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 gone from the digital space to real-world recognition 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.”
“Unarmed” remained an erratic social media project over the next few years, as Rivero juggled corporate and media design work while grappling with the emotional pain of starting new installments.
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Then George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020. Rivero explained through tears that for more than a week he couldn’t bring himself to watch the video of the killing and, at first, had no interest in making yet another jersey. But as Black Lives Matter protests gained momentum throughout New York and the country, he found the resolve to design another. “My life changed when I designed the George Floyd jersey,” Rivero said.
A friend of Rivero’s, who has a printing company, called him the morning after he’d shared the Floyd design on Instagram. He suggested they create large vinyl prints of Rivero’s jersey designs to post. “Less than a week later, they were up across from Barclays Center,” Rivero said.
The Downtown Brooklyn arena had become a hub for daily Black Lives Matter protests and Rivero’s art hung in the backdrop, with dark irony, on the boarded-up windows of nearby sports businesses Modell’s, the sneaker boutique Kith, and Crunch Fitness.
Steven Heller, a co-chair of the M.F.A. Design Department at the School of Visual Arts, was so struck by the use of commercial branding to convey a pointed social message that he interviewed Rivero for DesignObserver, a website that covers design and culture. “Raafi Rivero is quoting popular culture in a way that is both obvious and nuance,” Heller said in an email interview with The New York Times. “The viewer is unaware of the message immediately, which allows for its resonance to sneak in rather than hit you on the head — although it does that, too.”
Though sports have not traditionally made their way into the fine art establishment, the use of sports as a conveyance for forms of protest has forced the art world to take note. The 2019 Whitney Biennial featured several pieces that incorporated elements from the sports world, most notably, Kota Ezawa’s “National Anthem,” an animated video that shows N.F.L. players kneeling during the “Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police violence against unarmed Black people.
“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.”
With “Unarmed” as his professional focus, and supported by a grant from the V-Day Foundation, Rivero bought a used car, filled it with camera equipment, and left New York last fall determined to capture what was happening in America. Rivero visited Louisville, Ky., Kenosha, Wis., Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Denver, hanging his pieces and speaking with local residents about the tragic killings and violence in their communities. He recorded the trip and used the footage to create the short film, “Unarmed.” It debuted as part of YouTube’s “Black Renaissance,” a Black History Month special hosted by the Obamas that has been viewed more than 3.5 million times. He exhibited the jerseys at Leon Gallery in Denver last winter.
Though Rivero gave up his Brooklyn apartment before embarking on the cross-country journey and hasn’t returned since, he expects to be back later this month. He’s got another set of vinyl prints he’s prepared to hang up, and after enough people asked about wearable jerseys, he is in the final production of a Trayvon Martin edition. If Martin’s family members approve, he’d like to start selling the jersey, and then create others, using proceeds to support the victims’ families and donate to antiracism organizations.
“When you go to a ballgame in Denver, instead of wearing a Jamal Murray, wouldn’t there be someone who wants to wear an Elijah McClain jersey? I’d love to see that,” Rivero said.