A Brooklyn Artist Wants Sports Fans to Wear Their Names

The irony has always troubled Raafi Rivero. “People love Black athletes,” he said. “But they don’t love Black people.”

In July 2013, it resonated anew for Rivero, a lifelong sports fan, when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin, the same weekend Rivero saw the film “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, who was also Black.

“I cried several times that weekend, and I really felt powerless,” Rivero said from Santa Fe last month during a videoconference interview. “I was asking myself, What can I do?”

Rivero, a filmmaker with a background in design, poured his emotion into a piece of art that eventually became part of a series that has impacted observers across the country. Rivero used Adobe Illustrator to design an image of a black and yellow basketball jersey with “Unarmed” on the front and “Martin 17” on the back. Trayvon Martin was 17 and unarmed when he was shot, and in reading about his death, Rivero kept seeing a photo of Martin in a black and yellow football jersey.

Grimly, Rivero, 43, has continued to commemorate other unarmed Black victims in the years after the Zimmerman verdict. His digital jersey illustrations grew to include Eric Garner, who was killed in July 2014 in Staten Island by a New York City police officer using an illegal chokehold. Three weeks later, a Ferguson, Mo., police officer killed Michael Brown. By then Rivero had developed an intentional design system for the project: Each jersey bears the colors of the victim’s local sports team with a jersey number that corresponds to the person’s age at death. Stars, if present, represent how many times the person was shot.

“It felt like people were trying to explain these killings away with the ‘bad apples’ argument, but it keeps happening. There is a through line in these killings,” Rivero said. “And it felt empowering to say something in this way.”

Rivero’s way kept the victims’ names alive differently than other protests by placing them within the iconography of America’s favorite pastimes. “My father used to always say that sports are democratic,” Rivero said. “The only arena where a Black man and white man could compete on an even playing field.”

Sports also carry the nostalgic symbolism of youthful innocence. “One of the best moments was always when you got your jersey, your number. I’d just want to wear it all the time,” he said. “Jerseys were sacred objects for me.”

“We love a work of art about protest that isn’t bombastic,” said Jane Panetta, a co-curator of the museum’s hallmark survey. “Quiet, tactile, interpretive. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest really captured the country, and the more time that passed, the more resonant it felt. Today it feels even more powerful.”

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