(oil on canvas , 36 ins. x 72 ins.) (Interview 8/2015)
Alec went on to cofound the Denver Justice Project, " a coalition determined to achieve meaningful lasting improvement for people’s lives by transforming the criminal legal system."
Artist’s Notes (2015)
I started this painting in the summer of 2015. Alex Landau shared his story with me and many others about what happened to him when he was 19. A police stop for an alleged illegal left turn in 2009 left him near dead.
The police harassment blindsided him especially since his family has a long history of service in the Denver police department. Denver’s Westword News reported that once the police finally stopped the assault, one officer allegedly put the following question to Alex: ‘Where’s that warrant now, you fucking nigger?’ "
How have we come so far, and still not moved at all?
Police brutality is at the forefront of American life. I am disheartened to share that we have seen disturbing videos of black men being shot at close range. One while pinned down, Alton Sterling; the other, Philando Castile during a traffic stop. A heavily armed sniper retaliated by shooting Dallas police during a demonstration, leaving 5 officers dead and 9 injured.
Tensions are so high. We all wish the violence would stop.
In the spirit of finding resolution, I painted Alex Landau’s portrait before and after the police beating. I gave him Art As Social Inquiry’s microphone for him to tell his story his way (below).
Art As Social Inquiry’s mission is to look at problems deeply so that we can begin to understand them, and set ourselves on a path to solving our problems.
“Law enforcement is in a crisis,” Lt. Colonel Melvin Russell * said in a TEDx talk. Russell is a police veteran and chief of the Baltimore Police neighborhood outreach program. “We had to change it. And so what we did is we started to think holistically, and not paramilitarily. So we thought differently. And we started to realize that it could never be, and never should have been ‘us’ versus ‘them’.”
In 2009 the painting’s subject, Alex Landau, was the victim of police brutality, although no officers were charged with a crime. Alex brought a civil case against the Denver Police Department, and the City and County of Denver. He won one of the largest police brutality settlements in Denver’s history.
I went into hemorrhagic shock in the ambulance. I had refused treatment from the paramedics and the medical staff in the ER until photos could be taken.
Alex nearly died. He needed 45 stitches. He lists his injuries as a broken nose, concussion, orbital eye injury, brain injury, and PSTD. He entered the emergency room shackled at the ankles and wrists. Alex recounts. “They (the police) tried to get a statement. They told the ER people not to interfere. I wanted pictures taken.” In the ER, Alex yelled, “This is what happens to black people in Denver.”
The incident goes from a left turn into a fast food restaurant. To a car search (Alex’s passenger had marijuana in his pocket, and Alex did not have his driver’s license). To officers yelling, “ He’s reaching for a gun." To a brutal beating. Then a pistol to Alex’s head. Alex said “I could feel the cold steel pressed up against my temple. I closed my eyes and expected to be shot. I lost consciousness. “ Alex said he awoke face down in the gutter, spitting blood. He ran his tongue over his teeth to see if they were all there.
When Alex’s adoptive mom got to the hospital, she cried at the sight of her son. She grabbed a strange woman for solace, “Look what they did to my son!” Alex’s parents are white. In a recent interview, Alex shared that he never got “the talk” – how to handle himself as a black man in a society weighted toward white privilege.
No charges were brought against the officers. In 2015 Westward News reported. “In February, the Justice Department decided not to charge officers who beat Alex Landau to a pulp with federal civil rights violations. Then days later, a cop who pummeled him was reinstated at the conclusion of a separate excessive-force investigation. Additionally, Denver’s Manager of Safety also decided not to prosecute the officers in question."
Alex’s attorneys issued a strong response (link no longer valid). "Unbelievably, in their current zeal to protect the officers for beating Alex Landau senseless for asking for a warrant, Denver and the Manager of Safety, Alex Martinez, completely fail to discuss the huge and well known problem that Officer Nixon reported that there was a bloody handprint from Alex Landau on the webbing of Officer Middleton’s gun which she wiped away. From her filed Answer in Court, to her very clear deposition testimony, Officer Middleton profoundly impeached this report by swearing that there was no blood on her gun, that there was no bloody handprint from Mr. Landau’s hand on her gun, and that she destroyed no such evidence because it never existed."
Alex’s story has been widely publicized. He has become a knowledgeable and outspoken leader since the incident. He speaks nationally about his experiences, and the police accountability work being done in Denver and beyond. Hear Alex tell his story in his own words on Story Corps.
A haiku I wrote:
What we will not give
Power cannot take from us.
You cannot break us.
Alex wrote the following for Art As Social Inquiry.
I am of mixed race, born of a white mother and an African-American father. I was adopted as an infant by a loving and idealistic white couple. The family adopted a second baby of mixed background four years later--my beautiful sister, Maya.
My paternal grandfather and paternal great-grandfather were career Denver police officers. My father was reared in Denver. My mother moved from northern Michigan to Americus, Georgia, as a child. The year was 1958, a time when segregation prevailed and the Civil Rights movement was gaining power. Having grown up with white privilege, my parents were naive about the realities of racism.
My sister and I were reared in small mountain towns and in Denver suburbs--always in predominantly white communities. From this protected childhood, I left home to attend college in downtown Denver.
