To commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The New Yorker released a cover this week displaying the famed civil rights activist alongside Eric Garner–killed extrajudicially via illegal chokehold–and deceased New York City police officer Wenjian Liu, who was fatally shot in December. The three men, shown with locked arms at the front lines of a march, were displayed in front of shooting victims Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, who appear in the second line.
Now, let’s be real about it. The magazine cover is questionable, to say the very least. From the placement of a police officer among victims of state-sanctioned execution, to the camouflaging of Michael Brown–the only person of the five men painted to blend into the background–its clear that this perception of race relations in America is wildly misguided. An aim for empowerment and reconciliation missed the mark, instead landing in the minefields of We Are The World-esque thinking.
In a statement describing his inspiration for the cover, cartoonist Barry Blitt said, “In New York and elsewhere, the tension between the police and the policed is at the center of things. Like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, Martin Luther King was taken way too early. It is hard to believe things would have got as bad as they are if he was still around today.”
…Nah. We have questions.
1) Why make the grandiose statement that “things” wouldn’t be as bad if MLK’s life were spared when bigotry and his anti-racism work facilitated his murder? This projection of a peaceful country by means of one person ignores our history of racist institutions and the work required to deconstruct them.
2) How does the random killing of a police officer fall into line with the narrative of racial justice? While his death was tragic and senseless, the image as a whole steers the attention away from the movement by decentralizing the victims. This is an active form of erasure.
3) Why are the faces of police brutality and injustice limited to high profile cases of recent years? The murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin will always be heartbreaking and deserving of attention, but the fact remains that they do not represent all who are targeted, harassed and killed by law enforcement. The exclusion of women, the disabled and LGBTQ+ people of color, coupled with the strict use of newsworthy names, make this “effort” simultaneously disingenuous and lazy.
Twitter users took to the hashtag #AskTheNewYorker to question the intentions of the publication and its approval of the problematic image. Created by activist Deray McKesson, the hashtag prompted queries about Officer Liu’s inclusion on the cover, the monolithic skin tone used to depict men of varying shades, the “what if” theory shared by Blitt and much more.
In short, The New Yorker cover is #AllLivesMatter rhetoric in cartoon form; a train wreck that could have been avoided if, for the 9037503540th time, allies would stop and listen to the marginalized and oppressed.