The death of a budding 18-year-old student artist at the hands of Miami Beach police — a law enforcement agency with a shameful history of misconduct and excessive use of force — has triggered rightful outrage in the arts community.
But in other sectors of South Florida, the criminalization of Israel Hernandez-Llach, a Colombian immigrant youth who died Wednesday after a police officer Tasered him in the chest, has begun in earnest.
His crime: Attempting to tag the wall of an abandoned building with “Reefa” — his graffiti artist name.
You’d think that in a region where world-renown graffiti artists gather every year to revel in one of the most prestigious of contemporary art fairs, Art Basel Miami Beach, people would exhibit more sophistication and refrain from wholesale criminalization of young people vying to express themselves, as misguided as their choice of canvas may be.
You’d think our police departments would by now be adept at dealing with urban youth growing up in art hubs where the culture of skate boarding and graffiti art are an ever-present part of the scene.
The history of art, after all, is chock-full of accomplished artists whose lives were anything but exemplary, yet found higher purpose through their creative work. Artists of the stature of Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, began their careers as unknown graffiti artists.
But droves of letter writers to the Miami Herald and online blogs readily branded Hernandez-Llach a “punk” and a “vandal,” condemning with righteous indignation his attempt to tag the wall of a long-abandoned McDonald’s on 71st Street and Collins Avenue as if the young man were an armed burglar endangering life and property.
These critics — they and their children must be perfect human beings with impeccable credentials — render harsh judgment on graffiti art, a staple of urban centers worldwide, and let police off the hook for the unrelenting pursuit of a kid with a paint can who got as far as writing an “R” before he saw police and ran off.
They ignore the irreversible and deadly consequences of the chase — from five to seven officers were supposedly involved — and the lack of judgment in tasing a lanky youth, who might have been an agile runner and avid skateboarder but hardly presented a serious danger to the officers.
Theirs is an ignorant and callous assessment of the value of a young life.
“Israel Hernandez-Llach might be seen as a young vandal because of his Reefa moniker, or that he may have been smoking weed prior to his spray painting on a boarded up storefront,” Miami artist William Cordova told me. “But the Miami Beach Police were wrong for using a Taser gun on the 18-year-old. He wasn’t armed nor a danger to himself or others. It was excessive use of force and then the officers celebrated their conquest by giving each other high fives.”
Cordova’s socially-conscious conceptual art has brought him international acclaim, prestigious fellowships and, most importantly, has given him the platform for expression young people like Hernandez-Llach seek.
We’ll never know how far Hernandez-Llach may have reached in his pursuit of an art career, but his art teacher and friends say he was no criminal.
He was a restless, multi-talented young man who missed graduating from Miami Beach Senior High School earlier this year by one class — physical education — because he spent those hours in the art room working on his pieces, his art teacher, Frank O’Hare, told me. The PE coach let him take the class online over the summer so he could graduate, O’Hare said.