April V. Taylor
The Florida based social justice organization Dream Defenders has launched a satirical ad for The Dream Vest, which is being marketed to “provide safety for all children with high productions of melanin to protect them from unwarranted state violence on civilians.” The initiative is using the hashtag #VestorVote and is meant to draw attention to the fact that people of color are disproportionately targets of police violence and also push people to register to vote in underrepresented communities. The recent spate of highly publicized killings of Black young people by white police officers along with the push in many states to implement voting rights restrictions that essentially nullify portions of the Voting Rights Act makes this ad very timely and poignant.
The ad comes just after thousands took to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri to hold protests, forums and demonstrations against police violence and racial oppression, catalyzed by the plea for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager killed in August . Ferguson October brought to the forefront thedilemma of how to bridge an intergenerational divide between leaders who participated in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and young people who feel those leaders are not relevant to the current movement. The Vest or Vote campaign seems to bridge this divide by drawing inspiration from Malcolm X’s 1964 speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” While many misunderstand Malcolm X as violent and hateful, his belief that Black people should have control of their own political fate is powerful and relevant. In the fifty year old speech, Malcolm X states that voting is a way for Americans to uniquely participate in a bloodless revolution by changing political and social structures with their vote.
American young people appear to be rssurrecting Malcolm X’s Ballot or the Bullet movement. As Janessa Robinson stated in the Huffington Post, “Although de jure discrimination was mitigated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we now experience de facto discrimination in the form of things such as stop and frisk polices, civil asset forfeiture, racial profiling, mass incarceration, and voter disenfranchisement. Today’s youth calls for a revolution as unjustifiable fear is ascribed to black and brown bodies to justify the lethal denial of our humanity.
The black and white imagery in the ad makes the message that much more provocative as it contrasts the difference in experiences of white people and people of color. In the ad a mother pleads with her son to wear the vest so that she can know that he is safe while she is at work. Voice overs of news reports about the shooting deaths of Trayvon ?Martin, Oscar Grant and others play as the following words appear on screen, “Every 28 hours an African-American is killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante. No parent in America should have to put their child in a bulletproof vest.”
Dream Defenders political director Ciara Taylor states the following about the video, “Our campaign is meant to be provocative, meant to be chilling, meant to wake people up. Although it seems like a big exaggeration about the importance of voting, it really isn’t. It’s a warning about what can happen in the future if the Black community doesn’t pay attention to politics and the way it affects our lives. It’s not the end all or the be all, it won’t solve all the conflicts in our community, but it’s a great start. It’s an important action we can take as citizens to be politically engaged in this process.” Taylor points out that the video is satire and there are not actually vests for sale, but that has not kept parents from contacting her saying that they would buy one for their children. Taylor states, “That’s the extent parents in our communities are willing to go to protect their children. This is intended for communities of color living in fear in their own neighborhoods. It’s a campaign about voting, but it’s also about the desire for our communities to protect our future, which is our kids – who are being targeted, physically and mentally, with stand your ground, police brutality, the school to prison pipeline. We wanted to send a shock to the public that we have to really take charge this year. We have to go to the ballot box”
Watch the ad below: