and ACLU of Florida Greater Miami Chapter have filed suit against the City of Miami Beach saying the City violated the First Amendment when it removed artwork from a Memorial Day 2019 installation designed to create conversations about race. The art piece (shown above and below), titled Memorial for Raymond Herisse, was created by artist Rodney Jackson and depicted Herisse who was shot and killed by police in 2011 during a high-speed chase on Collins Avenue. The incident resulted in a change in City policy to not shoot at moving vehicles.
The art was part of the “ReFrame: Miami Beach” program which was described in a City press release as a collaboration “with South Florida based artists to produce works that spark crucial conversations about inclusion, blackness and relationships.”
Art programmers Octavia Yearwood and Jared McGriff curated the I See You, Too exhibit on Lincoln Road. The program had just gotten underway when Yearwood and McGriff told RE:MiamiBeach they removed the art piece "under duress" after City officials told them the entire exhibit would be shut down if it wasn’t. A sign at the exhibit initially indicated it was taken down at the request of the Miami Beach Police Department. Later, City Manager Jimmy Morales said it was removed at his direction.
“While ‘ReFrame’ promised an opportunity for a much-needed conversation about the history of anti-Black racism and racialized police violence on Miami Beach, the Mayor and the City Manager only wanted a sanitized version of that history,” said Alan Levine, co-counsel and longtime civil rights lawyer specializing in First Amendment cases, is quoted in a press release announcing the suit. “Not only is silencing those who want to present a more honest version of the City’s history unconstitutional, but as we’ve learned from the millions of people who have taken to the streets around the world, it is morally unacceptable.”
The suit comes as protests continue around the nation following the death of George Floyd who died during an arrest by Minneapolis Police officers. All four officers involved in the arrest are facing murder charges.
“They hired us to start a conversation on racial injustice and when we attempted to engage the public in that conversation, they wanted to shut us up,” artist Rodney Jackson stated. “The political climate is demanding that we have this conversation. The public at large is demanding that we unpack historical injustice. We need to put up the image of Raymond Herisse and engage in that conversation.”
The release also quotes the curators.
“This is a violation of First Amendment rights,” Jared McGriff said. “We were talking about the Black experience on Miami Beach, the early experiences, the segregation, the feelings and memories of ancestors. And the image of Raymond Herisse was a memorial for someone who died. The Black experience on Miami Beach does include police violence. We were documenting that with our work.”
“Art is not meant to make people comfortable,” said Octavia Yearwood. “There is a luxury in it that may, but foremost it’s an expression of thought, and sometimes other people’s thoughts can make you uncomfortable. You have to check yourself, however, it’s clear from this experience that there are still systems that view people like they own them, and will often impose their will. The City of Miami Beach did just that, and clearly viewed us as the help, and not as collaborators. Ultimately, Raymond’s memorial not only shows the relationship MBPD has with Black people, and the legislative policy that was created as a result of what happened to him – it also shows the relationship MBPD has with the truth.”
“This case is another example of government officials attempting to control the narrative regarding people’s, especially Black and minority individuals’, experiences with the police,” said Matthew McElligott, attorney at Valiente, Carollo & McElligott, PLLC. “As we have seen with the recent protests, the people will no longer tolerate this censorship and revisionist history, and neither should the courts.”
Following the initial controversy, Morales released the City’s contract with the curators indicating the City had approval rights over the exhibit. He also explained his reason for asking for the removal. “It was brought to my attention that one of the pieces in the exhibit appeared to be a memorial to an event that happened during Memorial Day in 2011. I felt that this panel was not at all constructive, potentially divisive and definitely insulting to our police as depicted and narrated. Therefore, as provided by the contract signed by both parties, I asked staff to contact the curators and have this particular piece removed from the exhibit. The Professional Services Agreement with both Quinn Projects, LLC and Team Ohhh, LLC expressly state [sic] that ‘all installations shall be subject to review and approval by the City Manager’s designee.’ This particular piece was not presented to staff and therefore did not receive formal approval for the exhibit plans prior to the installation.”
The suit seeks damages for Yearwood, McGriff, and Jackson as well as asking that Memorial to Raymond Herisse be displayed "in a public place comparable to the space and amount of time in which it would have been displayed before City officials removed the installation in 2019."
Miami Beach Chief Deputy City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner said, “The City has not been served with this lawsuit, and therefore we cannot provide any comment on this pending litigation against the City and its officials.”
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