Seattle Opera Pagliacci

‘Policing Justice’ at PICA

The group exhibition, curated by Cleo Davis and Nina Amstutz, brings together works by artists and organizations that highlight histories of oppression and resistance. Recounting and engaging with the past allows for the imagining of a more equitable future.


installation view of Policing Justice at PICA
Installation view of Policing Justice at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, photo by Mario Gallucci

Policing Justice at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art is a mammoth exhibition, befitting its intricate and charged subject matter. This offering finds impetus in the racial justice demonstrations of 2020, which ensued in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. These demonstrations were met by more police violence and continued for longer in Portland than in any other US city, correlating to the settler-colonial harms, racialized policing, and racist policies baked into Oregon’s foundation. In the words of its curators Cleo Davis and Nina Amstutz, Policing Justice frames police violence in Portland in the context of both “local and national histories of oppression.” 

The exhibition’s scope reaches out toward a liberatory future. In “Policing Justice: Pivoting from Protest to Self-determination,” an essay on the exhibition, Mac Smiff asks: “What does public safety look like in a world where housing is guaranteed? Or in a world where Black and brown children are assisted instead of criminalized? In a world where the land is respected and the water is clean?” In Smiff’s analysis, these kinds of questions begin to arise when the “layers of limitation” imposed by capitalism fall away. Throughout Policing Justice, contemporary art is a vector for imagining the possibility of justice beyond current systems of the status quo, raising sights towards social transformation unfolding within and across time. 

elongated table with grid pattern and building miniatures
Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and Blue, Mapping the Pipeline, 2024, Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Photo by Mario Gallucci

Via the exhibition text, I discover that Policing Justice aims to center “the perspectives of those most directly impacted by police violence.” Accordingly, the show features a large swath of local and visiting artists and partners. Upon entering PICA, I am greeted by the first collaborative installation called Mapping the Pipeline, initiated by lead artists, Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and Blue. This contribution dives into the theme of justice for juveniles, lighting up trauma across location and lifespan and connecting the dots between these temporal sites of disempowerment. 

Stevenson engaged local youth to help create tabletop maps of six sites in Portland. This first map I encounter depicts The Cottonwood School of Civics and Science and the infamous Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) building that sits adjacent to it. Atop the map, grizzly CS gas canisters sit on display. I press a button labeled “push me” on the map, and a puff of unpleasant smelling dry ice emerges from the installation. 

Attached to the tabletop is a video screen and wearable headphones. The video screen shows Portland Police using dangerous CS gas in the Cottonwood schoolyard during a protest for racial justice in 2020, an effort to disburse nearby demonstrators who had shown up to protest ICE. In the headphones, I hear a member of the press yelling from behind the camera, “How can you gas the fucking school!?” and pleading with the police to think of the children. The next view shows children playing in the Cottonwood schoolyard, where the soil has been contaminated by CS gas. Following this scene, a Cottonwood School student, Kamari, reads an impassioned poem about police brutality—the proximity between Portland’s youth and agents of carceral culture is evident here. 

In speaking with Stevenson about the project, I learned that each site in Mapping the Pipeline represents a different point in the school-to-prison pipeline in Portland. Some of the tabletop maps portray Albina neighborhood schools and include statistics outlining the disproportionate vulnerability of Black, Indigenous, and multiracial youth in these local areas. Other maps are accompanied by video interviews with incarcerated adults from Columbia River Correctional Institution. In Stevenson’s words, the project illuminates factors that affect young people negatively, “gaps that then create a place in which to falter and be policed.” This, they add, is not the fault of youth, school teachers, in-school administrators, but, rather, the result of society’s overall approach to youth education and development. By amplifying the experiences of vulnerable folks at different sites of Portland’s school-to-prison pipeline, this work unsettles the effects of systemic injustice across both place and time. 

installation view with white wall with horizontal timeline
Forensic Architecture, From Toxic Air to Toxic Language, 2023-24, Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Photo by Mario Gallucci

The image of fog-laden police, looking uncannily fascist in their masks and uniforms, imprints deeply across other works in Policing Justice. The British research agency, Forensic Architecture, spent the last three years working aggregating and analyzing data for a project about the Portland Police Bureau’s excessive use of force on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Their installation ‘Tear Gas Tuesday’ in Downtown Portland includes a composite of their findings in a video display—toggling between archival video of protests, 3D renderings, and data mining to show, in horrifying detail, the extreme degree to which PPB exposed demonstrators to unhealthy levels of CS gas. 


