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#NMOS14 DC Rally for Mike Brown (8.14.14), Mikael Owunna

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of the police communities around the country have responded. Feminista Jones organized the National Moment of Silence (#NMOS14) on August 14, 2014. Photographer and writer Mikael Owunna attended a DC Moment of Silence where he took many powerful photos, including one that caught the eye of former Visual AIDS programs manager Ted Kerr. The photo is of a man wearing a white t-shirt that reads "I Am Mike Brown". Affixed to his t-shirt is a red ribbon. Given that the red ribbon was created by the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus in 1991 to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS, Kerr wondered if the inclusion of the red ribbon was an effort to link police violence to HIV/AIDS. In an interview with Visual AIDS Feminista Jones has stated it was not. In the interview below Owunna discusses his photography, and why it matters that we don't rush to make connections when complexity tells us so much more .

Visual AIDS: I came across your work first through your photos of the NMOS2014 images. Specifically I was moved by the image of the young man in the shirt that read, " I am Mike Brown" who was wearing a red ribbon. I saw this first as a comment on the connections between HIV/AIDS and police violence. What did you see when you took that photo?
Mikael Owunna: At the event there was no mention of HIV/AIDS, as it was a rally for Mike Brown and against the institutionalized onslaught on black lives and bodies in this country, so I didn't see that connection at all. Instead what I saw from everyone at the rally was a community in mourning, demanding justice and accountability. I saw that in that young man's face as well-an unflinching determination to tell his truth and give voice to our collective grief. All of us black people could be Mike Brown, and I saw in him the solidarity we are seeking with one another as a community in these incredibly trying times.

Visual AIDS: As someone involved in multiple social justice movements do you see a connection between police violence and HIV/AIDS? (thinking here of stop and frisk, the prison industrial complex, the war on drugs, etc).
Mikael Owunna: I do not see a connection. There are, of course, black and Latino people with HIV who are also subjected to police violence, but these are different axes of oppression. I think there is a valid conversation to be have of the nuanced ways in which black people especially with HIV have intersectional experiences of oppression and face their own unique set of issues, but that is not meant to conflate the two experiences simply because they are occurring to the same body. When we talk about police violence and the prison industrial complex, we are talking about systems which were literally created specifically as an assault on black life. Police brutality as affecting black HIV positive people on the street day-in-and-day-out is not because they are HIV positive, it's because they are black. People with HIV are criminalized in the criminal justice system but are not subject to police violence on the street due to their status (which people cannot determine from looking at them), they are subjected to it based on their race. It is important to distinguish between systems of oppression. Bodies with HIV are criminalized but police violence and brutality is centered in antiblackness. And I feel like there is more risk in people trying to co-opt experiences for other marginalized groups when we try and look for connections that aren't there, because they are simply different experiences of oppression.

Visual AIDS: Looking at the breadth of your experience and work you seem skilled at drawing connections between movements, ideas and practice.
Mikael Owunna: For me, interdisciplinary work is enmeshed in everything I do and the ways in which I see the world. We live in a complex and incredibly interconnected world, which requires a nuanced approach in the ways in which we approach and analyze problems. What are we without history? What are we without problem solving skills? What are we without writing and critical thinking skills? The challenges we face today are so immense and interdisciplinary work allows us to craft creative, new approaches to affect change.

Visual AIDS: Looking at your photography, you seem to have an eye for people speaking truth to power in public, which has long been a foundation within the HIV/AIDS movement, including using art and culture to make a difference. In your varied experiences what is the role of the individual and the group in making the world a better place?
Mikael Owunna: It's interesting because my photography has evolved a lot over the years. I started taking pictures of flowers actually (haha), moved on to portraits, did work in a Taiwanese aborignial community around cultural preservation and of late I've been drawn to protests and rallies for Palestine and Mike Brown. Protest and collective action, particularly as influenced by the tactics perfected by black folks in the Civil Rights movement have had a lot of influence on other movements from feminism to HIV/AIDS as you mentioned. I personally am very small, but I see the tremendous potential of individuals to make change. From Malcolm X to Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, bell hooks and more, individuals and black folks in particular have created radical new ways of thinking and being that has had tremendous influence that have changed history and the ways in which we see the world. I think that we can all do our part in struggle, and sure it's about "making the world a better place" but ultimately what it's actually about is us dismantling the systems of domination which made Mike Brown's murder possible in the first place. I have less interest in us making things "better," when things are already so terrible for us black folks especially. What interests me is us finding freedom and emancipation from the dominator culture which hurts and affects us and other marginalized groups, like those with HIV/AIDS. And in that struggle we can all do our part in both big and small ways.

Mikael Owunna is a writer a a photographer who has a duel undergraduate degree in Biomedical engineering and History. He has been shooting photography for about 5 years now, and in the past few months has been shooting solidarity rallies in Washington DC. He writes about race and other social justice issues on his blog, "Owning My Truth" and conducts a weekly podcast on social justice topics called Hyphenated*. He is involved in this work because, "as a black queer African immigrant, given the scale of violence leveled against black and queer people in this country, which is just horrific, how can I not be? At this point, I no longer see it as a choice- it is a question of survival and so I feel compelled to do the work that I do."