Spontaneous Shrines

"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics…They are, I believe, the voice of the people." –Jack Santino

Archive for the tag “social justice”

Fire that sparked a movement: Uniting in memoriam of the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Sunday, March 25, 2012 marks the 101st anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, one of the worst industrial tragedies in history.

A fire possibly ignited by a discarded match or cigarette on the 8th floor of the factory caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly young women and girls.  After the fire bell rang, many workers were unable to get out of the building due to locked exit doors, narrow hallways, overcrowding, and collapsed fire escapes.  As a result, over 40 of them jumped from 8th, 9th, and 10th story windows while many more remained trapped inside.

The incident galvanized support for labor movements and unions as people united to fight for a worker’s right to safe working conditions.

Yesterday, a crowd gathered at Gould Plaza in Lower Manhattan to take part in the annual Procession of 146 Shirtwaists to honor those who lost their lives 101 years ago:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The procession went from the plaza to NYU’s Brown building, formerly the Asch building, on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street which historically housed the Triangle Waist Factory.  There were performers:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…and people carrying shirtwaists with sashes bearing the names of the deceased:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Some of the people in the procession were carrying photos of the workers who died in the fire:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

A few of these photo-bearers are related to the workers whose images they carry.  Davin Fortuna is the great-great-grand nephew of Daisy Lopez Fitze, who was 26 when she perished in the fire.  He is pictured here with his wife, Carolyn Asselta-Fortuna and their photo of Daisy:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

When the procession reached its destination, it was met by a crowd comprising labor organizers, members of Workers United, the AFL-CIO, and many more including the Jewish Labor Committee:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

There were speakers from these various organizations, along with one woman who spoke about the unsafe and unethical working conditions in the Queens, NY laundry where she is employed.  She spoke only in Spanish, with a translator by her side, and called for everyone in the audience to hear her cry for help and stand with the laundry workers to demand better treatment.

Although this is not a spontaneous shrine, it is perhaps the perfect example of memorialization for social justice.  I believe it is important to look at memorialization practices outside of the realm of spontaneous shrines to better understand the shrines and this culture of memorialization from which they stem.

People gather here, on this “sacred ground,” to mourn the deaths of others and demand change for the future.  The sacred space is carved out of normal space, hallowed by the blood spilled on the ground and the ghosts in the walls–and the ritual is performed by the participants.  It begins with the ritual raising of the fire ladder:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The names of the dead are read one by one, in an organized fashion.  One flower is placed by the building for each name:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

A bell is sounded for each name; the sound rings clear through the air, jarring each person to attention, carving out the aural space, and carrying the name with it to the dead:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The memorial is personal–for each of the people it is commemorating:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Like many of these community memorializations–and the majority of spontaneous shrines, I believe–while the people to whom the memorials are dedicated may have been of a particular religion, within the space of the ‘memorial ritual’ there are no specific religious practices required and diverse religious and cultural practices are welcomed and accepted, so long as they are done with respect:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The shrines and rituals stand somewhat outside of religion, although they are tied inextricably to it at the same time.  The important idea behind these memorials is to not forget, so although different people will remember and honor in different ways, so long as the tragedy does not fade into history and its lessons are not forgotten, everyone is invited to mourn the past and work together for a better future.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

For those of you in the New York City area, tomorrow (March 25th–the actual 101st anniversary) the names of the workers will be chalked outside of their historic homes which are located throughout the 5 boroughs and New Jersey.  For more information about the chalking project, click here.  Additionally, everyone is invited to ring a bell at 4:45 pm (16:45) EST, to commemorate the sounding of the first fire bell.

