In Georgetown, Artist chukwumaa Mistaken for Navy Yard Shooter
On Monday afternoon, about two hours after Aaron Alexis allegedly began his shooting rampage at the Navy Yard in Southeast D.C., performance artist Wilmer Wilson IV was just beginning an hours-long walk from Ward 7's Marvin Gaye Park to the Georgetown waterfront. For the walk, Wilson brought a ladder, alternating between holding it and carrying it on his back. Periodically, he would stop at certain points, climb the ladder, then scratch off lottery tickets. The piece, which toys with ideas about class and upward mobility, was a performance for "Faust in the City," his show that opened last weekend at Connersmith gallery.
He was joined by his two friends, the Upper Marlboro-based artist chukwumaa, and Bloomingdale photographer E. Jane, both 23, who trailed him in chukwumaa's Ford Explorer, documenting the performance. (Both chukwumaa and E. Jane asked that they be referred to by their professional names.) After several hours of walking, Wilson reached his destination at the Georgetown waterfront. There, he scratched his final lottery ticket. E. Jane photographed him with the Potomac River in the background. "It was actually kind of beautiful...that final setting," chukwumaa says.
The crew wrapped around 2:30 p.m. and began walking to chukwumaa's SUV, parked on a nearby street. They hopped in and started to drive off, en route to Columbia Heights, where they planned to debrief. That's when they noticed the police vehicle following them.
A Metropolitan Police Department officer flashed his lights and signaled something with his hand, Jane says. "I think he is pulling us over," she said to her friends. chukwumaa stopped the car. Jane says she wasn't sure what to do next—get out of the car? She'd seen people do that in movies, so she got out. But the cop ordered her to get back in. She did. chukwumaa says the cop barked more instructions over a loudspeaker, and everybody stuck their hands out of the windows. The officer eventually approached the Explorer on the passenger's side, where an increasingly panicked Jane was sitting, and told the artists he was responding to a phone call from someone who claimed they'd seen a "suspicious-looking black man in an Army jacket" at the waterfront—someone who fit the description of the Navy Yard shooter.
chukwumaa, who is black with a closely shaved head, was wearing an Army jacket. He could have been mistaken for Alexis (who had died earlier that day), or perhaps another person of interest described as a black man in his 40s or 50s with gray sideburns. Though fresh-faced chukwumaa hardly looked that age.
It didn't seem to matter; someone had called the police on him anyway. In the car, Jane blurted out, "This is because we're black." She started to cry. "I didn't know what to do, and I was afraid, on so many levels," she says. Wilson managed to shoot an iPhone photo of the police vehicle that pulled them over. Then several more police vehicles arrived, one of them blocking in chukwumaa's car from the front.
But when he got a good look at him, the police officer seemed to relax, chukwumaa says. The officer—whom chukwumaa describes as "racially ambiguous" but white-passing—assured the artists that this was standard procedure. He asked for their IDs, and whether they had any weapons in the car. They explained that they were artists, and Wilson was completing a performance for a show at Connersmith gallery. A black officer on the scene, perhaps in an attempt to put them all at ease, chatted them up, relating his own anecdote about being racially profiled in Georgetown, where he lives. (A staffer at MPD's Public Information Office had no record of the event, and Lt. John Hedgecock at MPD's PSA 206—a district includes the Georgetown waterfront area—did not immediately return requests for comment. Update, 12:47 p.m.: Hedgecock writes in an email that he was at Navy Yard at the time and has no information pertaining to the incident.)
Amid all of this, the group looked up and spotted a guy with a professional-looking video camera filming them through the windshield. That pissed Jane off. He looked like "some smug guy with a camera, right up in front of the car like he was capturing the D.C. shooter," she says. "I was livid." Jane flipped him off.
Throughout it all, says Jane, both Wilson and chukwumaa seemed calm—at least compared to her. "They had more sense than I did," she says. At the time, she thought crying would help; a hysterical woman might flip a switch for the police officers. That's the "privilege of being a woman in this situation," she says. Being female, she reasoned, means "they're not gonna shoot me first, they're not gonna arrest me first." chukwumaa thought the opposite, he says—if he made any sudden movements, the situation could escalate quickly, even fatally. His parents—immigrants from Nigeria—taught him at a young age how to deal with police. It was "survival information," he says. When dealing with cops, he tries "not make myself threatening," he says, or give them attitude. "I can't be indignant and be like, 'Sir, I'm late to a meeting. Why are you stopping me?'"
After a line of questioning, the police finally let them go on their way, and the trio continued to Columbia Heights. But the cops had some advice for chukwumaa: Don't wear that Army jacket.
chukwumaa doesn't seem shocked that he was singled out; he sounds somewhat resigned to it, in an academic way. His work deals with similar issues. "I make systemic structure art," he says. "Art that foregrounds that there are these weird systems in place that make the same world that everyone shares operate differently depending on who you are," he says. One of his recent performances, "Thee Urban(e)" at Transformer, addressed perceptions of seemingly educated vs. uneducated black men. In his work, he perched in the tiny gallery's window, wearing a nice vest and ripping apart academic texts. But in his day-to-day life, he says he looks at racial profiling similar to how some people look at airport security: It just is. "Either you participate and you deal with it, or you don't participate and you deal with it," he says.
The day of Wilson's performance, chukwumaa hadn't been closely following the Navy Yard rampage. He was intentionally tuning it out, in fact, to try to focus on the project. But when he saw Alexis' mugshot later on, he flipped out a little bit. He does look a lot like the deceased shooter, he says. "It really freaked me out because it very closely resembled my face," he says. Seeing Alexis presented "a bit of a doppelganger experience," he says, "except he was presumably dead and I was definitely alive."
chukwumaa, meanwhile, is seriously considering the police officers' advice about his Army jacket. His parents don't like the jacket, either, for other reasons—it reminds them of revolutionaries, specifically ones who die violently. For chukwumaa, the jacket is just for style. But now he's thinking about it differently, though he acknowledges his reasons for doing so are deeply fraught. "That fashion statement or whatever is not worth your life," he says. "I'm probably just gonna dye the jacket black now."
Image courtesy Transformer