by Aiano Nakagawa
Shakeil Greely is a Philadelphia based feminist, activist, and visual designer. Greely is the founder of Trail of Silence, an online database cataloging the victims of those murdered by the police. In addition to the database, Trail of Silence offers printable posters, postcards, external resources, and an online store. Learn more about Greely, Trail of Silence, and the importance of collecting and analyzing data regarding police brutality.
Aiano Nakagawa: Can you tell us about the Trail of Silence project?
Shakeil Greely: Trail of Silence started last year as an initial response to the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. It stated as a school project in which I had to come up with a way to intervene in public space related to social impact. I immediately had an idea to use victim’s names and a mask to take on the physical presence of the people who are no longer there. It started as small demonstration with me and four other people.
Around the same time I started a Tumblr which cataloged the names and stories of people killed by police and with the national climate of everything that was going on, it started picking up really quickly. One day one of the Tumblr posts had 400 reblogs and the next day it had 800 reblogs. Then people who I’d never met began reaching out and showing interest in the project.
I wanted to do some kind of big demonstration. So in tandem with building out the research part of it, I started to build the website. The first phase was through Tumblr and a small demonstration. The next phase was the website and a big demonstration with about 100 people. In the photos the demonstration looks all organized but on the day… I had planned this protest as a final project and it happened to coincide with the National Day of Resistance. It started with 20 of us on campus and then people started joining. We were 40 people strong as we went through downtown and by the time we were at City Hall we had around 80 people with us. Everyone had signs and it was super amazing. Everyone was chanting and yelling. It was really disorganized and I was like “Ahhh! This is never gonna work. No one’s gonna listen to me. This is going to be a failure.” And then lo and behold everyone was super down to be silent, walk around City Hall, and do a die-in in front of the big Christmas tree. Everything went super swimmingly, which is still astonishing to me.
Since then, I’ve mainly been nurturing the web presence, continuing to update the blog, and putting up an online store.
The future plan is to put on some additional events sometime in the next four to five months as long as we can generate traffic, get people interested, and get people to buy shirts online.
AN: Do you hope for Trail of Silence to become a federal database?
SG: The fact that there is no federal database is definitely a problem. The initial idea was to call attention and give people a resource to look at and learn from. Since this time last year more stuff has been popping up, for example, The Guardian project, The Counted, is an amazing resource. They’ve been tracking all police deaths in the states since the beginning of 2015 and they track stuff on race, location, age, gender, and whether the victim was armed/unarmed.
I don’t necessarily need my research to become a federal database or anything but I just want this information to be accessible. I think that a federal database is in the works but the more important thing besides cataloging these deaths is doing research and analyzing them. I want to say where it happened, what was happening beforehand; was there a settlement, if so how much was the settlement, does this person have a history of addiction or mental health issues, any criminal records? I want to go deeper than just race and location and really try to figure out what people are most at risk and what people are being killed at a higher rate than others. We need to give people the tools to know where the biggest problem areas are.
AN: On the t-shirts, what is the timeline for the deaths and how do you choose the names?
SG: The most recent shirt we made is the “Women of Color” shirt and that was something that I felt needed to be put out because it’s a pretty big demographic of people who are being targeted but don’t get much coverage. The research that I’ve been doing looks at deaths from 2000 onwards. Data from before then gets kind of messy and is harder to access. From 2000 on most of the information is on the internet. For the WOC shirt, I picked particular cases that were very egregious - there’s definitely more than just those names but those were the cases that people should know about.
With the first shirt that I made, the 2014 Shirt, I was looking at the biggest most high profile cases of the year. We’re putting up a new shirt that’s of children, 17 and under, which is another demographic that comes up every now and then, but to look at it in a timeline gives a lot more weight to those deaths. The death of Tamir Rice was super heartbreaking, but I was doing research into that [case] and found 2 more cases of pretty much the exact same thing, young children of color holding toy weapons and getting shot right away… nothing, no struggle or anything. The main reason for doing the shirts in the first place was because it’s a conversation starter. It’s a way for someone whose wearing it to engage with those names. You can’t wear the shirt in public if you’re not ready to talk about it, or you don’t know whose names are on the shirt. It’s a walking/talking conversation piece. It’s something I’m really trying to push because it’s one thing to see the names on the news, but it’s another thing to be walking down the street and be reminded of these names. I’ve had so many people see the shirt from behind and see the life span and then see one name they know and then they want to know who are these people? It’s a measurable impact on one person. They’re now educated about this. The tiny amount of profit we’re making is being set aside to finance more demonstrations and buying supplies.
AN: Obviously this raises awareness for people who advocate for lesser deaths by police and law enforcement but how do you think this can lead to a difference in policy or police training? What would that process look like?
SG: I often feel the sense of “how much impact can this really have?” but the cool thing is that we are seeing some of these policies begin to change because of people being on the streets raising awareness. It’s a constant struggle of getting more and more people to not only know about this but to identify with it. Once people identify with what’s happening we can begin to push for change higher up. I want to look at how these deaths fit into a wider scheme beyond race. There are white males who are who’ve been killed by police, there are Asian-Americans who’ve been killed by the police, lots of Latino-Americans who’ve been killed by police, people with mental illness… all these demographics. Really, if anyone took the time to look at it they could identify with these victims.
