Billboards are everywhere in New York City. They’re on subway trains and in stations, and on top of and inside taxis. But few, if any, have been anything like a series of anonymous billboards that have popped up on bus shelters in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. They’re not selling anything but a delcaration: that racism still exists.
That’s also the name of the appropriately titled campaign. At least half a dozen billboard sites have sprung up around the neighborhood since August, with each month dedicated to highlighting racial disparities that impact black people in America. So far, the billboards have touched on topics ranging from the entertainment industry, education, fast food, smoking, policing, and black wealth. Each month’s billboard is also accompanied by an detailed post on Tumblr that provides background information, news articles, studies, charts, and statistics to back up each claim.
A brief statement on the Tumblr page says, in part, that "RISE is a proejct designed to illuminate some of the ways in which racism operates in this country." But who’s behind the project remains a mystery.
For the time being, the project seems dedicated to its anonymity. Both the Tumblr page and the billboards themselves are devoid of any contact information. Similarly, the private advertising company that’s contracted by New York City’s transit agency to host advertisments and billboards said that it does not give out information about who paid for the advertisements.
Even local activists who spend their time dedicated to working on racial justice issues can’t figure out who’s behind the billboards. Nonetheless, they’re intrigued by the campaign. This month’s billboard is dedicated to Stop-and-Frisk, the controversial NYPD tactic that’s drawn national criticism for its disproportionate impact on black and Latino men. The billboard’s provactive text reads, "Don’t want to get stopped by the NYPD? Stop being black." On the heels of New York City’s 2013 mayoral race and the prominent role that critics of Stop-and-Frisk have taken in city politics, the billboards have become a meaningful part of local discussion.
"Bed-Stuy, and Brooklyn in general, is going through a very profound transformation and we gotta put that in context," says Kali Akuno, an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s New York chapter, referencing the gentrification that’s drastically altered the borough’s demographics over at least the past ten years. "For many of the young yuppies and buppies, they see the police playing a positive role and trying to engage in a race neutral dialouge.
"What the billboard is doing is kinda opening up and exploding this myth that [stop-and-frisk] is taking place in a race neutral light — it’s making people confront it in a very real way."
Akuno added, "I applaud the effort. If the intent was to shake things up, I think they did their job."
It’s no accident that of all of New York City’s neighborhoods, the billboards have targeted this one. A historically black neighborhood, Bed-Stuy has become one of the most contested spaces in New York City. A 2012 study from the Fordham Institute found that Brooklyn is home to 25 of the country’s most rapidly gentrifying zip codes. That’s created a stark contrast between those in the neighborhood who have more upward social and economic mobility than others. Several high profile media accounts have recently noted Bed Stuy’s so-called "hip" transformation and "resurgence", but the borough’s medium per capita income in 2009 was just $23,000, which was $10,000 below the national average.
The content of the billboard’s messaging may not exactly be news for most residents, but the presentation has nonetheless been powerful.
"I think it’s a different kind of communication than I think people are used to in this neighborhood," says Mark Winston Griffith, the executive director of Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organizing group based in Bed-Stuy. "It tackles race very directly, even the way it has the conversation with an infographic."
Despite the billboard’s powerful messaging, questions still remain.
"As someone who’s paid for billboards before, I know there was a significant cost to [the project], one that was clearly bankrolled and where no one claimed credit for it," says Griffith. "All those different elements are what makes it really interesting."
Take a look at the full series of Bed Stuy billboards created by "Racism Still Exists" below: