On June 23, a group of Black artists filed suit against the City of Miami Beach, alleging censorship of Black art. The complaint, filed in the Southern District of Florida, claims that City officials violated the artist and organizers’ First Amendment rights when they ordered artist Rodney Jackson’s portrait “Memorial for Raymond Herisse” to be removed from the City-sponsored “ReFrame Miami Beach” exhibition.
The exhibition took place during the 2019 Memorial Day weekend, also known in the community as Urban Beach Weekend. Herisse was a 22-year-old Haitian American man who was fatally shot by Miami Beach police during Urban Beach Weekend in 2011.
“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,” said artist and plaintiff Rodney Jackson in a June 23 ACLU press release. “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 plaintiffs in the case–artist Rodney Jackson, Curator Olivia Yearwood, and art organizer/programmer Jared McGriff are represented by Matthew McElligott of Valiente, Carollo & McElligott, PLLC, and ACLU Foundation counsel Daniel B. Tilley. The suit names the City of Miami Beach, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, and City Manager Jimmy Morales as defendants. In addition to damages for the plaintiffs, the
suit is asking the court to require the City of Miami Beach to display “Memorial to Raymond Herisse” in a public place for the amount of time it would have been displayed for the ReFrame installation.
When the City of Miami Beach contracted with McGriff to program a cultural event called “ReFrame Miami Beach,” for May 23-27, 2019, the parties agreed the event’s purpose was to spark conversations about race relations via art exhibitions in several locations around the city. It would take place during Urban Beach Weekend because over the past decade the local law enforcement response to the event, attended by tens of thousands of young Blacks and Latinos, had garnered criticism from civic organizations and media who say the massive presence of police officers using aggressive tactics is racially discriminatory.
Jared McGriff, a Miami Beach resident, engaged Octavia Yearwood as curator for the Lincoln Road exhibition called “I See You, Too.” Rodney Jackson, based in Coconut Grove, was one of the artists who agreed to participate.
Jackson, speaking with The Miami Times, explained how the memorial portrait of Herisse was conceived in planning sessions for “I See You, Too” with McGriff and Yearwood. “We to create a 360-degree picture of the Memorial Day experience. I came up with the portrait and a number of other works,” he said.
Within the Lincoln Road exhibition, McGriff said in the ACLU’s June 23 press release, “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.”
According to the complaint, the Director of the City’s Department of Tourism and Culture Matt Kenney phoned plaintiff and event curator Yearwood to advise her that the Police Department objected to “Memorial to Raymond Herisse.” He also warned that if the painting was not removed, the entire Lincoln Road installation would be closed.
McGriff told The Miami Times in an interview, “I was confused as to why it was removed. There was nothing in our contract that indicated that could have been an eventuality or an outcome.”
The way the City issued its ultimatum to Yearwood added to McGriff’s frustration. “The actual source was obfuscated as to who or where that generated,” he said. “Normally, in a situation like that, when people are acting in good faith, there is an opportunity to engage, and in this case that didn’t occur.”
The City’s official response to questions about why the painting was removed conflicted with their phone communication to Yearwood. The complaint documented City spokesperson Melissa Berthier’s statement from an email sent in late May, 2019: “The purpose of the ReFrame cultural programming this past weekend was to create an opportunity for inclusiveness and mutual exchange. The City Manager felt that the panel in the one particular art installation regarding the incidents of Memorial Day weekend in 2011 did not achieve this objective.”
The true motivations behind the painting’s removal remained the subject of speculation until November 7, 2019, when Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber clarified the City’s official position in the public forum “Community Night: For Freedoms Town Hall.” The complaint indicates an audience member at the event asked Mayor Gelber about the “act of censorship” last Memorial Day weekend, referring to the removal of the Herisse portrait.
According to the lawsuit, Mayor Gelber responded that City Manager Jimmy Morales made the call, stating that Morales had said, “I don’t like it, and I don’t want it.” He also said Morales thought he had the power to order the painting’s removal for no other reason than “I’m paying for it.” Although he could have reversed Morales’ decision, Gelber indicated he supported it and made no mention of the alleged lack of conformity to ReFrame’s purpose.
“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 attorney Matthew McElligott in the ACLU’s June 23 press release. “As we have seen with the recent protests, the people will no longer tolerate this censorship and revisionist history, and neither should the courts."
Speaking with the The Miami Times, McElligott said Herisse’s story is significant to the history of race relations in Miami Beach. “After that incident the Miami Beach police department banned firing into moving vehicles. Especially since 126 bullets were fired into the vehicle, that was deemed a very strong response,” he said. “They did readily admit that as a result of that incident, they changed their use-of-lethal-force-into-a-moving-vehicle policy.”
McElligott added, “The Beach did not have a problem showing photographs from back when Miami Beach was segregated, so they were willing to confront that aspect of their history, but they wanted to silence any discussion of modern race relations with the police department. That’s why we think it was particularly problematic; it resulted in viewpoint discrimination.”
“Art is not meant to make people comfortable,” Yearwood said in the ACLU press release. “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 Miami Beach police has with Black people, and the legislative policy that was created as a result of what happened to him — it also shows the relationship Miami Beach police has with the truth.”
The Miami Times attempted to reach City officials for comment. On July 14, Miami Beach’s Chief Deputy City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner responded via an email from City spokesperson Melissa Berthier, stating, “The City of Miami Beach will not be issuing responses to any of these inquires based upon the pendency of the litigation.”