Forced Trajectories: Creating Counter-Narratives to Police Violence

Nissa Tzun
October 19, 2017


Sidd Joag

On June 16th, 2017, ArtsEverywhere was set to publish Nissa Tzun’s piece, “Forced Trajectories: Creating Counter-Narratives to Police Violence.” That evening, Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of the killing of Philando Castile in the outskirts of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Castile was sitting in the car with his girlfriend and her 4-year old daughter when he was shot seven times by Yanez.

This, a day after the largest ever convening of families who have lost loved ones to police violence at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Needless to say, it cast a dark shadow over this group of activists and organizers—another painful setback in their collective struggle for justice.

At the time, we decided to hold publication of the piece in order to think together on how Forced Trajectories could function beyond a single narrative. To this end, ArtsEverywhere will continue to expand on Nissa’s work with a concentrated line of inquiry around the concept of Forced Trajectories, to continue to foster dialogue between communities and policy makers around the abuse of power and the legitimization of state sponsored violence.

Growing up in the 1980s, I was not the kind of girl who played with Barbie dolls and wanted everything to be pink. I liked Hot Wheels, He-Man, Transformers, toy soldiers, guns, and swords. At that young age, putting bad people away was not just a dream job, but a life calling. I would revisit this dream of becoming a cop throughout my childhood and early adulthood, spending hours daydreaming, writing detective stories, and inventing sidekicks. My future partner, Dr. Meledict, my K-9 companion, Lucky.

TV during the 1980s was filled with depictions of heavily armed police officers committed to defending the public and solving crimes. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, RoboCop—these images and ideas were proliferated through sequels and spinoffs, contributing to a culture of glamorized policing. As a teenager I was obsessed with The X-Files. I was going to be an FBI profiler who caught serial killers.

Circa 1984, Nissa and a neighbourly Canadian police officer.

But my personal experience with law enforcement was almost nonexistent. My father worked as a graphic designer for City Hall and sometimes sketched wanted suspect posters for the police department. There was the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program cop who came into class and told us to say “no” to drugs. He was friendly—affirmation enough in my 5th grade thinking that law enforcement was indeed the right choice.

In March of 1991, when Rodney King was being beaten with batons by multiple officers, I was ten. I didn’t understand what was happening. When I asked my parents, they were at a loss. Maybe King deserved the beating? Was he a bad man? Do bad men deserve to be treated that way? Without guidance, these questions occupied my mind for a short while, then quickly dissipated.

A year after I graduated college, I applied to several California departments, the Las Vegas Metro, and the NYPD. I took my first ride-along in Oceanside, California. The cop that I rode with was a brute—an ex-marine with a crew cut. “I had a feeling once,” he said laughing maniacally, “I stubbed my toe!”

We received a call that there was a neighborhood disturbance and arrived at the scene where we found his partner in another cruiser. The call was about a woman who was drunk in public. She was skinny, white, and blonde—clearly a drug addict—with needle marks all over her arms. She could barely utter a complete sentence and was clearly in need of help. She showed no signs of resistance and cooperated with the officers, but they persisted in manhandling her while making jokes about how much she would charge for oral sex. This made her upset and she began yelling, at which point they handcuffed her and threw her in the backseat of the partner’s cruiser.

We drove back to the station to complete her arrest. Both cruisers turned on their sirens, weaving around cars and blasting through red lights. The woman began screaming, which then prompted both cruisers to stop. The partner pulled her out of the car, threw her on the ground and hogtied her. The officers picked her up and threw her face down on her stomach into the backseat of the car, all the while screaming at her to “SHUT UP.”

Jasmine Tillison shows off her t-shirt that commemorates her father’s life, Daniel Tillison, shot and killed by police on March 19th, 2012. Jasmine, her two brothers, and her mother, Mary Jobe, participate in the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality with other family members and supporters. The recent Department of Justice investigation on the Albuquerque Police Department deemed Tillison’s case and tens of others as examples of incidents of excessive use of force. October 22nd, 2012, Albuquerque, NM. Photo by Nissa Tzun.

Two years later, I had suffered a knee injury that kept me from completing my police academy applications and when an opportunity came to work with children, I took it. My first class as a special needs teacher in Brooklyn, New York, was a group of twelve children of color, aged five to ten. Our classroom was in the basement next to the boiler room. The room was filled with kindergarten-sized chairs that only fit my younger students, torn books, and tattered toys. Some children had been in the same room for up to four years.

My students came from many backgrounds: children of undocumented immigrants, homeless youth, abuse survivors, and sufferers of mental illness. My first-hand glimpse into a system that fails to protect our most vulnerable population sent me on a search to involve myself in work that could bring awareness to these issues.

I joined the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) Coalition, a community organization in Harlem, and began photographing for them. In early 2009, our office received a call from a woman who said her son’s father had been killed by the police the previous year and she had no support. Kenny Lazo had been beaten to death by five Suffolk County police officers. I was sent out to Long Island to photograph the family for the front-page of Liberation News.

