Photos: Vanissa W. Chan / Forced Trajectory Project (see descriptions below)
By Maggie Von Vogt
The Forced Trajectory Project (FTP) is a long-term multimedia project that documents the effects of police violence on communities, beginning with families whose loved ones have been murdered by police.
The idea of a” Forced Trajectory” refers to a phenomenon that the project's founder Vanissa Chan has witnessed countless times: The fundamentally life-altering experience of a family member having a loved one murdered by the police and literally converting into an activist overnight to demand justice and accountability for that murder. Vanissa explains that family members don't really have a choice over inserting themselves in this trajectory, especially when they become activists. Most family members are living common lives until one day they find themselves living the horrific experience of losing a loved one to police violence. If they become activists, they find themselves thrust into a series of situations where they are denied justice, inevitably becoming enemies of the state. Because of the inherent injustice represented in these cases, families find themselves questioned, silenced, and denied justice or accountability. It becomes their word against the State's.
"I want people to see that it's a forced trajectory, that there's no turning back from it. They can exit the movement, but they can't really exit the reality,” she comments.
There are five interconnected objectives of FTP: 1) to supply primary source content for audience to expand on and add depth to the "official versions" of these events that dominate mass media, 2) to foster dialogue between community groups and to engage groups that are unaware of the issue, 3) to support the victim's family members by amplifying their collective voice, provide them with a community platform, and aid their networking efforts where they can benefit from sharing resources (e.g. public relations, legal, health, mental health), 4) to provide comprehensive documentation of a moving nationwide struggle of family and community members, and lastly, 5) to provide content for and aid the discussion of social reform and change in our society.
Evolving into Multimedia
Over the project's development, Vanissa found that using various types of media served more adequately to try to represent and reflect the multi-layered human experiences family members encounter.
Listen: Audio 1:
*Note: In the audio, Vanissa mentions Oja. Oja Vincent is a project partner, the sound producer on the project, and the original oral historian.
Family members’ experiences are shaped by systemic and individual oppression, later exacerbated once in the forced trajectory. Victimhood can be complicated. Some people see it as disempowering and prefer to be recognized as survivors. Some people want to reclaim the title of victim as a part of their demands for justice, reparations, and accountability. I asked Vanissa whether family members perceived themselves or are perceived as victims, and how the project engages with the notion of victimhood:
Listen: Audio 2:
Vanissa refers to her experience of this project as "The Work". It's work she's not getting paid to do, but she does it because it provides deeper meaning for her. "It actually has social implications, it's about my life's work," she states.
This way of doing The Work has meant finding multiple forms of understanding and relaying families' experiences of the forced trajectory and developing long-standing relationships with them, sometimes in the role of oral historian, sometimes as a friend, a co-organizer, and more. Navigating these roles with fluidity can be challenging, too:
Listen: Audio 3:
The Work can be taxing. For Vanissa, it's been a more recent process of finding ways to achieve balance between The Work and the rest of life. A relocation process and other personal goals have her wondering how to keep this project and relationships going while also continuing to open up space for growth, ease, well being, and financial stability.
“One thing that’s been helpful coming out of [conversations in Groundswell’s] anti-oppression working group is [understanding] that there is always a power relationship between interviewer and interviewee... So when I’m fundraising and travelling for Justice for Kenny, Jennifer [Gonzalez, Co-founder of the Justice for Kenny Coalition Kenny Lazo’s partner] will offer to pay for my travel, and I’m like “Ok… that’s fine, I’m ok with spending my money, but if I don’t have it, that’s great.” or I can stay at her place, and all of that is ok. But when I’m in an emergency situation, or a personal situation, she can’t be the person I call, because she is going through a lot… you know, aside from losing her partner she’s got two babies she has to raise and is working full time and is a single mother… and it’s made me think that I need to work on creating friendships that are also outside of The Work. I need better self-care practices where I find relationships where I am not dealing with so much trauma,” she shares.
Our conversation leads us to talk about how this work of finding balance, building different spaces for learning and ease, and growth is also a part of the work. The work includes recognizing the humanity and complexity in ourselves as organizers, activists, and oral historians.
