Reefa Supporters Invade Art Basel Convention Center, Petition on the Streets of Wynwood
An elderly art collector, her hair dyed and twisted into a J.M.W. Turner seascape, lowered her cell phone from her ear long enough to listen to the protestors gathered at the entryway to the Art Basel Miami Beach fair.
Subhash Kateel inside the Miami Beach Convention Center
"What is a Reefa?"
Her companion, an aubergine-suited man with glossy skin, shrugged.
Four months after the promising 18-year-old street artist Israel "Reefa" Hernandez died after being tasered by Miami Beach police officer Jorge Mercado, friends and family in the Justice for Reefa Coalition used last week's series of art fairs to raise awareness for what they believe to be an unjustified killing. The group has been joined by the Dream Defenders, the same group that occupied the Florida state capital building for 31 days following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Though the alliance staged actions every day of the fairs, their main events were a protest outside the Miami Beach Convention Center on Friday night, a flash mob-style gathering inside the building at the main entrance of the fair during a high-traffic period, and a weekend spent petitioning and talking to graffiti-receptive out-of-towners in Wynwood.
Subhash Kateel, a radio broadcaster and community activist, said of Officer Mercado, "He's a Miami Beach veteran who has been here long enough to know if he was really was in danger. We've done our homework, and it's just really clear to us that the law is on our side. The only way the level of force used on Israel was justified is if everyone, like him, were a 150-pound 18-year-old. And we're not. We do not believe that all of those officers that day were in fear of a 150-pound 18-year-old boy.
"It's been four months with no autopsy or toxicology reports released. Leaks come out that we believe to be from the police department, saying that Israel was on drugs. Well, show us the evidence."
Some of the assembled activists were street artists like Hernandez, friends of his or merely drawn to the cause as kindred spirits. Most of the group, however, were young minority activists. They would have liked to have gone inside the fair to protest, said one who declined to be named, but "tickets are too expensive for people like us."
"Basel Week is a time of year when the city purports to care about art and artists. So if you really care about art and artists, care about Reefa," says Yesenia Garcia of the Justice for Reefa Coalition. "This is a time when Miami Beach is making millions and millions off of the Miami art scene. But why don't they care about artists the rest of the year?"
As the sun set on Friday, protesters held a banner reading "We Demand Justice For Israel Hernandez" across the street from the fair. Miami Beach police stood by to keep the group from setting foot on the sidewalk, asking curious passersby to keep moving when they stopped to ask questions about Hernandez. The plan was to then have a second group flood inside the convention center to the passageway where the crowds bottleneck as they enter and exit. The group would sing protest songs and make a brief speech about Reefa and the circumstances of his death.
After tagging the first letter of his name on the side of a graffiti-covered abandoned McDonald's -- which was also plastered with illegally posted political campaign posters -- Hernandez fled from police. He later died from what protestors consider to be an unjustified level of force.
"For anyone who has grown up in Miami, police corruption and brutality is a fact of everyday life," Garcia said. The protestors across the street called for justice in English and Spanish, and the others prepared to enter the Convention Center. "That system corruption is so engrained here that it can feel overwhelming. This is the moment when we as citizens need to say that's enough.
"It bothers me that young people and people of color need to worry about the police department. It's the reason why I don't usually go to the Beach. I don't go to Pembroke Pines. There's a lack of respect for citizens."