For nearly a month, cities around the world have witnessed racial justice protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, MN. Whether seen first-hand, on the news, or on social media, images of this moment will forever shape our understanding of how the people stood up to systemic racism, police brutality, transphobia, and public health inequities.
In April, we checked in with photographer Mangue Banzima, known for his street style fashion photography and work as a consultant. At the time, he was turning his lens to healthcare and essential workers, capturing their experience from a distance.
At the end of May, when anti-racist protests began in New York, he picked up his camera yet again and took to the street. Banzima shared with Whitewall his intimate experience of the movement as a father, as a Black man, and as a photographer on the ground.
WHITEWALL: What has been your experience documenting the ongoing racial justice protests in New York?
MANGUE BANZIMA: It’s been a rough 2020, and it’s been rough out there! It’s been rough since November of 2016, if you know what I mean, but I have hope. I am in disbelief that the overall mood surrounding my work in these six months has done a 180. In April, I was fixated on celebrating our healthcare workers for their hard work during this pandemic, and in June I am getting pushed around by cops while trying to document what is the apparent result of more aggressive and even murderous behavior that comes from the police force, which are the protests happening in the streets of New York City.
I saw people of many faces and skin tones outraged about the killing of George Floyd and I agree, ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Let’s pause for a quick second and say their names—Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner… When is this going to stop? As a human, it was difficult to watch that graphic video of the officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. But as a Black man, the wound felt deeper. This is unacceptable. We’ve been seeing this type of incident continuously. Again, when is it going to stop?
As usual, I decided to answer with my skills by simply taking my camera to the front line to capture the controversial events in real-time. To my surprise, there actually is controversy, although there shouldn’t be any at all when an innocent man was being murdered because of the color of his skin. Many will spin this around by focusing only on looters and not the racists or the angry and deranged cops. None of the people I mentioned before deserved to die the way they did.
The truth is not synonymous with what is being portrayed in the news or social media. Do you believe everything you see on my feed and on my stories on @quistyle? The police were aggressive, and the protesters had many rough moments on these streets. I can bear witness to that. People were being arrested for no reason. Bottles of waters were flying over the cops’ heads and sometimes landing right in their faces. My fatherly instinct kicked in when things heated up and I considered removing myself from the scene to protect myself, but the photojournalist in me refused. I felt just as necessary in the fight against systemic racism and know that I am responsible for ensuring that my daughter doesn’t have to share in the fears and injustice that I had.
I saw the outrage on people’s faces, and the crowd was diverse and multi-generational and that gave me a sense of hope. My heart was broken when I saw blood, or when I saw 15-year-olds getting arrested. At the same time, some cops were whispering in my ears saying that what that cop did to George Floyd was inhumane and unacceptable. I do believe them—because no one is 100 percent good and no one is 100 percent bad—but there is no excuse. Justice must be exacted where it applies.
WW: People protesting all over the globe are pushing for actual change related to racial justice. What type of change do you hope this sparks?
MB: This is a deep-rooted issue. I hope people will listen to the oppressed, agree to disagree, and practice empathy. I hope my work can inspire them to do so. This is real. This is the most relevant time to stop evading the topic of systemic racism and how it destroys lives. It shouldn’t be about us versus them, blacks against whites, or the poor against rich. To me, it’s simply about basic human rights and the sustenance of unity and equality.
Police brutality is part of it and racial injustice is mostly institutionalized. Do you remember those people marching in Charlottesville and chanting? Well, those same people who are fighting for their right of speech are principals in schools, police officers, doctors, public officials, bankers. They are our neighbors. They are groups of people that are probably part of the decision making in many institutions I am involved with, and some of their decisions are and will purely be influenced by their beliefs. This is frightening and is in need of urgent change.
There are many sectors that need to be re-evaluated by executives, hiring managers, and leaders. For example, the education sector, healthcare, banking systems, brands, police departments—most of these areas deserve some TLC. I hope to see more people of color, especially black folks, in leadership and ownership positions. I am aware it comes down to the local votes and I am constantly reminding all of us to keep an eye out for our local elections and research the officials we elect to these offices. They are the ones controlling our lives and they are the ones that need to listen to us when we chant “Black Lives Matter,” when we ask for justice, and when we ask for better education and healthcare in our communities. Yes, the divide exists, and yes, we are aware, but let’s get together and speak the truth and have respect for humanity. Let’s continue to do what we just started. Together, we can force them to change.
