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Juggling Act: New Malice Green mural reminds us what's at stake amid protests

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Sydney G. James is tired.

The Detroit muralist was 13 when Malice Green died at the hands of Detroit police officers, beaten to death with heavy metal flashlights. Even as a young teen, James understood the magnitude and significance of Green's death.

"He was the symbol of the injustices and mistreatment of Black and Brown people in this country dating back centuries," said James in a social media post. 

And yet, 28 years after Green's death, people of color are still dying at the hands of some police officers. In the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, protesters of all colors and creeds have taken to the streets to condemn police brutality and demand change. In Detroit, Wednesday marked Day 13 of protests.

James, meanwhile, is using her craft as her form of protest. James, who primarily paints murals of African American women and whose work has been part of Eastern Market's Murals in the Market, wants to make sure people like Green, Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other people of color who've died at the hands of police aren't forgotten. 

People watch as a new Malice Green mural takes shape in Detroit. Artist Sydney James plans to have it done by Juneteenth, or June 19, the holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States.

"I wanted to paint this mural as a symbol -- a symbol that we’re tired but we’re not weak," said James. "We’re not standing for this anymore. There are too many of bodies."

Her mural, the Malice Green Mural Monument, is on the side of the Hamilton-Tucker Gallery, 16065 Hamilton Avenue, which is on the border of Detroit and Hamtramck (she co-owns the building). The original Malice Green by artist Bennie White was demolished several years ago when the building it was on was demolished.

In a matter of hours, a GoFundMe page for the new mural raised more than $18,000. The bulk, $10,000, will go toward the mural. The rest will go toward bail relief efforts in Metro Detroit, community resources for COVID-19 and other organizations dedicated to seeking justice and uplifting the black community, according to a press release.

Malice Green was at traffic stop outside a suspected crack house in 1992 when cops Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn fatally beat him with metal flashlights. Budzyn and Larry Nevers, who were both white, were convicted of involuntary manslaughter but only after they both had retrials.

James said she decided paint a new Green mural because she didn’t know until recently that White’s had been destroyed. Hers depicts Green painted as a statue, holding what looks like a scroll. On it, she’s painted the names of people who’ve died at the hand of police. Originally, she wanted to paint the names of every victim since she was born in 1979. There wasn’t enough room.

"There were more than 1,000 names in 2015 alone," said James. "...It’s crazy because there’s no real data (on how many people have died at the hands of police). They don’t want it all in one place. If it was all in place, it’s disgusting."

In a nod to White's original mural, James painted a black tear down Green's cheek. She met White this week and called the experience "humbling."

"That represented the black tears of all of us," she said. 

James' goal is to unveil the mural with an official ceremony on Juneteenth, or June 19, the holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States. And she applauds the protests that are happening. She hopes they continue until real change happens.

"This is my form of protest," she said.