Voice Mail Art Project Honors People of Color Killed by the Police

For her son’s birthday, Gwen Woods left Mario Woods a voice mail message he’ll by no means hear.

Mr. Woods was fatally shot in 2015 by cops in San Francisco, however to have a good time his birthday final yr, on July 22, Ms. Woods known as him. She left the message via “1-800 Happy Birthday,” a web based audio artwork mission honoring the lives of individuals of coloration who had been killed by the police.

In her message, Ms. Woods imagined what she and her son would have finished for his birthday: go to with Grandma, go shoe-shopping, possibly even purchase some music.

“Obviously, we’d be doing something wonderful,” Ms. Woods stated in the message, including that she would have baked him a cake as a result of “what’s a birthday without a birthday cake?”

The mission lets individuals hearken to and depart messages for individuals of coloration who’ve died in encounters with legislation enforcement. It was conceived by Mohammad Gorjestani, who directed a brief movie in 2016 titled “Happy Birthday Mario Woods,” during which Ms. Woods shares the story of her son’s life and celebrates his birthday with family members.

Mr. Gorjestani, 37, has additionally directed two comparable quick movies, “Happy Birthday Philando Castile” and “Happy Birthday Oscar Grant,” about males who had been fatally shot by the police. He determined to increase the concept by utilizing an strategy that was extra accessible and, he stated, nostalgic: voice mail messages.

“One day, it just hit me,” Mr. Gorjestani stated. “I wanted people to understand two things: one, the scale of how much of an epidemic this is; and two, to really think about people in a way that transcended just grief and was more about honoring and celebrating.”

When an individual of coloration is killed by the police, Mr. Gorjestani stated he’s typically pissed off that the protection tends to emphasise the loss of life greater than the life that preceded it.

“What gets lost in this,” he stated, “is the humanness of each individual — the fact that each of these individuals had their own goals in life, the things they were planning on doing that day, the next day.”

When the concept of utilizing voice mail messages got here to Mr. Gorjestani, he started sketching out how it might work. From an inventive perspective, the messages supplied a nostalgic really feel for the “pre-iPhone era,” he stated.

Mr. Gorjestani launched the 1-800 Happy Birthday mission on July 22, which might have been Mr. Woods’s 31st birthday. Visitors to 1800happybirthday.com will discover dozens of names of individuals killed by the police. They can hearken to voice mail messages others have left, and depart their very own by calling one of the cellphone numbers assigned to every sufferer.

Mr. Gorjestani stated the idea was not pushed by the coronavirus pandemic, however the format was well-suited to an period of social-distancing restrictions. People can have interaction with the mission from their properties, he stated.

“When technology works well, it democratizes things,” Mr. Gorjestani stated. “I think in this case, we were able to create an experience that the barrier of entry, the barrier of participation, was very low.”

By specializing in birthdays, Mr. Gorjestani stated he hoped to carry out a extra private aspect of the victims and supply their family members a possibility to heal.

Ms. Woods described the mission as cathartic. The police stated her son Mario had been armed with a knife and had refused to comply with police orders to drop it when officers shot him a minimum of 15 occasions. Video footage of the confrontation circulated broadly on-line, prompting requires San Francisco’s police chief to resign.

“These individuals, they aren’t just one-dimensional. They’re human beings,” Ms. Woods stated. “It’s all this hardness that you’re left with, but what Mohammad came up with is how you make the sharp edges smoother.”

In a message to her son Oscar Grant III, the Rev. Wanda Johnson shared her dream that they’d have labored in ministry collectively. That dream got here true, she stated — simply not the manner she imagined.

“I thought it would be back to back, not realizing that I would be here in ministry and you in ministry with me, but not physically being here,” Ms. Johnson stated in the message.

Mr. Grant was fatally shot in 2009 by a transit officer on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform in Oakland, Calif. Ms. Johnson left the message on Feb. 27, which might have been her son’s 35th birthday.

“Oh, Oscar, you are so missed,” she stated. “Not a day goes by without you being on my mind.”

Mr. Gorjestani stated he hoped his work would function a name to motion, notably for individuals who haven’t felt the ache of dropping somebody in a violent encounter with legislation enforcement.

“I think for white people, or people who aren’t from these communities, it’s a way to hold them accountable in a new way,” Mr. Gorjestani stated. “If you listen to these voice mails and they don’t move you, that’s on you.”

In a message for George Floyd, whose loss of life in police custody final yr touched off nationwide protests against police brutality, one caller hoped for “good change.” Another promised to maintain preventing for him.

“You don’t know me, but definitely I know you now,” the caller stated. “I’m praying that you get vindicated.”

Mr. Gorjestani described the 1-800 Happy Birthday mission as a piece in progress, one which he hopes will change into a bodily artwork set up at a museum. He stated he has additionally thought-about enjoying the recordings outdoors metropolis halls throughout the nation.

“There’s literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other families who have had to endure this,” Mr. Gorjestani stated. “Just because you haven’t heard of this person doesn’t mean they weren’t equally loved.”

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