The IMPD shooting of 15-year-old Andre Green really got me down last week. Whatever mistakes Green may have made that precipitated the horrifying turn of events that cost him his life, the fact remains that a child's existence was violently ended by our own public servants, on our own city streets. For me this incident represents a tragedy of significant magnitude, a sign that something is terribly wrong within the social structure of Indianapolis.
During the lifespan of this column I question often what role the arts can have in interacting with the sort of social issues that are present within the case of Andre Green. In the dozens of interviews I've conducted with artists and cultural figures, I repeatedly pose that question. I've discussed the relationship between art and social justice with everyone from Chuck D of Public Enemy to the Black Panther Party's co-founder Bobby Seale.
As much as I've meditated on this idea and as much as I've personally worked to meld social justice work into my own artistic practices, my thoughts often remain doubtful regarding the efficacy of art to spur meaningful social change. But one aspect of this question that I'm absolutely certain of is the irrepressible need for artists to express their voices on social issues — even when their opinions may be in direct opposition with conventional thought. We expect artists to show a keen sensitivity for beauty in their work. But with that expectation we should also be prepared for artists to hold a similar sensitivity to forces of darkness, injustice and brutality.
I didn't want to write about Andre Green. I knew that any message of empathy I might express for the life of the troubled youth would likely elicit waves of angry push-back from that segment of our society who believes an individual forfeits their humanity the moment they commit a criminal act. Even if that individual is a child.
But I could not prevent thoughts of this child's tragic young life from haunting my conscience, particularly in light of all the misguided efforts to heap dirt on the child's name from those defending the police action. It would've been much simpler for me this week to have published an interview with one of the many talented Indianapolis musicians I admire, but my artistic impulses refused to comply.
I can imagine that's how Stevie Wonder felt when he took the stage at Market Square Arena on the night of Thursday, November 20, 1980. Wonder was visiting Indianapolis as part of his Hotter Than July tour, a run that was politically motivated from its inception. At that time, Wonder was one of the louder and more visible figures in the campaign to recognize the birthdate of Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday. He had just written and recorded "Happy Birthday" which became an unofficial anthem for the movement and he visualized the tour as a vehicle to take his message directly to the people.
Wonder's visit to Indianapolis coincided with an unfolding local civil rights crisis. Just a few weeks prior to the concert on November 4, an unarmed 15-year-old black teenager named Michael Smith was shot in the back and killed by a police officer. Smith had allegedly been near the scene of an attempted robbery and ignored an officer's order to halt. The incident made national news and sparked vigorous protests locally.
While onstage at Market Square Arena, Wonder attempted to pay respect to the recently killed teen. The headline of an article written by Lynn Ford in the November 29, 1980 edition of The Indianapolis Recorder aptly sums up the Indianapolis audience's response: "Wonder's tribute to slain 15-year-old marred by protests." The article states that Wonder told the crowd of 10,000 that he'd "like to take one moment in memory and respect to the 15-year-old boy that was shot by the police.” But according to the Recorder's account, Wonder's request for silence was met with howls of protest. Wonder is undoubtedly one of the most beloved artists of the last century, but it seems there was nothing he could say to elicit empathy from the hostile segments of his Indianapolis fan-base.
Of course there's nothing I can write in this column that will change the fate of Andre Green. And likely there's nothing I could write to change anyone's opinion on the whole sad ordeal, but that reality doesn't negate my personal desire to pay respect to Green.
A series of news stories on Green's early life have indicated that the crippling poverty of Indianapolis may have had a devastating impact on his development. Collectively, we can change the conditions of poverty that crushed Green's young life and I believe we have a moral obligation to do so. According to figures recently released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Indiana ranks as the 32nd worst state in the nation for overall child well-being. The same study indicates that 345,000 Hoosier children live in poverty with 12 percent of all Indiana children living in high-poverty areas. That figure has increased by 8 percent since 2008.
We know virtually nothing of this child's life outside the sensational headlines that documented his troubled past. Likely this is how many Hoosiers will remember Green, if they remember him at all. But when I remember this child's tragic life, I'll remember the words of his 19-year-old sister Terika as captured in an Indy Star video report last week. Andre "was not a person to hold grudges," Terika remembered. "He'd say 'I love you, give me a hug.' That was his favorite word [sic], 'Give me a hug."
In the words of Stevie Wonder on his 1980 visit to Indianapolis I'd "like to take one moment in memory and respect to the 15-year-old boy that was shot by the police".