Friends say this arc of spray paint got a Miami tagger killed by predatory police officers who high-fived over his body. We’re not so sure.
The story is as old as our urban streets themselves. An 18-year-old kid with a spray can, his lookout posted, “getting up” with the peculiar fan of aerosol scribble that supposedly distinguishes him from acres of other, meaningless scribbles smeared across our cities and towns. In this case his canvas was a shuttered McDonalds, his chosen studio time 5 a.m. in a rundown section of Miami. Police say Israel Hernandez-Llach, known to his friends as “Reefa,” ran when they arrived, failed to obey orders to stop, and fled for several blocks, jumping a fence in order to elude them.
Police finally caught up with the slightly built skater and a Taser was deployed, the non-lethal deterrent civil libertarians cry for most often in situations when police, for whatever reason, draw their pistols and open fire. In this case the Taser’s barbs made contact with the skin or clothing (we’re not sure at this point) in the region of Hernandez-Llach’s chest and he went down.
A “friend” who said he remained in the area and saw “everything” maintains that as many as 30 officers (police reports put the number at six) celebrated over the prone and lifeless body. We can say from experience that officers encumbered with forty to fifty pounds of body armor and gun belt and gear do sometimes congratulate each other over catching up to and capturing kids half their age who run like deer and who are obviously ahead of them when it comes to vandalizing large sections of the urban landscape, but we don’t know if any palm-slapping occurred that Tuesday morning. We can also say from experience that few people actually see “everything,” and most see it the way they want it seen.
Officers got Hernandez-Llach to a local hospital when they realized he was in distress, and he died there at about 6:15 a.m. Tests are underway to determine if he had a preexisting medical condition, may have suffered an injury when he fell while being chased, or had pharmacology in him which may have contributed to his demise – as sometimes happens during a taser deployment.
Miami police, already under fire for alleged prior abuses, issued a carefully worded statement of condolence to the boy’s family and promised a full investigation. Within hours, Hernandez-Llach’s name was was being carried across the city by every skateboarder and tagger who knew of his death – each singing his praises as artist, creator, peacemaker, guru to thousands of recent immigrants to the area who seek to be heard, to make themselves known in a town and country where being known is everything – his family lining up his art awards for the media to photograph. His girlfriend called him gentle and kind, his friends quick to point out the “Reefa” moniker was a riff on his puritanical stance against drugs.
Certain media outlets, just as quick to pounce on stories of this sort, gobbled up the anger boiling up out of the streets and gave air time to fellow “street artists” who asked that their faces be obscured while they delivered long diatribes about “spreading our art in the face of tyranny,” with big-hair anchors clucking their tongues and sending “heartfelt condolences” to the dead boy’s family.
It wasn’t long before we heard the “he came to this country (from Colombia) for freedom and the police killed him…” and the predictable “Only in America will the police kill you for writing your name…” – those same big-haired, bespectacled anchors we mentioned shaking their heads and emoting.
The story suddenly took on an air of political theater, with any hope of arriving at the truth fading like a fan of aerosol spray against a blank wall. The person with the most pointed anti-police, anti-government messaging got the most air time. There was no counterpoint from people who have had their property routinely vandalized by taggers, who pay to clean up the mess, or those who live in areas where graffiti blight is allowed to flourish. Truth left the room. In Miami, some would have us believe, the police hunt and kill artists.
Obviously, we think there’s more to it than that. How about you?