Skittles, iced tea, and 1,000,000 hoodies for Trayvon Martin

On March 21, 2012,  I went  to Union Square in New York City where thousands of protesters had gathered for the Million Hoodie March in honor of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch member in Sanford, Florida on February 26.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

The majority of protesters were wearing “hoodies” or sweatshirts with hoods which they had pulled up over their heads:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

Many of the protesters were carrying bags of Skittles:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

…while others carried bottles of Arizona iced tea:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

It was reported that Martin was wearing a hoodie and walking home from a convenience store where he had bought Skittles and iced tea when he was shot.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

This particular incident has sparked outrage across the country due to the possible racial profiling involved in the lack of action taken by local police to prosecute Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman.  It does not surprise me that such a large protest would take place on the streets of New York.  This city is often at the forefront of social movements and with a substantial #Occupy contingent supporting the march, the large turnout was to be expected.

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

However, as someone fascinated by spontaneous memorialization practices, I was drawn to this march in particular because of how it was dressed.

If I were at a spontaneous shrine for Trayvon Martin, I would expect to find the usual teddy bears, flowers, and candles alongside certain objects specifically for Martin and his particular death.  There might be sweatshirts but I am almost certain there would be Skittles and iced tea.  Like the shrine for Amy Winehouse where there were bottles of alcohol and cigarettes, the shrine for Martin would have objects people associate with him.

As this was a memorial march [not just a political one], I believe the protesters’ decision to wear and carry these Martin-specific items makes this a mobile shrine of sorts.  Like an internet memorial that can be accessed by anyone–even someone far away from a death site–a memorial march/protest creates a memorial space [and place to grieve] that is accessible to these memorializers.  It serves the same purpose as any other spontaneous shrine; it calls attention to the circumstances that led to this person’s death and force onlookers to bear witness to the consequences.

As memento mori, these hooded people walking the streets of New York at night ask us all to consider the question:

Photo by Shady Grove Oliver

To see more of my photos from the Million Hoodie March, click here,  here or here.  To sign the petition written by Martin’s family calling for the prosecution of his shooter, George Zimmerman, click here.

The vanished ghost bikes of Harlem

I’m looking for ghost bikes near Harlem.  I take the subway to 145th Street and St. Nicholas, in an area known as Hamilton Heights.  When I leave the station, I walk east on 145th, past Edgecombe and Bradhurst.  The sidewalk is crowded with people.  It smells like incense and Christmas trees from the pirated CD and holiday vendors lined up along the curb.  At the corner of W. 145th and Frederick Douglass, I start my search for the ghost bike of Jamel Lewis, who was hit and killed by a sanitation truck on November 30, 2006, at age 21.  According to the ghost bikes website, his death was not reported in the news despite the fact that there were journalists called to the scene.  A local photographer told the ghost bikes organization about Jamel Lewis, not wanting his death to be forgotten.  I walk south on F.D. to 144th, cross to the west side of 145 near the cigarette shop with the old men outside, go north on F.D. to 146th, cross and head back down the intersection.  On the southwest corner, there is a halal food cart with a man scraping meat off the hot cooking shelf.  I ask him if he’s ever seen a spray-painted white bicycle chained up in the neighborhood–a memorial for a young man killed in an accident a few years ago.  He thinks about it for a few moments and says he’s sorry but he can’t help.  I do one final sweep of the area and find nothing.

I decide to move on to the second bike on my list, a Manhattanville memorial located on W. 133rd and Amsterdam, for 21 year old Juan Espinoza-Navarette, who died when his bike was pushed into traffic by a stranger who had been chasing him.  I walk west on 145th and turn south on Amsterdam.  The turn takes me from a bustling shopping area to more sparsely populated avenue, wide and empty.  There are very few shops lining the sidewalk, and no street vendors.  Elderly men sit smoking and chatting in groups on the stoops of the immense apartments on either side of the road.  To my right is one of the city’s housing projects, a collection of towering red brick buildings with rows of tiny windows.  The projects fill an entire city block and are completely encircled by a short, black wrought iron fence.  I walk past a park, with men playing chess in the middle of a curious crowd, and a large soccer field filled with CUNY students playing football.  After the parks the street becomes very still; the few people standing on the corners watch me as I pass.  P.S. 161 is on the corner of 133rd and Amsterdam, along with a few parked cars and short, scrawny trees supported by stakes shoved in the dry dirt.  A teenage boy with baggy pants and a sideways baseball cap has been staring at me for a while.  He yells something unpleasant in my direction as he watches me circle around the block in search of the bike.  Once again, there is nothing to be found.

