Dear Creative Friend, I completed a new piece of work and it’s now time to tell the story behind the artwork. Here’s Charleena Lyles’ story.
On June 16, 2017, the Minnesota officer who fatally shot Philando Castile a year prior, during a traffic stop over a broken taillight, was found not guilty. This sparked angry protests. Thousands of people dissatisfied with the verdict gathered in the streets of Minnesota to protest.
That weekend was Father’s Day weekend.
Over 1,000 miles across the country, in the university district of Seattle, Washington, a young pregnant woman – Charleena Lyles- was at home in her apartment with three of her four children.
Shortly after 10 am on that Father’s Day, Charleena Lyles became worried that a burglar had broken into her home while she wasn’t there. So, she called the police for help.
Two police officers went to her apartment in response to her call. Usually, only one officer would have responded to such a call. However, the police had had a previous encounter with Charleena after which they put an “officer safety caution” in her file.
Charleena struggled with some mental health issues. In her previous interaction with the police, they described her as “talking all crazy”and arming herself with a pair of scissors.
So having this background, instead of one, the police department sent two officers to her home to respond to the burglary report.
When they arrived, initially, the interaction was calm. However, they soon encountered a problem. Officers say at some point, Charleena armed herself with a knife.
When she didn’t obey their command to drop the knife, one officer yelled to the other: “Tase her!” The other officer replied, “I don’t have a Taser,”
So, instead of employing non-lethal options in dealing with a 100lbs pregnant woman with mental health issues, the officers shot her seven times, including twice in the back, killing her. Additionally, the bullets cut through her uterus, killing her fetus, (estimated to be about 15 weeks old).
As a result, another protest broke out in another city in America, over another police killing of a Black person. This time, it was in Seattle, Washington.
Fast forward three years later, a Black man is arrested for passing a fake $20, in the same place Philando Castile was killed – Minnesota.
In broad day light as the entire nation saw it play out on video, this man – George Floyd – is killed by another group of police officers, while he cried out for his mother. That video traumatized me. I just couldn’t “unsee” what I’d seen on the video.
Massive protests – the size, the reach, and depth of which I haven’t seen in my lifetime, broke out in each and every state across the United States of America and across the world. A new chapter in Race Relations in America was opened.
People – young, old, White, Black, Colored, rich, poor – all started demanding social justice. Everyone wanted to do something.
At the end of June this year, I learned of an organization called Social Justice Sewing Academy who were being the change they wanted to see. The organization was formed by a young lady called Sara Trail. They were making banners to honor the many lives which have been lost through violence.
I volunteered to create a quilt block for their banner. That was when I was assigned Charleena Lyles’ name to make a quilt block in her honor.
I’d never heard about Charleena until I was assigned her name. I don’t know how I missed her story in 2017. I slowly learned through newspaper articles and social media what had happened to her.
It broke my heart.
How could this have happened?
There was a pattern in her interactions with the police which would make you think that surely, their plan of action in dealing with her on subsequent occasions will include the care she deserved given the mental health issues she dealt with and what the department knew about her. That didn’t happen.
I had more questions than I had answers.
How can someone be shot in the back if they are coming at you with a knife? Her children were in the apartment. They certainly heard / saw their mother being killed. What kind of trauma and mental health issues will this create for these young ones? Why didn’t the police have non-lethal options other than to shoot and kill?
It was hard to find a meaningful way to create a quilt block to honor Charleena. What do you do that is worthy of honoring a life that was lost in this way? What do you create? How do you make something that is good enough?
After I was done making Charleena’s quilt block, I knew I wanted to create a full-sized portrait to honor Charleena Lyles and to tell her story. I knew that if I hadn’t heard about her story until recently, then there were people just like me, who don’t know her story.
I resolved that the one thing I could do to truly honor Charleena was to tell her story. Hopefully, her story will result in some policy changes. Hopefully, her children will grow up to learn that the world cared about their mom. Hopefully, it will change some hearts for good.
So, when I heard that my Charleena Lyles portrait had been selected to be part of the multisite exhibition – “We Are the Story” – I was beside myself. My dream had come true. Charleena’s story is going to be told to a wide audience just like I’d hoped.
“We Are the Story” is an epic, large scale exhibition curated by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi in partnership with The Textile Center, Minnesota.
Yes, you guessed right! It’s come full circle.
Charleena’s portrait is going to Minnesota. Her story is going to be told in the very place, where George Floyd was killed – the epicenter of the nationwide protest. My dream has come true in a way I could never have planned out myself. It was meant to be just this way.
Charleena gets to be on stage. She deserves the spotlight that’s going to be put on her as a result of “We Are The Story” exhibition. This will indeed be a fitting tribute to the person she was and who she could have become.
PS: Go here to find out the exhibition details about “We Are the Story”. I’ll be updating that page with more information as I get it. Please share with people who live in Minnesota who can go see the exhibition or who have family and friends there.
PPS: This is part of the series: The Story Behind the Art
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Also published on Medium.