It’s a sad reality that police brutality toward black Americans has been going on for so long that protest clothing from the 1990s can be retroed and still carry a potent message. I managed to miss the UNION LA reissue of iconic, angry designs over a year ago, but, after they were brought to my attention, they deserve to be spotlighted some more. PNB Nation’s post-riot Proud Nubian Brothers NBA logo flip and 1993’s 3 Names long-sleeve tribute to the slain Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs and Phillip Pannell were highlighted in The Source and Vibe back in the day. The Toronto’-born Too Black Guys brand created a series called Jim Crow Couture from which their 2008 If We Must Die protest tee was reproduced. GRQ$ — a local LA brand — created the Don’t Shoot tee relatively recently, paying tribute to the 1991 Robbie Conal poster campaign that played on one of LAPD chief Daryl F. Gates many heavy-handed quotes (September 1990’s “Casual drug users ought to be taken out and shot”), with a chillingly long list of police victims on the back. I was slow in finding out about this project but the proceeds of sales of all four designs in The Return collection go to relevant charities. Did we all get too lit for contemporary streetwear — which owes a colossal debt to black culture — to become politicised beyond the occasional profanity to irritate parental figures?
Given recent circumstances in Dallas, the targeted Gates imagery feels even more inflammatory than usual, but regardless, it’s relevant to the topic at hand. Any attentive Menace II Society viewer will have spotted this poster in Caine’s bedroom. Guerrilla artist Robbie Conal had attacked public figures before, but the timing for this piece captured the furious spirit of the time. On the Union site, GRQ$’s owners mention hunting fruitlessly for a copy to use, and it’s a tough one to find in high res. Conal changed Gates’s quote to “CASUAL DRUG USERS OUGHT TO BE TAKEN OUT AND BEATEN” and explained to the LA Times, “I hope nobody thinks we’re advocating that Daryl Gates be taken out and shot…Fired maybe. But not shot. Everyone realizes that police brutality is a big problem in America, but this image is nothing more than a satirical twist on a concept the chief came up with himself. We just updated it.” Conal even funded the project by creating a limited silkscreened run with actual bullet holes in it and Clay Walker’s 1991 documentary on Conal, Post No Bills, makes the controversy around the Gates image its central topic.