Graphic novelist and union organizer Daniel Méndez Moore was a 17-year-old Walnut Hills High School student when Timothy Thomas was killed by a Cincinnati Police officer in 2001. The ensuing protests and riots moved him to create the graphic novel Six Days in Cincinnati: A Graphic Account of the Riots That Shook the Nation a Decade Before Black Lives Matter (reissued by Microcosm Publishing in 2017, available at Joseph-Beth Booksellers), based on interviews with key figures, protesters, organizers, and neighborhood residents.
Moore now lives in Minneapolis, the native city of his wife, Veronica; with their two young children, they live just blocks from the epicenter of unrest and destruction resulting from the May 25 police killing of George Floyd. An acute observer of social injustice, Moore’s ongoing work, Comics Against the 1%, can be found on Facebook and Instagram. When I spoke to him by phone, Moore was holding his 8-week-old daughter, who, he says, has been a ray of sunshine in these days of pandemic and protest.
How has becoming a parent affected your perspective of social justice?
Black and Latino families have long talked about the difficult moment when you need to talk to your kids about police brutality and that, if you need help, go to the police—but also know that the police might see you as an enemy. I have a 4-and-a-half year old son who just learned about the police when they came to his school, and he was feeling like they were superheroes, you know? We took him to the march the day after George Floyd was killed. My wife and I are both very active organizers, so he was at a protest when he was nine days old. The kid knows protest. But this is the first one he ever actually asked to leave because he was afraid. He knew the police had killed a guy, and he thought the police were going to kill us.
It’s super hard to admit to your innocent 4-year-old how grave these issues are. I don’t want him to know about anybody killing anybody. You want to control when he gets exposed to things, but the world has another plan. He didn’t want to go outside when the riots subsided. We live two blocks away from one of the most impacted areas. And so he was noticing that everything was boarded up. He was noticing that there were burned cars in the road, and he kept asking, Why does it smell funny? So we had to kind of explain, and we eventually took him to his grandmother’s house to stay for the night. And when he came back, each of us held his hand as we walked up Lake Street, which he associates with where he gets ice cream. And immediately around the corner, there was an Auto Zone store that had just been burned to the ground.
Your Cincinnati book included context from before the riots happened here. There have been other killings and other protests—for example, over the killing of Samuel DuBose in 2015—but they didn’t reach the scale we’re seeing now. Why have these protests gotten so large and diverse?
When Timothy Thomas was killed in Cincinnati, everybody talked about how it wasn’t just Timothy Thomas. Everybody referred to how there were 15 black men killed by Cincinnati police in a combination of egregious and more debatable scenarios. Often white liberals and especially white conservatives will say, Why didn’t they just have a peaceful march? Well, they did and you ignored it, and that’s why it wasn’t effective. People did peacefully march. People did file lawsuits. People did run candidates.
The community under attack here in Minneapolis has been, in fact, reacting very aggressively to every single one of the instances [of past police misconduct], but then when it happens again and again … all of a sudden everybody is saying, Well, we did that and it didn’t work. So why should we follow you this time? In Minneapolis, Philando Castile happened right around the corner. Before that was Jamar Clark, and there was an almost entirely peaceful protest where white nationalists actually shot several people during an occupation of the land in front of the police precinct. All of the appropriate steps in each one of these cases had been walked through and exhausted.
Since 2001, so much has changed in how people exchange information. How do you think mobile communications and social media have changed the way events unfold?
Social media has made a huge difference. When I was doing my graphic novel in 2001 in Cincinnati, my entire mission was, How do I get stories of the people who were involved in the struggle out? Because, up to that point, the only way anybody could have heard from actual people in the mix of the protest was if they went to one of the protest planning meetings or if the news decided to run a clip interviewing them. So, like Channel 5 News would run a clip of random residents and a clip of some “grass tops” leaders and a clip of the police chief, but there’s a massive disconnect. The grass top leader may or may not actually know anybody involved in looting or have been at any of the protests. Not to say they aren’t legitimate, but they offer a perspective that might not represent the protesters’ actual intentions.