After meeting the Lazo family, I thought hard about how I could support their cause. During that time police brutality wasn’t being discussed as frequently in mainstream news media. I became interested in using the visual arts to help bring attention to the issues I was starting to understand more fully. After a few months, I launched the Forced Trajectory Project (Instagram: @ForcedTrajectory; Forced Trajectory Project on Facebook), to archive the narratives of those who have lost loved ones as a result of a police interaction.

In 2010, I began working with a sound producer who was recording the oral histories of families affected by police violence. Our first subject was Nicholas Heyward, Sr., the father of a 13-year old boy killed by police in the Gowanus Houses in Brooklyn.

Nicholas Heyward, Sr., poses with his son’s (Nicholas Heyward, Jr.) junior high school graduation portrait in his kitchen. Nicholas Heyward, Jr., 13, was shot and killed by New York Housing officer Brian George on September 27, 1994, while he was playing in the stairwell of the Gowanus Projects. Despite inaccuracies and contradictions in Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’ findings and George’s deposition, the case was not reviewed by a grand jury. Heyward has been fighting for the last two decades to have his son’s case reopened, and has founded the Nicholas Naquan Heyward, Jr. Memorial Foundation, which organizes community events focusing on keeping Brooklyn youth engaged and off the streets. He has become a pillar in the community for other families who have lost loved ones to police-related deaths. August 4, 2010, Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Nissa Tzun.

On September 27, 1994, Nicholas Jr. and a few of his friends were playing a game of “cops and robbers” in a stairwell when they were interrupted by rookie NYPD housing cop Brian George. Upon opening the stairwell door, George asked, “What are you doing?” Nicholas Jr. immediately dropped his plastic toy gun on the ground and declared, “We’re only playing, we’re only playing!” George fired his weapon and the bullet struck Nicholas Jr. in the abdomen.

Hearing what had happened, Nicholas Jr.’s mother, Angela, immediately tried to get to her son but was blocked by NYPD officers. Nicholas Jr. laid on the ground where he had fallen, bleeding and surrounded by cops. Angela was again denied access to Nicholas Jr. when she begged to accompany him to the hospital. Rather than being taken to the nearest hospital, Nicholas Jr. was driven to St. Vincent’s hospital in Manhattan. Nicholas Sr. was driving from the Bronx when his pager beeped repeatedly. He met Angela at the hospital where they were continuously denied access to Nicholas Jr. Hours passed. Angela and Nicholas Sr. never saw Nicholas Jr. alive again.

Everyone reacts differently to trauma, and while some family members become actively involved in their loved ones’ cases, most do not. They disappear from their communities and live in private with their pain. Nicholas Sr. chose to play an active role in bringing attention to his son’s case and created the Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Memorial Foundation. The organization’s main objective is educating the Gowanus youth about what happened to Nicholas Jr. to prepare them early for the devastating reality that every 28 hours, someone from the African American community is killed by law enforcement or those acting with similar authority (e.g. George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012).

Three young girls, residents of the Gowanus Houses, read the story of Nicholas Heyward, Jr., in the Stolen Lives book (an archival project that documents police-related deaths) at the 18th Annual Day of Remembrance for Nicholas Heyward, Jr., at the Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr Park. August 25th, 2012, Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Nissa Tzun.

On January 1st, 2009, in Oakland, California, the police murder of Oscar Grant was the first to be recorded on multiple cell phone cameras. Grant, along with some friends, was being arrested for a disturbance on the train. The fact that there were several different camera angles of the shooting supported the conviction of police officer Johannes Mehserle who ended up serving eleven months in prison. He is the only police officer in recent history to serve prison time for taking the life of a civilian.

Actor Michael B. Jordan and Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., pose for a photo at a private screening of Fruitvale Station, a critically acclaimed film directed by Ryan Coogler about the life and police-related death of Oscar Grant. Oscar Grant was shot and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on January 1, 2009, while handcuffed and face down on the ground. The incident was recorded by multiple bystanders and submitted into evidence leading to Mehserle’s indictment. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, he served eleven months in prison. Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., is the son of U.S. Veteran Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., of White Plains, NY, who was shot and killed in his home by officer Anthony Carelli on November 19, 2011, after his medical device was accidentally triggered. Despite Chamberlain’s plea that he was all right and did not need medical attention, the police forced their way into his home, tasered him, and shot him twice in the chest. July 8, 2013, New York, NY. Photo by Nissa Tzun.

In the summer of 2014, Ramsey Orta recorded the killing of Eric Garner, who took his last breath while in a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. The release of the video on YouTube put US police violence on blast globally. The world watched in horror as Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe.” It is the brave actions of concerned citizens, coupled with their ability to produce and disperse first hand media quickly and effusively, that police violence, which has been rampant in communities of color all across the US for generations, is now becoming fully exposed.