WW: What has been the most impactful moment you caught on camera?
MB: The most impactful moment is when the police were tear-gassing the crowd at Barclays Center in Brooklyn and hitting people with their barricades. I got sprayed a bit and I can confirm that it is super painful, but luckily, I had a face shield for COVID-19.
I also saw them beating a mentally ill gentleman to the floor at that moment. I was astonished and felt compelled to remind the officers that they knew better than this. They were certainly trained on how to deal with a person who is mentally ill and in no way was violent part of that training. Anyway, it was too late because the gentleman was already bleeding after being jumped by half a dozen officers. When is this going to stop?
I also intervened once when 12 officers almost broke a young African American’s leg by trying to force him into their patrol car. Again, I stepped up to the cop and begged her to let me speak to this young man. His name is Daryl. I respectfully asked Daryl to listen and obey the officers’ orders. I explained to him that he will be summoned and released in a few hours. Daryl thought about it for 30 minutes and let them arrest him.
Again, the officer didn’t have to use force there. All they had to do is communicate and be patient. I am not saying they are always wrong when attempting to do their jobs, but the lack of implementation and regulation of their previous training is what makes them appear to be the enemy. When they used excessive force—when it’s 12 against one civilian—and Daryl was already handcuffed, that was a shocking moment for me.
WW: In your own words, can you describe how you’ve personally dealt with racial justice impacting your profession as a fashion consultant and photographer?
MB: Just like people of my race in any other profession, I am not judged by my skills and accomplishments, but I am judged by the color of my skin. I have dealt with racial injustice many times, but I refuse to let any racist slow me down or tell me I can’t do it, or I don’t fit in.
I went to Frieze Art Fair a few years ago and there was an officer directing traffic when I pulled up. He immediately told me to follow the sign for Uber drivers. I told him, “Sir, I am not an Uber driver. I have a permit to park.” The officer said, “I don’t care what you have, just go.” I resisted and wanted to school him a bit. I asked him what made him think I was an Uber driver? He said because I looked like one.
He saw a black man driving a four-door Sedan and thought he had me all figured out. If that isn’t a blatant microaggression that derived from systemic racism, then I don’t know what is. Anyway, I decided to leave the fair that day and didn’t get to see any art, and the following day I took the ferry instead to avoid any kind of altercation. These are the sorts of inconveniences that a black man must accept to fit into certain spaces.
The fashion world has a lot of problems, if that hasn’t already been detected. I got a call from a brand last week asking me if I was willing to join their team because they are now supposed to hire black executives because of what’s going on in the country. First of all, I found it insulting and very problematic. This mindset and this behavior is exactly why we are fighting today.
I asked the person this simple question, “What happens after we go past this moment? Are you going to fire me because I am black?” The person apologized and we ended that conversation. Look, I will not sit here and cite all of those bad moments because it happens constantly. And I have to put on many faces in order to navigate the challenges we face based on the color of our skin. That needs to stop.
WW: As a father, what are you teaching your daughter to be aware and cognizant of in regard to racial justice?
MB: For us, everything starts at home and with education. We are constantly reminding Farrah to be kind and respectful and to continue to have compassion and empathy for humanity. I remember driving with Farrah one day and she asked, “Daddy why do police kill Black men?” I froze from the discomfort that overtook me from that question. She followed my silence by saying, “Daddy don’t let any police stop you because they may hurt you.”
I was deeply saddened at the thought that my daughter thought she could lose me to racism. It made me think of George Floyd’s daughter and the fact that daughters of black men fear that they can lose their fathers, their protectors, to the ones they are taught are supposed to protect them from any harm. How could they ever feel truly protected? This is why I fight.
Children, like my Farrah, are very smart and they are putting it together. They see the injustice. Thank God we are privileged enough to expose her to people of many backgrounds. She has taken notice of that and uses her intelligence to detect patterns. We do let her know about what’s going on and we continue to educate her.
WW: What are some organizations, artists, Instagram accounts, or other resources that you are inspired by or supporting?
MB: When we say, “Black Lives Matter,” all we are saying and demanding is equality, and there are many organizations, platforms, and individuals out there doing great things. Just to name a few: @Heforshe, @unwomen, Reform Alliance, and you must follow @RobertFrederickSmith. As far as donating goes, we should all donate to help the families of these men and women killed by police. I am also helping and supporting @adembunkeddeko to get elected into the United States Congress. We need new faces and smart, young, Black people in Washington.