#BlackLivesMatter was a thing, just like #OccupyWallStreet was a thing before it. And now those things are done. The problem with turning chronic social injustice into a media concern is that once it loses its traction in the media people get the idea that somehow it’s been dealt with. A cause grabs media attention (with its very own hashtag) and people call it “raising awareness” or, if they’re feeling lofty, “raising consciousness”. Something has been accomplished. Progress has been made. We can go home now.
After the tent city at police headquarters had been disbanded, after the march to Queen’s Park, after Kathleen Wynne’s acknowledgment of systemic racism, after push-back from the Toronto Police Association, I drifted past Toronto Police Headquarters and noticed something odd. There’s a bronze sculpture by Les Drysdale out in front. A woman in police uniform holds a trowel and leans in as if spreading mortar for a new brick. Someone had left a fresh slice of watermelon on the trowel. It looks as if the (Caucasian) police officer is serving up watermelon to the ghosts of the Black protesters.
How are we supposed to interpret this? Maybe it’s a straight-up racist taunt. Or maybe it’s an ironic comment from someone frustrated with the (fairly typical) “What? Me racist?” response from respectable men like Mike McCormack. Or maybe it’s the work of an agent provocateur who wants to throw gasoline on the fire. Or maybe it’s a prank by kids smoking weed in the alley near Fran’s. Or maybe it’s radical art by students from OCAD.
Then, of course, there’s a second-order question of interpretation. Once I record the watermelon on the trowel as a photograph, how should viewers interpret the image I’ve made? I don’t think it’s for me to say. However, I do want to point out that this was not a fortuitous capture in the moment. I spent maybe 20 or 30 minutes photographing the sculpture with watermelon and thinking about what I was looking at. I shot from different angles. With and without a polarizing filter. With a variety of people walking through the scene. Ultimately, I settled on a shot with the streetcar in the background. I like the play of red between the streetcar and the watermelon. I also like the fact that the streetcar places the scene unequivocally in Toronto where, as everybody knows, we don’t have problems with racism.