Activist and artist Aaron Leaf has been relentlessly organizing the community since 38-year-old Ugandan refugee Alfred Olango was shot and killed by El Cajon Police. It’s Sunday afternoon and protests haven’t started yet, but he and fellow United Against Police Terror (UAPT) activist Catherine Mendonça, who is also Leaf’s girlfriend, are working away in their City Heights apartment. Leaf is editing video footage from Saturday’s protests while Mendonça updates the organization’s social media. They expect more protests later on especially since 12 protestors—including a member of UAPT—were arrested earlier that morning.
“This should be happening every time someone is killed by police,” Leaf says of the community uproar.
For years, Leaf has been using art to document the lives of Olango and others killed by San Diego police with various graphic designs, including a series of portraits he calls “San Diego Stolen Lives.” The 37-year-old Leaf started UAPT with Mendonça about five years ago. They met through the Occupy City Heights movement and bonded over activism.
“We noticed there isn’t a lot of people involved in police accountability,” says Leaf. “There are organizations that are doing other things in San Diego but police accountability is something that is definitely lacking.”
Leaf and Mendonça decided on a mission for their grassroots watchdog organization: Document police and support families of individuals killed by law enforcement. Besides filming police interactions for their Copwatch YouTube series, UAPT’s documentation includes an ongoing list of San Diegans killed by law enforcement called San Diego Stolen Lives: Killed by San Diego Law Enforcement. The list includes details of 602 police-related deaths dating back to 1980. Inspired by the Stolen Lives Project created by the anti-police brutality group October 22nd Coalition, Leaf and Mendonça gathered information for their own list by reading relevant news articles and speaking with families of victims. Leaf began creating graphic designs of some of the victims on the San Diego Stolen Lives list. “To get the names and pictures out there and let them know that they’re human beings,” says Leaf of the project’s purpose. “They’re normal people. Just because they got shot by a cop—guilty or not—they have a life, they have a family, they have kids. We think about the other side.”
The designs look like a stencil with the victim’s face shaped out of bold white lines against a black background. They’re each labeled with the person’s name, the date they died and the San Diego police department involved with the death. To create the portrait, Leaf finds photographs for his portraits through his research for the San Diego Stolen Lives list. News articles, online obituaries and sometimes families will provide a photograph he can use.
He then uploads the victim’s photograph into a program similar to Photoshop and changes the threshold until the image looks like a black-and-white photocopy. Leaf then uses a paintbrush tool to smooth out lines and highlight details until he has a clear image of the person’s face. The simplicity of the design allows for the portraits to be easily printed onto various mediums, such as t-shirts and banners.
“We have also done fundraisers with those designs,” says Leaf. UAPT sometimes sets up an online campaign where people can buy the t-shirts and have the profits sent to a victim’s family. Leaf created such a campaign for his late friend, Victor Ortega. Before making a portrait he usually gets permission from the family of the victim.
“Some of them are from back in the day, so we don’t have contact with all the family,” says Leaf. “We actually have families that don’t mind the work that we do, but they just kind of want to be left alone because it’s a touchy topic.”
The portraits are bold, upfront, raw and unforgiving about their political message, much like Leaf’s other artwork. Creating under the name IRATE Productions, there’s images of cops with scythes à la the Grim Reaper, police clashing with protestors, revolutionaries and portraits of people killed by police. All are done in black, red and white—UAPT’s colors. Leaf draws influences from graffiti artists such as Shepard Fairey and Banksy, as well as propaganda art.
Looking at Leaf’s artwork hung in their apartment, Mendonça describes his style as dark. “The edges are hard and it’s very raw,” she says. “It highlights what is necessary. It’s not soft. When you look at these pieces you don’t say it’s just a soft photo, you see the action happening. He emphasizes what you need to see, what is the injustice.”
His artistic style, color choices and subject matter reflect Leaf and Mendonça’s activism style: upfront, confrontational and anarcho-syndicalist. Leaf, Mendonça and the handful of activists that make up UAPT are often on the ground filming police interactions for accountability purposes, and they are unrepentant about the harsh language they use regarding the San Diego Police Department (e.g. see their “San Diego Killer Cop” list) and they don’t look to bigger organizations for direction.
This type of aggressive messaging has provoked many a response—some good and some bad. Last year, UAPT received hate mail sent from the office of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. UAPT was able to trace the IP address used to send the email to the sheriff’s office. The department launched an internal investigation into the email, but did not report on taking any action. With the “San Diego Stolen Lives” portraits and all his designs, Leaf has enough material for an art show but he isn’t interested in that. At this moment and into the future, he reiterates that all his creative endeavors will be devoted to activism and that the best use for his art is to communicate the desire for more police accountability.
“I think it’s a way to really get it out there and to burn an image into somebody’s brain,” says Leaf.
Olango is only the most recent portrait. Leaf has created more than 50 portraits of victims and plans to make as many as he can.
“The more that we show, the bigger message it makes.”