Trayvon Martin protest: Photography student Kit Sinclair embeds himself on the front lines of the battle for justice

We first glimpsed the images above by chance, as Photography instructor Tony Di Zinno and student Kit Sinclair were reviewing the project in the cafeteria at South Campus. We were immediately struck by the bold and viscerally affecting quality of the shots Sinclair captured while attending a protest the night the Trayvon Martin verdict was rendered. Sinclair had been working closely with Di Zinno, a renowned sports photographer, in a class entitled, Project Photo: Sport, which focuses on navigating the intersection of sports, politics and art. “The culture of sport relates to conflict in many ways,” explains Di Zinno. “The Olympics are a thing of beauty – but also form of surrogate warfare. In this class we reflect on how examples of how sport acts as a mirror in reflecting ourselves as societies. We examine seminal figures like Mohammed Ali whose iconic LIFE magazine image by civil rights photographer Flip Schulke is featured on the profile of our Art Center-Sports class facebook page. Kit’s protest coverage was squarely in the tradition of the concerned photographer. We see in his images moments reminiscent of Sixties symbols of protest – which led in turn to class discussions of  visual literacy and image as art reference in terms of a so-called ‘black power’ salute by Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the 200m medal stand in the ’68 Olympic games.” 

“The larger point to me as an educator is to support these emerging artists,” continues Di Zinno, who co-teaches the class with Andy Bernstein, who shoots for the NBA and NHL. We are reminded by Kit’s work not to be too isolated in our silos of higher learning. But to realize that we are all indeed citizens and participants… and to learn to apply critical thinking. To dare and go see for ourselves. To take time to consider and deliberate in how to apply what we learned. Perhaps,most importantly – to share what we did learn with others.”

In the above gallery and blog post below, Sinclair incorporates each of these strands into a series of arresting photographs, that simultaneously call out for our attention and compassion.

These images were taken on the night July 15th, shortly after the George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second degree murder charges in the Trayvon Martin case. The outraged public gathered to protest the verdict peacefully in different locations around Los Angeles as a response to the decision to acquit Zimmerman.  As my roommate, Eddie Medrano, and I got home from a day of classes we’re both Art Center photography students, we started to see news clips of protesters earlier walking onto the 110 Highway stopping traffic. The police report said that no civilians were arrested in the incident because everything the people were doing was within their rights as citizens. As the night progressed the coverage started to diminish and only repeated the earlier coverage. This seemed strange because we heard sirens going off all over downtown LA and helicopters hovering above us.

We had a hunch, after photographing the final days of Occupy LA, that things were just getting started for the police. So we decided to pack up some cameras and get out and see what was really happening. We first headed in the direction of the earlier news reports and found small mellow groups of people holding signs and getting honks from bypassing drivers. After talking to some of the protesters, we heard of a large gathering of people walking down Sunset Blvd., we set off right away. We immediately saw helicopters hovering and circling in the distance. When we arrived we parked a couple streets away and started to walk closer to Sunset, which was being blocked off from both ends to cars and onlookers (photo 1). The police were pushing back the pedestrians that had started to gather and watch the scene. Eddie and I walked around a couple buildings and came out behind the CNN building, ironically enough, into the largest group of protesters. Signs were being held high and people were walking in groups chanting, showing their disgust with the verdict.

After around twenty minutes of relative calm, police began to break up the largest group of protesters, pushing them off of Sunset onto smaller streets such as Cahuenga. The officers then regrouped and formed another front across the road. And then: BANG! Everyone started to scream and run, the police had shot one of the protesters with a sandbag shotgun and ran to tackle him (photos 9-15). After the first shot, the officers became very aggressive with their maneuvers, flanking the tackled protester and handcuffing him. Energy was high; protesters were yelling and screaming.  The line of officers blocking the road kept moving forward toward the protesters, yelling through their bullhorn: “This is an unlawful gathering of people and those who don’t disperse will be apprehended.”

I was standing just feet from the first protester to get shot and tackled. I was thinking, ‘This is the closest to war that I’ve ever been.  I can’t believe I’m standing in the middle of LA and police are shooting people with sandbags.  Other people have to see this. I cannot leave without capturing what’s going on here.’ From then on I just tried to be as close to the action as I could, trying to photograph the insanity going on in our backyard.

More shots rang out in the streets and other seemingly innocent protesters dropped and police ran in and tackled their suspects, using the same technique of surrounding the victim and then setting up an even closer line (photo 16). They did this until they all just started to walk forward and fire on anyone that wasn’t retreating, even if their hands were in the air. This is when it got scary and people started to scream and run down the block as fast as they could, including me (photo 17).

I could not have imagined how contradictory the news reporting was from the actual situation I found on the streets.  Earlier in the afternoon, the reporting had described as winding down and dispersing. This did not match what I experienced on Sunset. And when I arrived home the news had no coverage of the arrests made or how the officers broke up the crowd using force. The photographs above represent what was a very powerful and eye-opening experience of the difference between the coverage we’re fed on the news and the reality on the streets.

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