A few days go, I read a comment left on the blog of a photographer friend of mine, A. Jesse Jiryu Davis, who had posted a bit about shrines.  The commenter says, “In fact, our culture seems rife with memorials, and I often wonder if it’s not healthier to let our disasters recede into the mists of time rather than erect monuments to them.”  I went in search of ghost bikes that had vanished like ghosts.  I began to think about the temporality of these spontaneous shrines.

The words used to describe these shrines allude to their impermanence–they are “spontaneous” and “makeshift.”  They seem to stand as the grassroots memorials within a much larger culture of memorialization that includes such monumental structures as the markers of Gettysburg and the new 9/11 Memorial.  These massive, permanent, and often stone monuments honor those who died as heroes of/for their country.  They are memorialized as such, which sets their deaths, the reasons for their deaths, and the way in which their deaths are remembered/placed in the national psyche, likewise in stone.  These heroes died for a reason, a country, and a cause.  They did not die in vain–they died necessary deaths–either on the battlefield fighting for freedom, or because they stood in the way of another who would take that freedom, so to speak.

Spontaneous shrines, as memorials erected by a community for a loved one it has lost, stand in contrast to the memorials of the state.  They commemorate the unnecessary deaths–the deaths of people who should not have died.  By focusing on the death of an individual, rather than a death [or several deaths] and its place within a larger national/political narrative, spontaneous shrines serve to de-heroicize the story of death, not out of disrespect, but to challenge the status quo in a way that rigid stone monoliths cannot.  When a death is memorialized as not heroic, not for a cause, not for a state, and not for any reason other than drunk driver/unsafe road conditions/high gang activity, etc, it allows room for individuality, dialogue, and change.  When a death is trapped and sealed by stone into an unbending narrative of heroism and purpose, the individuality of the person is overshadowed, there is no room for a different story to be told, and it is fixed firmly in a time and place.  When deaths are remembered as unnecessary, they can be seen as preventable, and steps can be taken to stop the same kind of thing from happening again.

Because spontaneous shrines tend not to be so fixed, they may disappear over time, like the bikes I tried to find.  By continuously disappearing and popping up across the landscape in locations they should not be and are not expected, they de-stabilize the way things normally are–thereby challenging those who see them to stop and think.  Especially in cases of organized makeshift memorialization, such as the ghost bike movement, viewers are familiarized with an image (the white bicycle) that becomes easily recognizable, but they are surprised by the unpredictability of the bikes’ locations.  Unlike with stone monuments in fixed positions, people do not know when or where they will pass a ghost bike–unless they frequently pass a single bike, in which case they do not know when they will stop seeing it there.  The ghost bikes, while still conveying a sense of connectedness among bicycle fatalities (as a type of preventable death), the important thing is that they stand as markers for unique people and respect the need to recognize each death individually.

Memorials, murders, and the last post of Nic B.

While I was searching google for “makeshift memorials” today, which I frequently do to keep abreast of any new stories that might come up, I came across the website entitled Oakland Makeshift Memorials 2007.  Although the blogger decided to stop posting at the end of that year, I found the project to be insightful and thought-provoking.

I am fascinated by the intersection of spontaneous shrines and social justice, and believe memorials can be a useful tool for protest and community organization.  However, I had not really considered the documentation of shrines to be equally as powerful.  Whereas the shrines themselves call attention to individual deaths, the collection and documentation of shrines shines a light on the number and incessancy of those deaths.  When the documentation is done in a manner that respects the individuality of the shrines [such as this site, which lists the names of the deceased, along with some known personal details], it provides an interesting coming together of the unique personal nature of a shrine with the power and relentlessness of sheer quantity.

