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Voice Mail Art Project Honors People of Color Killed by the Police

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For her son’s birthday, Gwen Woods left Mario Woods a voice mail message he’ll never hear.

Mr. Woods was fatally shot in 2015 by police officers in San Francisco, but to celebrate his birthday last year, on July 22, Ms. Woods called him. She left the message through “1-800 Happy Birthday,” an online audio art project honoring the lives of people of color who were killed by the police.

In her message, Ms. Woods imagined what she and her son would have done for his birthday: visit with Grandma, go shoe-shopping, maybe even buy some music.

“Obviously, we’d be doing something wonderful,” Ms. Woods said in the message, adding that she would have baked him a cake because “what’s a birthday without a birthday cake?”

The project lets people listen to and leave messages for people of color who have died in encounters with law enforcement. It was conceived by Mohammad Gorjestani, who directed a short film in 2016 titled “Happy Birthday Mario Woods,” in which Ms. Woods shares the story of her son’s life and celebrates his birthday with loved ones.

Mr. Gorjestani, 37, has also directed two similar short films, “Happy Birthday Philando Castile” and “Happy Birthday Oscar Grant,” about men who were fatally shot by the police. He decided to expand the idea by using an approach that was more accessible and, he said, nostalgic: voice mail messages.

“One day, it just hit me,” Mr. Gorjestani said. “I wanted people to understand two things: one, the scale of how much of an epidemic this is; and two, to really think about people in a way that transcended just grief and was more about honoring and celebrating.”

When a person of color is killed by the police, Mr. Gorjestani said he is often frustrated that the coverage tends to emphasize the death more than the life that preceded it.

“What gets lost in this,” he said, “is the humanness of each individual — the fact that each of these individuals had their own goals in life, the things they were planning on doing that day, the next day.”

When the idea of using voice mail messages came to Mr. Gorjestani, he began sketching out how it would work. From an artistic perspective, the messages offered a nostalgic feel for the “pre-iPhone era,” he said.

Mr. Gorjestani introduced the 1-800 Happy Birthday project on July 22, which would have been Mr. Woods’s 31st birthday. Visitors to 1800happybirthday.com will find dozens of names of people killed by the police. They can listen to voice mail messages others have left, and leave their own by calling one of the phone numbers assigned to each victim.

Mr. Gorjestani said the concept was not driven by the coronavirus pandemic, but the format was well-suited to an era of social-distancing restrictions. People can engage with the project from their homes, he said.

“When technology works well, it democratizes things,” Mr. Gorjestani said. “I think in this case, we were able to create an experience that the barrier of entry, the barrier of participation, was very low.”

By focusing on birthdays, Mr. Gorjestani said he hoped to bring out a more personal side of the victims and offer their loved ones an opportunity to heal.

Ms. Woods described the project as cathartic. The police said her son Mario had been armed with a knife and had refused to follow police orders to drop it when officers shot him at least 15 times. Video footage of the confrontation circulated widely online, prompting calls for San Francisco’s police chief to resign.

“These individuals, they aren’t just one-dimensional. They’re human beings,” Ms. Woods said. “It’s all this hardness that you’re left with, but what Mohammad came up with is how you make the sharp edges smoother.”

In a message to her son Oscar Grant III, the Rev. Wanda Johnson shared her dream that they would have worked in ministry together. That dream came true, she said — just not the way she imagined.

“I thought it would be back to back, not realizing that I would be here in ministry and you in ministry with me, but not physically being here,” Ms. Johnson said in the message.

Mr. Grant was fatally shot in 2009 by a transit officer on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform in Oakland, Calif. Ms. Johnson left the message on Feb. 27, which would have been her son’s 35th birthday.

“Oh, Oscar, you are so missed,” she said. “Not a day goes by without you being on my mind.”

Mr. Gorjestani said he hoped his work would serve as a call to action, particularly for those who have not felt the pain of losing someone in a violent encounter with law enforcement.

“I think for white people, or people who aren’t from these communities, it’s a way to hold them accountable in a new way,” Mr. Gorjestani said. “If you listen to these voice mails and they don’t move you, that’s on you.”

In a message for George Floyd, whose death in police custody last year touched off nationwide protests against police brutality, one caller hoped for “good change.” Another promised to keep fighting for him.

“You don’t know me, but definitely I know you now,” the caller said. “I’m praying that you get vindicated.”

Mr. Gorjestani described the 1-800 Happy Birthday project as a work in progress, one that he hopes will become a physical art installation at a museum. He said he has also considered playing the recordings outside city halls across the country.

“There’s literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other families who have had to endure this,” Mr. Gorjestani said. “Just because you haven’t heard of this person doesn’t mean they weren’t equally loved.”

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