San Francisco Artist Talks Race, Police Violence & Protest
<DISCLAIMER: This article contains graphic photographs that some may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised>
Mark Harris : A ‘Protest’ Artist You Should Know
Mark Harris is a San Francisco artist. And he has a deep belief, almost an obligation to express himself. He said to me, “People don’t realize that they’re living history every day, we are in the midst of a new civil rights movement today, we have an obligation to stand up against what’s happening”
ajətˌpräp – political propaganda, especially in art or literature.
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San Francisco (CA) – “What can we call the art that you make,” I inquired, “Is ‘protest art’ the wrong label?” Mark Harris was fresh back from a trip to Spain, via Atlanta where much of his family lives. ““Two artist friends of mine Raymond L. Haywood & Kate Haug told me it’s ‘agitprop'”, Mark explains, “a label that is a bit of a throwback to the Russian revolution, derived from the agitation and propaganda pamphlets, plays, and posters made by the opposition to the regime”.
In his series ‘State of Denial‘, Mark began responding to the brutality exhibited by police officers against black men across the United States. His ‘agitprop’ is now more relevant than ever here in San Francisco, given the string of police shootings from Alex Nieto, to Mario Woods, to the most recent fatal shooting of Jessica Williams and the firing of the SFPD Police Chief in response to massive public outcry, protests, and hunger strikes. In this interview we discuss race, gentrification, police violence, & art in today’s San Francisco.
“When things started going down in Ferguson, I was blown away, I felt an obligation to say something” – Mark Harris
The black and white photographs Mark used for this collage were taken at actual lynch mobs in America. Back when communities simply took the law into their own hands. Judge, jury, and executioner on the street, took black lives by way of mob terrorism. People clammered to be part of these pictures because they knew they would be made into ‘lynching postcards‘, then sold and circulated around America.
When did you arrive to sf and what was it like then?
“When I first arrived to the city I looked around and saw so many mad cool people everywhere, how free people were, and how creative it was. I felt “I can reinvent myself as an artist”. In the early 2000’s I could show my work every night somewhere in the city if wanted to, there was always an alternative space to exhibit artwork, the feeling of the city was so different”.
Is there a way to describe how the city has changed?
“I grew up in the deep south, and I’ve never felt as black as I do now living in San Francisco”
“It’s become so sterile…I grew up in the deep south, and I’ve never felt as black as I do now living in San Francisco. It’s hard to articulate, it’s a feeling you have as a black person, it’s the way people react to me when I wear my hair down or when people are extra cautious walking near me during dusk or at night, it’s palpable I feel it”.
And in 2000 it was to a lesser degree?
“Yes in 2000 people were also just much friendlier in general, and there was much more seeking out of diversity then, being different was interesting to people. In the last 2 years I’ve been approached more and more by people asking to buy drugs, people just coming up to me saying, ‘hey man do you have any weed?’ And I’m like, ‘listen man, I’m not your goddamn drug dealer'”.
Wait wait…let me get this straight, frequently, random people come up to you on the street asking you if you have weed to sell?
“Yes. There’s a whole new perception on the streets of SF for people who look like me, like; ‘what’s he doing here, in this neighborhood,’ it’s a noticeable difference since I came back. (Mark moved to Chile for a year and a half in 2011) When I came back in 2012-2013 there was a noticeable difference in people on the streets here in a really short time”.
These people who mistake you for a weed dealer, are they tourists?
“No, we all know what a tourist looks like, these are residents, probably new residents but, people who now live here. I was working late one night in my studio space, (Mark’s work space has a large, street level window that looks out on Bryant Street in SoMa) and a group of people came knocking on the window, when I opened the door one of the guys I recognized as someone who walked by every now and again, he’s like, ‘man, fantastic work, I’ve got to ask you…do you have any weed to sell?’ One of the women with them just hung her head…straight up embarrassed man”.
Wow, did things like that happen when you first moved to San Francisco?
“It’s a different place. When I first moved here from Atlanta, which is like the Mecca for African Americans in the U.S., I was refreshed by the diversity in the city, and the how great the art community was. I’m part of a collective of African American artists called the Three Point Nine Collective, we’ve exhibited at USF and we’re part of a show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts right now called ‘Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area‘. Our founder brought us together in order to comment on what’s happening to the city… I remember one time a group of us in the collective were hangin at a bar off Divisadero, and some girl at the bar asked the bartender, “why are there so many black people in this bar…do you ever notice how they all come out when it’s warm outside”.