What Nic B. has accomplished in the Oakland Memorials blog is in providing a space for a community to come together and speak back to the shrines and with the shrines.  The project provides a web that links the shrines to one another without overshadowing their distinctiveness from one another.

However, I do have a few things I am still wondering about.  Nic B. has a clear goal in mind when documenting the shrines–to call attention to the reasons behind the deaths with the hopes of changing the environment that allows them to occur.  Does this serve to overtake the voices of the individual shrines–by using them as a means to an end, that may not be clearly stated by the shrines themselves?  Does being part of the public landscape invite and perhaps even condone this use?  I wonder.

With that, I’ll leave you to the final post of Nic B–

“Dear all-
I’m both saddened and relieved to say that I will not be continuing this project in 2008.
It has taken its toll on me in a number of ways, the worse being that I’ve caught myself feeling more sorry for the fact I had to go visit yet another homicide site than for the fact that another human life, dear to many, was lost.
As some of my readers have commented, this is one of the saddest consequences of these homicides: they become acceptable, routine, just an unfortunate ongoing phenomenon.
I so appreciate all those who have posted comments, reminding us that these victims were part of others’ lives. All human life is inherently sacred and valuable, and any loss, especially by violence, is unbearably tragic.
Here’s wishing 2008 sees us being more committed to addressing the issues that create the environment where such violence occurs.
Nic B”

Occupy Oakland: A shrine for USMC vet Scott Olsen

On October 25th, 2011, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Scott Olsen was injured in a conflict with police at the Occupy Oakland movement (a northern California affiliate of Occupy Wall Street).  Shortly thereafter, a shrine was erected to recognize his injury.

Spontaneous shrines are most often erected at the location a person has died.  Especially when the death is of a prominent public figure, the shrines are also often located where the person lived or spent most of her or his time.  For example, in the case of Princess Diana’s death, shrines were erected both near the tunnel in Paris where her car crash occurred and at the palaces of the royal family in the U.K.

Although many death-site shrines are created by family members and close acquaintances of the deceased, certain deaths call for a more participatory or public response.  One of the most fascinating and moving shrines I’ve ever seen was located in Potsdam, Germany following the fatal beating of an Ethiopian-German man.  The attack sparked extreme controversy over post-WWII identity, racism, and neo-Nazism in Germany (more about this shrine to come in a later post).  Particularly when a death is highly controversial or socially unsettling, the resulting shrine tends to be a community affair, rather than being left to the family.  Because the death itself demands a response from the community, the shrine may becomes the forum for that response, allowing people to come together and speak out.

This shrine for Scott Olsen is very interesting for a number of reasons.  News of his injury (he was hit in the face by a “projectile,” possibly a tear gas canister) went viral almost immediately.  His status as a USMC veteran of the Iraq War makes his injury a potentially controversial issue.  Not only does it bring to light the occasionally violent outcomes of the clashes between police and protesters, it also highlights the diversity of the protesters.  His injury was taken up by certain protesters as a poster case of police violence– not only are people getting hurt, veterans are getting hurt.  Others not  involved with the protests have branded his injury an unfortunate outcome of anti-American activities– he was patriotic, and now he is not, so this is what happens.

The shrine has become one of the rallying spots for the movement in support of Olsen.  There are dozens of votive candles, photos of Olsen, pro-vet posters, and flowers.  One of the unique features is the series of posters calling for people to contribute money to a fund helping to pay for Olsen’s hospital bills.  The shrine is not for a death, but for a life, perhaps not even so much for a person, but for an event, for an injury…

Several videos of the shrine have been posted on youtube, photos of the shrine have appeared on several tumblr and flickr feeds, and the incident has been featured in the headlines of numerous papers including the Washington Post, the U.K. paper The Guardian, and the Huffington Post.  There are several Scott Olsen Facebook pages including Scott OlsenWe are all Scott Olsen, and For Scott Olsen.

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"We who build shrines and construct public altars or parade with photographs of the deceased will not allow you to write off victims as regrettable statistics...They are, I believe, the voice of the people." --Jack Santino


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