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While Forensic Architecture illuminates recent police misconduct through data visualization, Don’t Shoot Portland—an arts and education organization—illustrates a longer history of the Portland Police Bureau’s tyranny. The Center of Injustice, created by Tai Carpenter and Teressa Raiford of Don’t Shoot Portland in collaboration with Media Pollution, channels the visual and auditory aesthetic of Portland’s protests for racial justice. This installation is anchored by a booth of plexiglass walls that enclose a number of vintage TVs, cycling footage about racial injustice from different decades in Portland’s history. I hear audible voices of rigid, unreliable newscasters depicting scenarios, tempered with the voices of activists speaking out. 

installation view of The Center of Injustice
Don’t Shoot Portland with Media Pollution, Center of Injustice, 2024, Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Photo by Mario Gallucci

Lining the floors around the booth, I notice cardboard posters, apparently from past protests. One reads, “SAY HIS NAME! QUANICE HAYES!,” in reference to a Black Portland teenager who suffered excessive use of force and tragic death at the hands of Portland Police. “NO HONOR IN A LIE,” reads another. News clippings and posters are wheat-pasted to the adjacent walls, some calling attention to the recent murder of Manny Cark by police. Among the wheatpaste, I find a sequence of many pages from a case leveled by Don’t Shoot Portland against the City of Portland over the PPB’s excessive use of for in the 2020 protests. The case ended in a settlement

Black Aesthetic Studio’s (BAS) contribution connects Oregon’s racist history with a sanguine view of the far future. This collaboration between Cleo Davis, Kayin Talton Davis, Robert Alexander Clarke, and Kimberly Moreland, entitled BAS RUT 3000, documents legislative attempts to regulate Black folks’ movement and access to space in Oregon. The artists present this archival evidence within a series of three Afrofuturistic time capsules. I spy a toy wagon, a vintage toy police car and sherrif’s badge among the ephemera in one of the time capsules—a stomach-turning sight of pioneers and police, racism in toy form. 

installation view of BAS RUT 3000
Black Aesthetic Studio, BAS RUT 3000, 2024, Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, photo by Mario Gallucci

BAS RUT 3000 also includes a short documentary entitled Root Shocked about Davis’ intergenerational struggle with housing discrimination and fight for reparative action with the city of Portland—a small victory in a much longer resistance. 

In the culminating time capsule of BAS RUT 3000, I am slingshotted into the far future by stunning Afro-Futuristic illustrations of a world yet-to-come. Below, I read text that flows like the intro to Star Wars, written from the perspective of year 3024. This text chronicles a hard-won period of liberation, environmental healing, and space travel, stating: “We look back and thank the ancestors for their strength and fortitude, the kindness and love that persevered.” 

Blue metallic capsule with door
Black Aesthetic Studio, BAS RUT 3000, 2024, Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Photo by Mario Gallucci

Across Policing Justice’s many artworks—including those that have not been touched on here—artists unabashedly point to this fettered reality as a starting point for dreaming beyond it. In contrast to the reactive and myopic politics of our day, Policing Justice channels the liberatory aims of past resistance into a future unknown and dreamed. It asks audiences to imagine outside of the inhibitions of our present-day bureaucracy and social schema. Ultimately, through its cogent offerings, Policing Justice asserts that a world of justice unpoliced is a world of unfettered imagination. 



Seattle Opera Pagliacci

Policing Justice runs through May 19, 2024 at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, 15 NE Hancock St. Portland, OR. Gallery Hours are Thursday and Friday, 12:00 – 6:00 PM; Saturday and Sunday: 12:00 – 4:00 PM. See here for a list of the robust public programs offered as part of this exhibition.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver

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