Last summer, there was a string of police killings that received mainstream media attention. Alton Sterling was shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Days later, Philando Castile’s killing in St. Paul, Minnesota was broadcasted on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. For the survivors of police violence to be able to take control of their narratives before police release official statements to the media challenges the imblanced power dynamic.

Social media has simplified the production and dissemination of independent media. Now the everyday person has the ability to construct narratives from their perspective and share them widely. The ability to identify and connect with family members has also been facilitated by their growing participation on social media platforms.

Carvan43NYC de Ayotzinapa marches to the United Nations to demand justice for the 43 missing Ayotzinapa College students who were disappeared by the Mexican police on September 26th, 2014. April 26th, 2015, New York, NY. Photo by Nissa Tzun.

As my perspective of police violence has changed over time, the Forced Trajectory Project, in its eighth year, has also transformed. What started out as a mere photography project is now an award-winning multimedia documentary project utilizing still images, sound, and moving pictures. It has been exhibited around the country and serves as a digital storytelling platform for those most impacted by police violence. Eerily, the stories seem like repeats of old stories with different faces and names. The patterns of police violence and how the authorities handle them are so alike it seems impossible that the police cover-ups are coincidental and not actual protocol.

In The Politics of Force, professor Regina Lawrence posits that the majority of what is published about these cases stems from what the police choose to communicate to the media. Lawrence spent years researching how narratives of police violence are constructed collaboratively by the police and the media. She found that this is largely due to the fact that police departments already have existing relationships with media outlets, who are more likely to contact law enforcement about these incidents rather than seeking out the families and documenting their experiences. Even if families were given a chance to share their narratives, their perspectives are considered alternative and do not hold the same authority as statements released by the police.

In the Fall of 2014, I supported Cynthia Howell, the niece of police brutality victim Alberta Spruill, in establishing Families United 4 Justice in New York. Cynthia, who was tired of being exploited and disrespected in activist spaces, where the families often feel used for their grief, envisioned an organization where families affected by police violence could share resources and build collective power. Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, and Kenneth Ellis, Jr., the father of police brutality victim Kenneth Ellis III of Albuquerque, New Mexico, called in to partake in the first meeting. During the second meeting, families voted on the name: “Families United 4 Justice.” (Visit FU4J on Facebook here.)

Last summer, Cynthia and I met with the Department of Health (DOH) in Harlem to discuss the role of public health in police brutality cases. For the DOH representatives it was a realization that the enormous psychosocial trauma on the families has gone undocumented and untreated for generations. Families suffer from all kinds of stress-related illnesses such as PTSD, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. They are also often not privy to victims of violence programs offered by the state to assist with burial and emergency costs, due to the fact that most of these incidents are ruled as justifiable homicides if not thrown out of court completely. We kept in touch after our meeting and in December 2016, Cynthia called for a national convening to take place at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, an annual conference held at Wayne State University that serves as a convergence space for social justice organizers and media makers. 

This past June, Families United 4 Justice hosted a networking gathering for families affected by police violence across the nation to discuss the role of public health in police brutality cases in order to lay the groundwork for sustained support for families. Public health officials, mental health care professionals, alternative healers, community organizers, and media artists joined the conversation to better understand how they can support families. This was the beginning of a long-term conversation that we believe will have national and international implications to challenging the impunity that violent police officers are almost always afforded.

Over the last eight years my personal life has become interwoven with the fabric of this devastating social phenomenon. I have had to confront my own trauma while learning to live with vicarious trauma. When I explain what I do, I often go back to my childhood fascination with law enforcement as I imagine so many people can relate. My desire to help others and fight for justice never changed, but it took some time to orient myself in a system that breeds misinformation and fails to do the very thing it claims: protect and serve the people. I am currently pursuing a Master’s in Social Work so that I can learn better how to support families. It will take some time—maybe generations—for a cultural reversal to occur, where citizens are moved to come to the aid of families when tragedy strikes, rather than turning the other cheek. I am determined to do what I can and am honored to work alongside such incredible, resilient people. 

Weeks before the national convening she called for, Cynthia Howell passed in her home from cancer. For years she had been battling this stress-related illness while vigorously fighting for justice for her aunt and other families. Her death greatly impacted families from all over the country and several signed up to participate in the convening after her death. The work I do will continue to be in her name. 

Nissa Tzun

Nissa D. Tzun is the Project Founder & Editor-in-Chief of the Forced Trajectory Project (FTP). She is a multimedia artist specializing in illustration, graphic and web design, photography, film, public relations and investigative journalism. In 2009, She founded FTP, an independent media outlet that began as a long-term documentary project illuminating the narratives of families impacted by police violence. In 2014, Nissa supported the inception of Families United 4 Justice, a growing nationwide collective of families affected by police violence. Nissa currently serves as a family advocate, organizer and board member for FU4J. Nissa is a professor for the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism & Media Studies and is currently pursuing her Masters’ in Social Work and Journalism & Media Studies at UNLV.

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