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Past and Present History of a REPOhistory “Civil Disturbances” Sign

March 17, 2008


Justseeds readers likely need no reminder of the importance of politically engaged street art, yet it is always good to hear when work put up in the streets not only stays up for a long duration, but is also greatly valued by the community in which it is placed.
Recently, a sign by Jenny Polak and David Thorne from a past REPOhistory project Civil Disturbances that was put up in 1998 in Brooklyn has drawn some renewed attention, especially from collective members who had assumed that the majority of the signs had been taken down.

For those unaware of the project, the Civil Disturbances was a sign project that REPOhistory collaborated with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI.) Over a two-year duration from 1998-1999, 20 signs were placed at various locations in the city that addressed legal cases that had important social and political ramifications for New York City and beyond.
The sign by Jenny Polak and David Thorne commemorated three victims of police shootings and the families that attempted to prosecute the police. Specifically, it addressed the senseless death of Nicholas Heyward, a young boy who was shot and killed by a Housing Authority Officer in 1994 who mistook his plastic toy rifle for a weapon, Kevin Cedeno who was shot in the back in Washington Heights, and Anthony Baez who died from a police choke-hold in the Bronx. The signs were placed at each location where the deaths had taken place. For example the sign honoring Nicholas Heyward was placed on Baltic Street, between Hoyt & Bond in Brooklyn and helped focus public attention to this tragedy and the issues of police brutality and accountability.
Yet the sign did not remain up for long. Shortly after it was installed, the sign (along with a number of other Civil Disturbances signs) were either vandalized or quickly taken down against the artist’s approval.
However, the artists and the community made sure that it was re-installed in 1999. Polak recently explained, “There is a story you may not know about why it’s lasted. I came to know Nicholas Heyward, the father of the child the sign memorializes… A while after the project was done, he told me the sign had been knocked down – hit, he thought, by cops perhaps. He rescued it and we decided to rededicate it. At the time he was still living right there. I tried to make a bit of an occasion of it. Tom came to bring the spare sign, and a poet [Samantha Coerbell], did an intense poem she’d written about the killing which she came and performed on the street to a couple of people including Nicholas senior, and a local reporter I got hold of. I think the continued activism of Nicholas, his taking ownership of the sign, and the way people around here feel about the police all may have helped keep it there.”
Since this rededication effort in 1999, the sign has remained installed on Baltic Street for close to a decade and speaks of the importance of making sure that past and present struggles are honored and made clearly visible for all to see.
Photo by Daniel Tucker. For an article on the re-dedication of the sign in 1999, See, Michael Hirsh “Police Brutality Memorial Returns to Baltic Street”, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill Courier, Vol. XVIII, No. 16, April 26, 1999. For more information on REPOhistory, See HERE


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2 comments on “Past and Present History of a REPOhistory “Civil Disturbances” Sign”

This is great! Thanks for shedding some spotlight on Reprohistory. One of my professors from grad school was in this group, Greg Sholette. I admire him so much for his work and all the Reprohistory people as well!

There was a group that filmed the rededication which was later shown at Artist Space here in New York. The reporter wrote a nice piece. His last name was Hirsh. I have both the film and article. I spoke for the Repohistory collective that day as I installed the sign with double banding of stainless steel. We also documented the event will lots of slides. Tom Klem