When I learned of the murder of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago last March, it went through me like an arrow. In the photo that circulated all over the news and social media, I saw in his contagious smile the students I’ve gotten to know as a teaching artist, my own sons, and the teammates and classmates they’ve had over the years. I saw a child.
I wanted to understand how it is that interactions with law enforcement can have such lethal results. I discovered a citizen-run organization that collects media reports of any encounter with law enforcement that results in a fatality. These include instances when an officer uses deadly force, when a person is fatally struck in a vehicular pursuit, or when an individual takes their own life, among other cases. I looked closely at the data for Cook County, Illinois, and was struck by the volume of cases, by how many stories and names I recognized, and by how many I had never heard before.
Encounters is the result of my journey through this data. I read every reported story of a life lost in the presence of law enforcement between the dates January 1, 2000, and April 30, 2021, in Cook County. As I read each story, I rolled a small wad of porcelain clay in my hands. When I finished I said the deceased’s name aloud, and made a fist, squeezing the clay in my palm. I repeated this process for all 624 individuals whose stories were reported. Before firing the porcelain, I rubbed cobalt carbonate into my hands and loosely touched the forms with my fingertips, leaving random remnants of blue on their surfaces. I strung the fired pieces together with steel wire, by year.
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© Gina Lee Robbins