On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was murdered by the New York City Police Department officer, Daniel Pantaleo, when Pantaleo—suspecting that Garner was illegally selling cigarettes—placed Garner in an illegal chockhold. While attending Garner's funeral for The New York Times a week after his death, I noticed family and friends wearing shirts, emblazoned with "Rest in Peace” in bold red letters, bearing Garner's likeness. The image of Garner, smiling broadly while wearing a tuxedo, was a far cry from the images that had dominated the news in the preceding week: a graphic video of his death and the haunting words "I can't breathe”—a soon-to-be rallying cry—repeated 11 times while laying face down with a police officer on his back.
In light of this discrepancy, I began to think about the way in which we mourn; in particular, amid the rising attention given to mass shootings in the United States, I began to think about grief, personal memorials, and the recognition of African American life and death in the United States. How do communities that suffer disproportionally from gun violence mourn tragic events that have become altogether routine whilst also protesting the inequities that led to such deaths?
Therefore, two years after Eric Garner's funeral, I visited Platinum Graphics in New Orleans, speaking with owners Bryan and Trenice McMillian and photographing customers who'd purchased “Rest in Peace" shirts for friends and family members lost to guns. The McMillian's welcomed me into their shop, educated me on the history of the "Rest in Peace" shirt tradition, and introduced me to New Orleans and the customers they serve. They also told me that, in the time that they had been in business, they had put former customers on shirts as well as family members.
Gun violence and its consequences were literally woven into the fabric of their personal and professional lives. Later that year, I visited Aaron “Black Picasso” Ray in Wilmington, DE and spoke to him about his airbrushed “Rest in Peace” shirts and how he, through his art, hoped to heal the families of those who’d died at the hands of guns held by civilians and police officers alike. Amid editorial assignments, I'd research other shops, travel to different cities, and continue working on this project.
Then on April 10th, 2018—less than two months after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—students at Miami NW Senior High School staged a walk out after Kimson Green and Rickey Dixon, a fellow and a former student, were both killed by gun violence. Demanding the attention they saw in Parkland for gun violence that affects them everyday, students walked the streets with signs saying “Enough is Enough.” Due to the courageous action of Parkland activists such as Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, among others, a monumental shift is happening in how we understand and change the way in which guns tragically affect our lives.
But no community feels that tragedy more often than black neighborhoods around America. So, at the beginning of 2019, I went to South Florida to document the "Rest in Peace" shirt trend in a community that—while only an hour from Parkland—faces daily gun violence without the same public attention. A community and a lack of attention that Emma Gonzalez described in a tweet as thus: “Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard…the way that we have in these few weeks."
As Gonzalez recognized, often lost in the aftermath of mass shooting events, is the stubborn fact that everyday gun violence still accounts for the majority of gun-related deaths in the United States and no segment of the US population feels this more than African American communities across the country. According to the CDC, although African Americans only make up 14 percent of the US population, they account for 57 percent of gun homicide victims.
For African American men, ages 15 to 34, there is no cause of death more likely than one that involves a gun. In her searing essay, “The Condition of Black Life is Mourning,” published in The New York Times Magazine only days after the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the poet Claudia Rankine starkly commented “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black.”
Nowhere is Rankine’s “condition of black life” more represented than in these custom t-shirt shops of cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Miami. In shops across the country, the “Rest in Peace” shirt—a custom-made, memorial t-shirt celebrating the life of a loved one lost to gun violence—is a staple of daily life, a symbol of the ubiquity of the gun violence that disproportionally plagues African American communities, and an act of protest against the ways in which African American lives are often misrepresented and, sometimes, entirely forgotten after acts of gun violence.
On each shirt, family members work in tandem with store owners and designers to represent their loved ones in ways that the media—especially in regard to African American men—often fail to do. Beneath beautified pictures of brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons, the words “Sunrise” and “Sunset,” alongside the date of a birth and a death, not only memorialize a life cut short, they also give life to a form of protest, worn daily for years to come, of the circumstances that lead to that life’s end; an everlasting symbol fighting against America’s structural impulse to look away.
Sunrise/Sunset is my attempt to bring a renewed focus to the disproportionate loss of life that guns have wrought on the African American community whilst bringing attention to the tradition of representation that emanates from the community itself. These shirts represent lost love ones as their community wishes to remember them; not as a late-night editor wishes to. Ultimately, I hope that this work avoids the problematic tropes of more traditional coverage of gun violence and reminds viewers that gun violence isn’t a singular event, briefly displayed in a late-night news chyron, but an accumulation of events that shapes communities in profound and unexpected ways; ways that, once they are seen, are impossible to ignore.
Bryan Thomas is a photographer based in Brooklyn, NY and a recent recipient of The Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward award. His self-published zine “The Sea in the Darkness Calls” is held in the libraries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, among others, and his work has been recognized by PDN’s Photo Annual, CENTER, American Photography, and NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism. His most recent body of work, “Sunrise/Sunset,” can be seen at the upcoming Aperture Summer Open: Delirious Cities from July 25th through August 29th.