Pa. officer expresses outrage through artwork
One officer creates murals as peaceful protest
By Megan Guza
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
PITTSBURGH, Penn. — From a simple sketch on a wall emerged images vivid in Americans' minds: the final moment of Walter Scott's life as he was shot in the back; Eric Garner's last breath on a New York sidewalk; a protester with a sign bearing the phrase "black lives matter."
The mural developed over eight hours in a Downtown gallery, artwork by an unlikely artist — a Pittsburgh police officer.
"People don't realize (police) are just as outraged," Officer Alphonso Sloan said. "We're human beings as well."
The exhibit, Wall Paintings, gave 12 local artists 10 square feet of white wall and eight hours. Artists worked furiously to get the foundations of their pieces up before a gallery crawl began at 5:30 p.m. Friday.
It was Sloan's third live gallery but his first overt political statement.
Scott, 50, was shot in the back and killed April 4. He was unarmed and running away from North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who has been charged with murder.
Garner, 43, died last July on Staten Island when a New York City police officer put him in what some called a chokehold. In December, a grand jury chose not to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.
Those events and others, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Freddie Gray in Maryland, sparked demonstrations across the country, with protesters using the phrase, "black lives matter."
"I think the time is right," said Sloan, 44, a lifelong artist and police officer since 1995. "These incidents have been happening, and it doesn't appear they're going away. This is my way of peaceful protest."
He said he is not overly concerned about how his colleagues in the department perceive his work.
"As a police officer, I'm not anti-police. I'm anti-police brutality," he said.
In January, police Chief Cameron McLay encountered backlash and criticism when he was photographed holding a protest group's sign that read "I resolve to challenge racism at work" during Pittsburgh's First Night celebration.
"Obviously I'm not a person who can speak for how police would view (the artwork)," said Duquesne University law professor Wesley Oliver. "But we do know that the mayor of New York City took extraordinary criticism when he showed sympathy for black men who were harassed by police."
Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said department officials had no comment on Sloan's work.
"Officer Sloan is doing this on his own time, not as a representative of the (Pittsburgh Bureau of Police)," Toler wrote in an email. "No one with the Bureau has any involvement with his independent project; therefore, no one has a comment to offer."
Oliver said he believes officers could be missing an opportunity.
"If police officers joined with him and say that, in fact, black lives do matter, police brutality is wrong, that would make the police seem much more sympathetic in the community," he said.
Robert Raczka, an artist and guest curator for the project, said the fact that Sloan is a police officer "gives him a unique ability to speak to that issue."
"Four years ago, he painted a butterfly on the wall," Raczka said.
Sloan said he has loved art since grade school. He graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1993 and owned a gallery in Highland Park in 2000.
For a time, Sloan was a detective with Pittsburgh's graffiti task force. His art background helped land him the job.
"I was a graffiti artist at one point — when I was younger," Sloan said. "It was a form of expression, and it was rebellious."
He said the graffiti of his younger years was much different than most of what's now scrawled on bridges and city trash cans.
"We put a lot of art into it," he said. "It was not just a name."
That urban graffiti style has stuck and remains part of his art. The bottom of his gallery piece reads, "I can't breathe," Eric Garner's words, which were captured on video as he lay on the ground in police custody.
Sloan said an incident halfway across the country can set police-community relations back everywhere, and, "you end up having to take responsibility for other people's actions."
Once Freddie Gray died in Baltimore, Sloan said, the public's animosity toward police became increasingly worse, with people often yelling profanities at his police cruiser while he and other officers were out on patrol.
"Ninety percent of (police) interactions with the public are negative. It just takes time — there's no way to fix it," he said. "You go out in the community and meet new people — talk to them — and they realize you're different."
Copyright 2015 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review