Finding Family in Painful Times
The first time I explored the videos and photos on the Forced Trajectory site (http://forcedtrajectory.strikingly.com/) I remember being particularly struck by a shot in the video titled “Forced Trajectory: The Story of Jennifer Gonzalez” of a 2012 march against police brutality in Suffolk County, New York (see video here). Families who had lost their loved ones gathered in a circle to denounce, demand justice, and collectively grieve. At one point the camera is in the middle of a circle of family members and begins spinning around slowly, recording the faces of the family members who have congregated. There are children, adults, elders, Blacks, Latinos, and Whites.
Through the different community organizing and activism that family members and their organizations create, a space is created for family members to find each other. Vanissa comments, "Even upon first meeting, or first speaking on the phone there is an automatic connection and response and it’s very powerful. The immediate response is a bond, a deep respect, love, and authentic care for each other. People say, ‘This is my family.'”
What's Next for Forced Trajectory
Vanissa’s personal life is in a process of change. She’s recently relocated to Las Vegas to be closer to family and is looking into educational opportunities. I asked her to talk about what she sees in the project’s future.
“Since moving to Vegas, I have been looking to exhibit somewhere, and in December I applied to be a part of a juried exhibition at Left of Center Gallery in North Las Vegas. Two film pieces were chosen to be in the exhibit and the reception and awards ceremony will be on January 30th, from 12-3PM. Also, the last known person killed by police in 2015 (Dec 31) happened to be Keith Childress who was a 23-year-old unarmed Black man, father of two kids, holding a cell phone. He was killed about 15 minutes from my residence. I have been able to connect with the family (thanks to social media and how prevalent it is) and the mother will be coming to the exhibit. I’m hoping to create a bridge right there in the activist community and this family so that she can get some local support.”
“The good thing about the project is that it is a nationwide project,” she comments, “Unfortunately police brutality affects pretty much every part of America, so I know that wherever I go, there’s going to be a family or folks to work with. I’m also thinking more about this work nationally, such as the work I do with Families United for Justice (see: www.fu4j.org), and that’s The Work. To connect the families, empower them, and give them voice. The Forced Trajectory Project serves as a tool and platform to families.”
Vanissa also recently applied for funding to take Forced Trajectory Project in a new and more applicable, participatory level. “The grant is for the Justice for Kenny Coalition and we are asking to receive funding to send me out to Long Island and interview families there, while training Jen and others who are interested on how to do interviews and do some basic camera work, so that when I leave, the work can still continue. I would like this to be a pilot project on implementing FTP on the local level, and assist community building around the issue of police violence, putting families at the center of that struggle.”
Further down the line, Vanissa also mentions a desire to explore integrating documentary work and illustration into the project. She and Oja hope to create an illustrated project of Nicolas Heyward Jr.’s story, culminating in a graphic novel to distribute in high schools and colleges. There will be a crowd funding campaign launched to support this project as well as the foundation that Nicholas founded.
Vanissa will also be presenting in an upcoming Groundswell online course on Oral History Basics, starting in April of 2016. For more information, see: http://www.oralhistoryforsocialchange.org/classes/
In December Vanissa submitted two pieces of the Forced Trajectory Project to Left of Center Art Gallery's Juried Exhibition called, "Seeking Justice Through Art" and both pieces got accepted. In the February awards ceremony and reception one of the pieces, "The Message" received 2nd Place/Honorable Mention which included a cash prize and gift certificate.
In February, Vanissa purchased a .com for the project website. You can see it at: http://forcedtrajectory.com
-Nicholas Heyward, Sr., poses with his son's (Nicholas Heyward Jr.) junior high school graduation portrait in his kitchen. Nicholas Heyward, Jr., 13, was shot and killed by a New York Housing officer Brian George on September 27, 1994 while he was playing in the stairwell of the Gowanus projects. August 2010.
-Three young girls, residents of the Gowanus Houses, read the story of Nicholas Heyward, Jr., in the Stolen Lives book (an archival project that documents police-related deaths) at the 18th Annual Day for Remembrance for Nicholas Heyward, Jr., in Brooklyn, NY. August 2012.
-Kenny Lazo Jr., now 11 years old, stands in the front lawn of the Suffolk County Police Department 3rd Precinct with 70+ supporters to demand justice for his father, Kenny Lazo, and all other victims of police brutality on the 6th anniversary of his father's death. April 2013.
-Jasmine Tillison shows off her tee shirt that commemorates her father's life, Daniel Tillison, shot and killed by police on March 19th, 2012. Jasime, her two brothers, and her mother, Mary Jobe, participate in the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality with other family members and supporters.