Whereas the difference now, I mean, is crazy. I live two blocks from all of the protests here, but I also have an 8-week-old daughter. So I was mainly at home for the vast majority of all of this stuff, but I was able to watch it on Unicorn Riot, which hosts live feed videos of protests. There’s no filter and no editor who needs to whittle everything down to a two-minute news segment. You can see how many people are watching at any time, and it’ll be 45,000 people watching these live feeds. So there’s a flattening of what’s going on where you can be in the middle of the story being told. It’s sloppy as hell, but it allows the people doing the least public-facing elements of the protests, the least polished part, to have their own voice.
What do you say to people who, while acknowledging social injustice, draw the line at destruction of property and label those who cause damage a thug or a criminal?
I don’t like destruction either. I spend the majority of my time organizing mass nonviolent movements, labor strikes and things like that. But I sat here for an entire week feeling incredibly uncomfortable about the complications of the protest and watching the creeping destruction get closer to my house. I was nervous, and almost everybody in our area was quite nervous, that apartment buildings and houses that had been off-limits to protesters were going to become on-limits. And that’s a terrifying thing, especially with two kids in the house.
I don’t like violence, but I don’t think George Floyd did either. And because of police violence, he’s dead. And there wasn’t a form he could fill out to take that officer’s knee off his neck.
I think uncomfortable is OK, though, because it’s a lie to say that kind of protest isn’t very effective. And until America wants to have a democratic system that can actually create structural change through democratic processes, this will happen again and again and again. I don’t like violence, but I don’t think George Floyd did either. And because of police violence, he’s dead. And there wasn’t a form he could fill out to take that officer’s knee off his neck.
When people ask me what’s been different about Cincinnati in 2001 and Minneapolis today, I remind them that Minneapolis is way bigger and way more intense. At the risk of stepping out of my depth, Cincinnati to me felt much more like a black liberation struggle with all of the beauty and complications that entailed, thoroughly led and maintained by elements in the black community. Here, a real multiracial alliance has maintained the protests. I mean, a substantial number of Native youth, Latino youth, Somali youth, plus a huge number of black youth and white youth.
There was none of the interpersonal kind of racially motivated attacks at all in these marches. And that kind of blew me away, because I was very much monitoring the situation. On our block, we chased off a group of kids who were scouting cars and looking to potentially burn one in the middle of our street. My neighbors and I got iron pipes and confronted them. And even that crew of, like, 15 kids was actually a glimpse into the future of racial harmony in America. It was quite a diverse crew of young people.
One of the things that came out of the 2001 Cincinnati riots was the Collaborative Agreement between the police and communities. Do you think in light of the present situation there’s still value in community-police agreements?
I think the Collaborative Agreement and everything else along that path are certainly better than nothing. But the complete culture of unaccountability in the Minneapolis Police department is well-known and well-documented. There’s no question that this is a cultural problem of how the entire department approaches policing.
I was reading the newspaper this morning that two of the arrested cops were new officers. And their argument is, What were we going to do? [Derek Chauvin] was our senior officer. We’re looking to him for guidance. And if ever there was an argument for why the whole institution needs to get torn down and completely changed, that’s it.
Many of your comics are case studies in resistance. A recent one shows how air traffic controllers, who weren’t allowed to officially strike, used “informal power” to end the threat of another government shutdown. Do you think we’ll see more of this form of power wielded as the pandemic exacerbates economic disparity alongside a newly invigorated Black Lives Matter movement?
Without a doubt. There’s catastrophic unemployment and a cruel neglect of public health. I spend my days calling union members who’ve been laid off, and the only thing keeping them from just complete desperation is the $600 additional unemployment they get from the CARES Act. The minute that doesn’t get extended, this country is going to descend into utter desperation. And these arrogant politicians have no idea, because they don’t realize how many people rely on such a small amount of money to survive. We are a profoundly divided country.