What Happened When A Black Artist Played Dead By Philly Landmark, Recorded Tourists’ Reactions

CREDIT: Lee Colston II

There was some caution tape draped around the Love sign in Philadelphia two days ago. Yellow ribbon hung loosely beneath the iconic statue, the one with the “O” tilted just so, in Love Park, northwest of City Hall. In front of the sign, Keith Wallace wore a white t-shirt and blue jeans, a baseball hat in his left hand. An all-American uniform. His t-shirt was stained with what appeared to be blood. His right hand was palm-down on the pavement. His right ear was pressed up against the ground, his face looking back at the statue. Nearby, two individuals took turns holding a poster that read: Call Us By Our Names.

Wallace, 27, is a Philadelphia native. He went to Morehouse College and is pursuing an MFA in acting at the University of California, San Diego. He staged this hour-long silent performance on his last day home for the summer as a protest against the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was shot multiple times and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.

“It was something that’s been brewing for a while in my mind,” Wallace told me by phone. He was sick of seeing so many news reports about the murders of young black men. “You realize, in these cases, there’s a disproportionate amount of black men on the receiving end of this police brutality. And as a young black men, it strikes a different chord for me – it hits a little closer to home.”

“I just tried to think about a way I could use my spirit of activism coupled with my artistic passion to make a statement about what’s going on. So I just decided that for me, I’m a very image-driven artist. I think images speak louder than words can, most times. And so there’s some value in forcing a society to look at the most ugly parts of itself and just putting it out there for them to examine and discussed, and to be disgusted by, in the hopes of provoking some sort of dialogue or provoking some social change in an effort to eradicate some social ill, whatever that is.”

He settled on the rallying cry of “Call Us By Our Names” because “We hear about Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown. But there’s a slew of other faces and names who go unrecognized and unnamed,” he said. “And the media is slanted in cases where the victim is of color, passing them off as thugs, or gang- and drug-related. When it’s someone who is white, they’re ‘troubled’ or ‘disturbed.'”

Wallace paused. Then he said, “I was tired. No, we’re NOT thugs, we’re not this, we’re not that. We’re unarmed citizens, so call us who we are. Call us by our names. Say ‘Michael Brown’ instead of ‘unarmed robbery suspect.’ When you give a face and a name to a victim, the public becomes socially responsible in a different way.”

Love Park, in JFK Plaza, is “a very tourist-y, populated area” said Wallace. “I wanted to pick a place where people could see and be a part of this experience. And the irony of having a bloodied, dead body, underneath the Love statue in ‘The City of Brotherly Love’ is the play on this idea that people in America, people who look like me, historically, are perceived as being less valuable than other human beings in this country. So for me, there’s some potency in juxtaposing those kinds of images together: love and death.”

Wallace also wanted to ensure he reached the biggest cross-section of people in the short span of time that he had. “I chose a place that has a very diverse community. All types of people come through Love Park. There was a Ukrainian protest the same day. There were Hebrew Israelites with a megaphone on the corner… I wanted to bring this to a group of people who I feel like might not experience this through the same lens that I do.”

He was expecting the police to make him leave within five or ten minutes. In a kind of inverse-Ferguson situation, the police instead respected Wallace’s right to peacefully protest; they stayed on the periphery “to make sure I was safe,” said Wallace, and shook hands when the protest was over.

Wallace enlisted two of his friends, Felicia Roche and Lee Colston II, to join him; they took turns holding up the poster and taking photographs. He couldn’t hear everything that passersby said and, as he spent the entire hour “motionless: I didn’t speak to anyone, I didn’t look at anyone.”

“Honestly, some of the things that were said were so ugly. And I’ve dealt with these kinds of issues before, and you hear about it all the time, but when it’s right in front of your face, it takes on a whole new reality. In trying to open other people’s eyes, my eyes were open, I had this complete revelation about this world we live in.”

Tourists continued to take photos in front of the Love sign as the silent protest went on behind them. People “mocked and scorned” the scene, said Wallace. “One of the most hurtful things [was when] a group of friends wanted to take a picture, and one guy said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this,’ and their friend said ‘What’s the big deal? He’s already dead.’ The people who were assisting me said one girl stepped over the body to get closer to the statue to take a picture, and the wind blew at that moment and wrapped the caution tape around her foot. [She had] no reverence for, no acknowledgement of, what’s right in front of her.”

Wallace had a sheet of paper handed out during his protest. As Philly in Focus reported, some of his statement read:

“I am racially charged not because I want to be, but because I have to be. I am racially charged because in certain instances, that hyper awareness may ensure that I make it home to my family at the end of the day. I am racially charged because I am not afforded the luxury to wander through life with my head in the (nonexistent) ‘post-racial America’ clouds. I see color because my color is seen, dismissed, devalued, and implicated as a threat everywhere I go. I am racially charged and if I make you uncomfortable by speaking out about it and calling attention to it, then I implore you to eradicate the ugliness I see every day in the world.”

Wallace said he doesn’t believe that everyone who ignored the protest is racist. “I usually err toward the side of optimism. I assume somebody is not racist, until they prove themselves to be racist.” But racism and race relations “run through the veins of this country, and I think it makes people uncomfortable, I think it makes people feel helpless, and so they don’t know what to do so they avoid and evade.”

He’s proud that he was able to put a protest together with relatively few supplies, and hopes that other would-be awareness-raisers get inspired by his example. “This was a small gesture on my behalf, I just used what I had at my disposal, and I would just encourage people to do the same thing, and to realize and recognize that no gesture is too small.”

As for the images of smiling tourists arm-in-arm in front of Wallace’s body, “These pictures speak for themselves: people’s lives went on. A black dead body, laying in the middle of the street in Philadelphia, and life went on as usual. It’s an echoing of a bigger issue that we have in America: life goes on. When a black body is murdered life goes on.”

I asked if he thinks any of those tourists will be able to display their photographs–won’t it be, at the least, kind of awkward to explain the apparently dead guy in the background? Wallace laughed, then said, “My body lay at their feet, and the statue was above all our heads. So you can still have your picture and choose to ignore the ugliness that was literally right at your feet.”