NEW YORK — Don’t let the cops see your kid coloring in this book — they might confiscate that box of Crayolas, or worse.
Forty-six artists, including Shepard Fairey, have contributed black-and-white artwork to the Police Brutality Coloring Book, a 48-page DIY publication inspired by incidents of violent police action against Occupy Wall Street activists.
“I wasn’t directly involved with the movement, but I had been down there a few times and was sympathetic to the cause,” said Police Brutality Coloring Book creator Joe “Heaps” Nelson in an interview with Wired.com. Then it turned out that Chelsea Elliott, one of four women pepper-sprayed during a Sep. 24 protest march in Manhattan, was a friend of a friend of the New York artist.
The incident, and others like it, spurred Nelson into action. “I am outraged at how the police are treating people,” he said, “and moral outrage is not my default setting. And then when I saw that guy at Cal Davis [University of California at Davis campus police Lt. John Pike] calmly spray those kids in the face, I knew I had to do something.”
The Police Brutality Coloring Book is the latest artistic blast to come out of the Occupy movement, a lingering protest that’s seen urban campers hunkering down in public spaces and occasionally clashing with police. Some of the more notorious incidents of apparent police brutality have been captured on video, with clips quickly going viral on the internet.
The idea to create a coloring book arose during a conversation between Nelson and Anton Newcombe, leader of the band Brian Jonestown Massacre. Afterward, Nelson contacted artists he knew as well as some he met or heard about in Zuccotti Park, ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street movement. He also asked Noah Becker, friend and editor of arts website Whitehot Magazine, to participate. “I did a drawing in about 15 minutes during our meeting,” Becker told Wired.com, “and in the midst of me drawing, Shepard Fairey called to say he was really excited about the idea. Then things just took off.”
The result is a photocopied, saddle-stitched book, with artwork ranging from crude sketches to fine illustrative art — most of which is conducive to coloring, some of which isn’t. Nelson describes it as “basically a punk-rock ‘zine, like what I used to do in the ’80s.”
The Police Brutality Coloring Book was put together inside of a week, just as artists were preparing for Art Basel Miami Beach and other fairs. Nelson borrowed money for a plane ticket from his sister, and walked around Miami with a backpack selling the books for $10 a piece at art fairs and on the street, selling about 65 copies. “I gave some away if people didn’t have 10 bucks for one,” he said.
Nelson admits that publishing the contributions as a coloring book could be seen as “silly,” but Fairey, who has been subjected to police brutality himself, said during a phone interview with Wired.com that “the coloring book idea is great because it should be such a sweet, kid-friendly format, but when you’re dealing with a subject as serious as police brutality, the irony sort of heightens the effect.”
Fairey has been arrested 16 times while making street art, and in 2003 was beaten by police after he had given himself up and was already handcuffed. The artist, who is diabetic, said that on three occasions he was detained for 36 hours or more without access to insulin.
“I’ve met cops that were really decent people,” said Fairey, “but they’ve been desensitized because their job is to interact with people who break the law all day; they’ve really lost perspective. Police on a regular basis abuse their authority, because they can get away with it — they have no one to answer to. It’s so much more horrifically pervasive than you would imagine.”
Consider that Anthony Bologna, the officer who pepper-sprayed Elliott and three other women, was a deputy inspector who was concerned primarily about whether the New York Police Department would back him up, according to DNAinfo.com. Johnny Cardona, the officer who allegedly punched demonstrator Felix Rivera-Pitre without provocation during an Oct. 14 protest, was also a deputy inspector.
“This stuff comes from the top,” said Nelson.
While the Police Brutality Coloring Book probably won’t end up on the table at the doctor’s office next to Highlights magazine, it is bound to end up in front of at least some people who otherwise haven’t followed the thread. People tend to narrowly define their news sources, ignoring headlines from papers and reports from TV stations they don’t identify with, said Fairey, adding that abusive authorities rely on the public’s ignorance to get away with their actions.
If the coloring book makes it into a larger exhibition or gets expanded into an art book, as Becker thinks it might, the preaching will be heard beyond the choir.
“Society is hanging delicately by the idea that the authorities have your best interests in mind,” said Fairey, “and anyone who is naive enough to think that we live in a Norman Rockwell world, where every policeman’s like Andy Griffith, is in for a rude awakening probably directly or indirectly at some point in their life. And if the advance warning comes from a coloring book, great. Art affects people on a gut level — it gets in there, then you’re dealing with it. That’s something I see over and over again, and I really believe it’s underutilized. Images are powerful.”