The Fire This Time “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau Summary
by Jesmyn Ward

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“Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau Summary

The weekend after the Charleston, South Carolina, church murders in June 2015, Raboteau takes her two small children on an outing from their home in Upper Manhattan to walk across the recently refurbished High Bridge, which was famous when it was built but has been closed for decades. The bridge’s restoration and reopening to pedestrians seems a “miraculous” civic accomplishment and a nice way to spend a family Saturday afternoon while Raboteau and her husband are in the process of figuring out the right time to talk to their two- and four-year-old about matters of race and the police. It’s a hot day, and after walking much of the way, Raboteau’s four-year-old son refuses to go any further. He throws a tantrum, which disturbs his parents mostly because they understand that such a defiant attitude in the “ghetto” where he lives could get him killed someday.

When they arrive at the bridge entrance, they are met by a charming old man with a European accent who seems to be there in order to ensure that the visitors are sufficiently impressed by the marvel of the bridge and informed about its history. After crossing, the family returns home to Washington Heights, and on the way, Raboteau sees a mural on a laundromat wall that she never noticed before. With cartoon panels and Spanish-language captions, the mural depicts a variety of common street-level interactions between citizens and police, along with basic legal advice about constitutional rights. The title of the piece, “Know Your Rights!” is written in big block letters. The mural strikes Raboteau as “an act of love for the people who would pass it,” because aside from functioning as a means of protection from unjust law enforcement, it also “reclaims” blighted space in a way both aesthetically pleasing and empowering.

After some online research, Raboteau discovers that the mural is part of a city-wide series commissioned by a network of grassroots social justice organizations advocating for police accountability in the poor neighborhoods with the highest rates of police misconduct. They appear in every New York City borough except Staten Island, where many police officers live. Raboteau is inspired to document as many of the murals as she can over the next few months, beginning with the one near her house, which she photographs with a young man passing and talking on his cell phone.

The second mural she photographs is in Harlem, with a foregrounded figure holding a bullhorn and, in English, captions explaining how to respond to police during a stop-and-frisk. This policing tactic arose as a response to the rising crime rates of the 1980s and 90s crack cocaine epidemic and overwhelmingly targeted young men of color. While linked to success in lowering New York City’s crime rates to record levels, stop-and-frisk policing is discriminatory and was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge who prohibited its use in 2013. Since then, crime rates in the city have stayed low, but the damage has already been done to foster continued mistrust between the police and poor citizens of color.

Raboteau’s third mural is in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood known for its many murals, which makes it hard for Raboteau to find the one she’s looking for. As with the first two, this mural encourages citizens to watch and record police activity, and features a large image of a face and hand whose index finger pulls at its lower eyelid in a “keep your eyes peeled” gesture. Raboteau’s photo of this mural also includes a young passerby on her phone, and as distracted and oblivious as the girl is to her surroundings, the phone also represents a weapon for equal justice and transparency in the context of the mural.

The fourth of Raboteau's photographs is in Long Island City, Queens, across the street from a housing project, and is unique in being text-only, which makes its anti-harassment message even starker. The woman in the foreground of Raboteau’s...

(The entire section is 1,322 words.)