Getting more people on board with this message is where I think the police change will come from. In terms of police training, we’ve seen with the admin of body cameras that these things haven’t really been getting better yet… In terms of training, at least in my eyes, the things I think should happen are 1, racial bias training. Racial Bias training needs to be way more engraved in police training cause that’s something that many police officers don’t even think about or they think that they don’t have any racial biases. Police need some kind of training to work through their biases so when they’re presented with a young African American boy who has a [toy] gun they don’t immediately shoot him. Also another big thing is mental health issues. In a number of cases the parent or spouse of someone with a mental health condition calls the police looking for help but then that person ends up dead, which speaks to a total lack of training in terms of helping people with mental health issues. We need to be aware of these additional variables and I think that an awareness of these variables could lead to different approaches. You can’t approach a schizophrenic person the same way you would approach someone with a drug addiction. You just can’t approach all these different situations with the same mentality every time.
AN: Do you hope one day people will talk about neighborhoods differently in response to a police violence database? For example, instead of saying “I hear they have great schools” people will say “I hear people don’t get harassed and shot by police in this area.”
SG: Absolutely. When I first started the project I was curious about how Philadelphia, where I live, is in terms of police violence and I couldn’t find anything. All the information was really scattered. I want Trail of Silence to be a place where you can go to our site and see where there are issues going on in your city. I want it to be an educational tool in terms of learning about these things at large, but also knowing what’s happening in your community is important because without that you can’t move to action.
AN: This research gets really intense and I personally get really pissed off and down when there’s so much… What do you do when you start feeling shitty and down about the world?
SG: I work on a lot of different projects so with something like this, I can only do so much at a time. It’s just so heartbreaking… The thing is that there’s no end to it - it’s an endless amount of people and their stories. When I look at these stories I don’t just look at the date of death; I read 3 or 4 articles, I try to find statements from police and families, I try to find videos if I can, and that definitely breaks me down a lot. So I manage by working on other stuff at the same time, taking breaks every now and then, and doing not researching for a couple of weeks because there’s only so much I can take at a time.
AN: How can people in the public help Trail of Silence keep growing? What kind of support do you need from the public?
SG: The main thing is to share the postcards on Tumblr. Any Tumblr user should follow and be updated frequently. Sharing theses posts is great because it generates more awareness. We’re always looking for people who can help in any way possible even if it’s researching a case for 10 min. Of course people can buy shirts which is hugely important to help us build capital to finance future demonstrations. Last year a lot of people bought shirts which allowed me to go out and buy a thousand postcards. That doesn’t just come out of nothing. Also, buying the shirt helps continue to keep those names in our collective memory. In today’s news cycle things get brushed aside too quickly. It’s tremendously important that we don’t forget names like Darrien Hunt, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Mike Brown, and all the people whose lives were taken from them. Any kind of support is what we’re looking for: people who want to contribute, people who want to share our posts, people who want to wear the names, it’s a holistic process.
AN: Is there somebody whose come before who’s inspired you in your activism?
SG: In terms of activism I am inspired by the movements like Black Lives Matter and Dream Defenders, who are pushing stuff in the streets, are super strong, and are getting people high up to take notice of these issues. Contemporary movements are super significant but it’s so important to trace the lineage of people like Mandela, Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and everyone from the Civil Rights movements of the past. Those are super significant to frame how projects function initially. In the visual field of the project I drew more specific influences from one artists in particular, Glen Ligon. He is an African American man who works with text a lot and uses text to draw attention to racial issues in America. He’s definitely a big influence, especially on this project.
AN: Do you consider yourself an artist? What connection between art and activism do you find richness in?
SG: I consider myself a designer and that distinction mainly comes out of visual tactics for a specific purpose as opposed to expression. In that sense, the connection between visual media and activism is about immediate impact. There’s a lack of well designed and well executed signage and protest graphics. I really wanted to make the site a resource for people where you can download these signs and then print it and bam! Now you have a legible and well designed sign. It is essential for pushing the process along. It’s like anything else, Coca Cola is successful because they have really powerful branding and other movements like Black Lives Matter and Dream Defenders are successful because they’re on the ground and they also consider how the whole visual package comes off.
AN: Do you consider yourself a feminist? What does feminism mean to you?
SG: Definitely. No Doubt. To me it’s as simple as everyone deserving equal opportunity and an equal chance of living and being happy. That goes for women and all of these victims who didn’t get that chance to be happy and live their life. It comes down to basic human decency, you know? It’s especially frustrating when we just had a mass shooting followed by three more within a span of five days and we’re still trying to convince people that these are conversations we need to have in terms of gun violence, police violence, women’s rights, and all these things.
AN: Is there anything else you want people to know about Trail of Tears or about what’s going on in our country right now?
SG: Obviously, everyone should feel compelled to just be educated on these topics because I think there can be a sense (for some people) that these things don’t apply to them or aren’t significant to their lives but, through my research I’ve learned that that’s not the case. Anyone could be a victim of police violence.
Death by police violence can happen to and affect anyone. I wish more people realized that.
Each one of these deaths are not isolated incidences. The victims are someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, loved one… Their death doesn’t just end with them, it’s felt through their family, their friends, and their communities. Framing these deaths or considering these deaths in a wider framework is crucial to bring a wider awareness.
These things can happen and have happened to anyone, at any time, in any place and these deaths are not isolated. These deaths affect people for the rest of their lives.
Note: This interview has been condensed for length and some paragraphs have been rearranged for a more linear reading experience.
Thank you to Shakeil for taking the time to share his project and mission with us. Please support Trail of Silence on Tumblr and Facebook. Make sure to check out their website which includes their research, resources, blog, and online store.