Jesus Christ…I think there’s a perception in San Francisco, even an arrogance, that says, ‘we are so progressive and liberal that it’s impossible that we be racist‘. Do you see that attitude here?
“That’s completely right, and pretty soon there actually wont be any racism here, because there literally won’t be any people of color here”.
How is the black population changing in SF?
“I began noticing that most of the black people in my neighborhood now (lower Nob Hill) are in bad shape in certain ways. Or they’re the guys on the cleanup crews, with the garbage cans on the street, the guys sweeping up the streets, they’re all black…and I’m like, ‘how are we seeing black people?’ How are these tourists and these new residents perceiving black people. Their idea of who black people are is a guy that looks like John the Baptist and is asking you for a dollar. That’s how the tourists and the new wealthy residents form an impression. And that’s if they notice at all”
We looked into the numbers:
A lot of the impoverished are simply ignored or are invisible, and the middle class has been all but evicted from San Francisco, this fact is never more apparent than in San Francisco’s African American community. In 1970, black folks made up 13.4% of the city’s population. In 1990, it was down to 11%. According to the census in 2010 the African American population in San Francisco was just above 6%. Now it’s widely estimated that the figure is well bellow 4%.
Among the 14 biggest cities in the nation, the only city with a smaller percentage of black residence is also in the bay area, San Jose is listed at 3%. Cities like New York (25%) and Los Angeles (9.4%) have experienced hyper gentrification as well, but have retained a measure of black citizens. Mayor Ed Lee may talk about building affordable housing and ‘protecting our residence’ but the proof is in the numbers. What he has done is clearly the opposite, minority populations are way down, and police use-of-force incidents are way up, in the Tenderloin District for example, police-use-of-force on civilians has nearly doubled since 2009, in the San Francisco Mission District, it is 50% higher than in past years (use-of-force incidents are reported when an officer must use physical force to restrain, arrest, or incapacitate someone).
More from Mark Harris:
“These new, wealthy residents, seem to have this negative perception of African Americans, and it only increases their paranoia, and this contributes to the escalation of police violence against minorities. On paper, I can’t believe I’m still here, but I’m a San Francisco artist. And I feel like for such a great city, someone needs to fight back. For there to be no real movement to counter this tide is unacceptable to me. SF is a microcosm of the US, what they’re doing here is going to be echoed across the country. There are other cities experiencing gentrification but not to the level you see here, and if it can happen like this, in the so-called ‘most progressive city in America’; it damn sure can happen to them as well”.
“In other cities they are experiencing gentrification but not to the level you see here, and if it can happen like this, in the so-called ‘most progressive city in America’; it damn sure can happen to them as well”
“I feel the art community that remains is very strong, it’s like when you get a vaccination, it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Artists have taken this onslaught and remained, and we’re here for a reason,
“there’s an obligation here, its necessary to protest, to stand up against them, or they will simply take everything”
I’m hopeful, I want to inspire, I do a lot of work with at-risk youth. I’ve taught at the Beacon Center, Bayview Opera House & several other public and private schools in San Francisco. I thought I can’t just sit by and do nothing anymore, I have to do something to try and help these kids. If I can be a role model through art, that’s what I gotta do…And interacting with well off kids is just as important as working with at-risk youth, because I can show these rich white kids that typically have no interaction with someone who looks like me something outside of what they’ve seen in the tenderloin or on TV.
At the very least they might learn that not all black men are drug dealers?
What can be said of the importance of diversity?
I think diversity breeds creativity, it’s necessary. If you don’t have diverse view points its unhealthy for society. New ideas always come from diverse thought.
UPCOMING EXHIBIT INFO
My Brother’s Keeper? – Expressions of our World Today
July 3rd – July 31st
Opening reception July 9th 7pm – 10pm
Back to the Picture Gallery 934 Valencia St
A group show with Jesse Aguirre, Mark Harris, Art Hazelwood & Consuelo Jiminez Underwood
Be Careful What You Vote For
Aug 6th – Aug 27th
Opening reception Aug 6th 6-9pm
Closing reception Aug 27th 6-9pm
popUp Gallery 1517 Park Street Alameda, CA 94501
Group show of 10 artists