On January 15th, 2009, I was 19 years old, and introduced to a traumatic reality that stems from being Black in North America. It was after midnight. My friend Addison, and I were headed to the Wendy’s on East Colfax for burgers. We were in my big-bodied, 1984 Lincoln Town Car-- the kind of car that the police notice and find suspicious.
Officer Ricky Nixon pulled me over near 16th and Emerson. Nixon, a balding white man, informed me that I’d made an illegal left turn. This wasn’t true. It’s legal to turn left onto Emerson from Colfax. Nixon just wanted to pull me over. He had already profiled my car and me. Nixon asked for ID. I had forgotten my license, but gave Nixon my social security number, registration, and insurance information.
Nixon said he could detect the odor of marijuana. He ordered me and my friend to get out of the car. We had just come from a house where people were smoking marijuana. Addison had weed in his pocket. There was more in my backpack in the trunk. Addison voluntarily surrendered his marijuana. Nixon handcuffed Addison, who is white, and told him to stand by the front of the car.
Nixon frisked me and found nothing. He asked to search the car. I asked to see a warrant. Nixon ignored my request, and began searching the car. While Nixon was rummaging around the Lincoln, officers Randy Murr and Tiffany Middleton showed up.
Nixon headed toward the trunk. I took a couple of steps forward with outstretched arms to signify no ill intent, and again asked to see a warrant.
In response, Officers Middleton and Murr grabbed my hands and arms, and placed me in a restraint. I was obviously immobilized. Nixon looked at me and said, “You don’t have your license.” He began punching me in the face.
The force of the blows caused Middleton to lose her footing, and fall off the curb. She brought us all down on top of her because she didn’t let go of my right arm. She fell, then I fell, then Randy Murr, and Ricky Nixon came down on top of me.
All three cops then began beating me with their fists, a police radio, and a police issue “Mag” flashlight. I heard Murr yell, “He’s reaching for her gun.” As I struggled just to breathe I yelled with every ounce of energy " No I'm not. No I'm not. I'm not reaching for anything."
I began with three officers on top of me who were joined by an additional mob of reinforcements from district 6 just a block away. There was no way I could move even if I had wanted to.
As additional cruisers from the nearby police station arrived, they surrounded the scene and roped off the area.
Addison remembers a conversation between the cops. “Aren’t you off duty?” The officer replied. “Yeah, I just came for the fight.”
Nixon pressed a service revolver to my head. I heard him say, “If he doesn’t calm down, shoot him.” I vividly remember officer Nixon's hand clenching a service revolver, the cold steel, and pressure from the barrel shoving against my temple. I lay there and expected to be shot."
At this point, I lost consciousness. Warm blood flowed freely from deep gashes in my face and forehead. When I came to, I was face down in the gutter, spitting blood. A cop dragged me by the ankles and left me on a policeman’s jacket, bleeding from my open wounds. As I was being dragged, I saw police officers ripping apart my car.
I was handcuffed. Officer Nixon said to me, “You don’t know how close you were to getting your fucking head blown off. Where’s that warrant now you fucking nigger?”
Addison was taken to the station and released after he was coerced and intimidated into giving a statement dictated to him by the officers. My friend was fined $100 for possession of marijuana.
I went into hemorrhagic shock in the ambulance. I had refused treatment from the paramedics and the medical staff in the ER until photos could be taken. I wanted evidence of the assault. Once photos were taken, I allowed the doctors to treat my broken nose, multiple lacerations and serious head injuries (including a massive hematoma, a concussion, and a hemorrhage in my right eye). It took 45 stitches to control the bleeding. A doctor with a PhD in neuropsychology later diagnosed the hidden damage -- brain injury and PTSD.
After being discharged, I was taken to jail. I was charged with criminal intent to disarm a police officer, and possession of less than 10 oz. of marijuana. All criminal charges were dismissed when the officers were found to be lying, and fabricating evidence.
With legal counsel’s help, I filed a civil suit against the Denver Police Department, the city, and the Denver county. I ultimately won the 4th largest settlement in Denver history at the time.
Nixon, Middleton, and Murr were never disciplined for their crimes. Three months after my assault, Officer Randy Murr, and his trainer Devin Sparks were caught on video beating two unarmed men in front of a nightclub. Another time, off duty Officer Nixon was videotaped assaulting unarmed women at the Denver Diner (link no longer working.). These cases also resulted in civil settlements but no charges against the officers.
During this time, I changed my college major from business to communications with a minor in social justice. With the help of knowledgeable mentors, I have taken a frontline role battling law enforcement brutality, misconduct and injustice. This work includes organizing community members, supporting victims of police violence, and leading Know Your Rights trainings. I join other activists, organizers and community members to educate the community about exercising Constitutional rights. We also work for policy change through the state legislature, and City Council.
I have become a knowledgeable and outspoken leader. I speak nationally about my experiences, and the police accountability work being done in Denver and beyond.
* From TEDx: “Lt. Colonel Melvin T. Russell is Chief of the Community Partnership Division, Baltimore Police Department. Russell graduated from the BPD academy in 1981 as the first and only African American class valedictorian. Russell worked both as a uniform patrol and then an undercover officer for 20 years before re-emerging as an Eastern District Lieutenant in 2007. In this position, Russell turned the worst-performing midnight patrol shift in the city into the best-performing in 3 months and was promoted to Major of the Eastern District 11 months later.”