Anonymous Boston strikes a chord on urban violence
The cheerful smiles of Eyanna Flonory and Amani Smith beam down from a large portrait of the mother and son mounted on the wall.
Their bright faces are visible from the street outside through the big picture windows of Fenway art gallery The Fourth Wall Project.
What can’t be seen from the street — what’s missing from the wall altogether — are the faces of the people who posted anonymous, hate-filled comments about the young family shortly after their deaths.
Flonory, Smith and two others were murdered outside their home in September 2010. Dubbed the “Mattapan Massacre,” the mainstream media provided exhaustive coverage of the incident. And with every new article, the number of anonymous comments increased and became more and more malicious.
“I read [the] comments … and I was like, how could you possibly say that about anyone, let alone a 2-year-old?,” said Joanna Marinova, a media arts activist.
“Disgusted” by the anonymous comments, Marinova decided to channel her anger into action.
After connecting with Dorchester-based, nonprofit Mothers for Equality and Justice, Marinova spent the next nine months building relationships with Boston families who’d lost a child to violence, listening to their stories and cobbling together writings and photos of the youth, their families and friends.
This November, she, with the support of local organizations and institutions including Press Pass TV, The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, The Boston Phoenix, The Museum of Fine Arts and StreetSafe Boston, gave birth to “Anonymous Boston: Words of Mass Destruction,” a two week exhibit meant to tear down the wall of anonymity that commenters hide behind and shed light on murdered youths’ lives — not just their deaths.
As much a memorial as it was an exposé on the role that the media plays in negative portrayals and stereotypes of urban youth and communities, the images and words on display were alternately beautiful and haunting, encouraging and disheartening.
One thing was certain: Anonymous Boston was unsettling, and that’s exactly how Marinova intended it.
“This exhibit wasn’t meant to make anyone feel comfortable,” she said. “… My goal is to shake you up to your roots so you can feel that we’re losing our real currency. Everybody’s talking about foreclosures, but our children are our real currency,” she said.
Life-sized portraits of murdered youth — some smiling, some looking more serious — consumed the the gallery’s stark white walls, while their writings — some from essays and job applications, others taken from letters and poems, flanked the walls beside their images.
Their words painted a picture of young lives full of promise.
“Ironically, many of these young people wrote incredible works on peace and community before they died,” Marinova said. “There are messages in these lives that we’re missing because we’re not listening. I know that if we heard some of these stories a little more, things would be different, because really, the journey begins when that coffin closes, for many of these families.”
While grieving and healing are certainly part of that journey, having the opportunity to tell the true story of their loved one’s life can be an essential for families of murder victims. Throughout the exhibit, placards next to each child’s photo document their parents’ thoughts and feelings about the sadness, anger and confusion of their loss and the urgent need to stop more youth from dying.
In one part of the exhibit, the words “What Is Beautiful Never Dies” emblazoned the top of a wall. Below the affirmation, fourteen framed family portraits, images captured by artist/activist and Banner photographer Ernesto “Erocc” Arroyo, are hung horizontally across the wall.
Seated in their family homes, relatives of the deceased hold a picture of the child, each family member’s face telling a different story about the loss. Beneath the portraits, the families speak in their own words.
“[Telling] the truth [about their child’s death] has liberated them from a lot of suffering that they’ve been under,” Marinova pointed out. “While they were going through their grief, they weren’t able to properly defend their children, and that’s a weight that they carried on their shoulders for a very long time.”
In another part of the exhibit, photocopied articles circle the floor around a platform that elevates three colorful, rubber-clad sneakers off the ground.
“A lot of their children’s bedrooms have been turned into real life memorials,” Marinova said, recalling her visits to the families’ homes throughout the process of curating the exhibit. “One of the things that struck me was the shoes, perfectly lined up in the corner.”
The sneakers, on loan from the victims’ families, not only a symbol of youth and street culture, but also represent “steps interrupted, a life interrupted,” said Marinova, and act as “an invitation to the viewer to take a walk in their shoes and … wear this burden.”
“This is about violence being everybody’s responsibility, regardless of whether you’re in a jail cell or a million dollar mansion,” she said. “It’s up to all of us, especially the media, because their role is to educate and inform …”
Instead, she said many media outlets profit from sensationalizing urban homicides while paying little attention to how their coverage exacerbates the pain of families coping with the loss of a loved one.
Education and dialogue were also essential parts of the exhibit. At the core of that was “If It Bleeds, It Leads: The Role of Media in Urban Violence,” a gathering where local media professionals from the city’s top media publications, including the Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, El Planeta and the Bay State Banner, and local residents impacted by the city’s violence discussed both moral and practical guidelines for covering homicide in the city.
When Shondell Davis first viewed the exhibit, she, like many others, was overwhelmed. Not long after she arrived, she had to leave. Seeing the youth’s faces, reading their stories, being in the presence of other grieving families — it was simply too much.
“I was crying when I was there, but I had to take that walk, I had to separate, I had to tell myself to breathe,” she said. “I knew this was coming, I was prepared for this for months, but seeing it was totally different.”
Davis agreed to participate in Anonymous Boston because she wanted to keep Johnny’s name alive. She said she eventually came to see the exhibit as “a comforting place.”
“When you go there, you’re with other people that know exactly how you feel. You don’t have to pretend, you don’t have to put on that mask,” she said.