Story by Pete Shaw
The faded spray paint on the corner of Northeast 6th and Halsey reads, “We will always remember you.” The “you” most directly refers to Keaton Otis, the young Black man was murdered there by the Portland police on May 12, 2010. Since his death, that corner has on the 12th of every month seen a 6 PM vigil for Otis. Fred Bryant, Otis’s father, started the vigils one month after his son’s death, and over the years the vigils became a place to remember all victims of police violence, both the deceased and those who carry on. On Monday September 12, 2022 Otis, Bryant, and all casualties of police violence will be remembered in a more permanent fashion when a memorial art project is officially unveiled.
The project has been in the making for some time. The idea was first considered just prior to the May 2020 vigil and over the months since then, it began taking shape. Finally, in mid July, work commenced on the first phase of the installation.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery, and it was chosen as the basis for this first phase of the memorial because it is both a shrewd and apt choice, and a moving metaphor. In this case, the pottery, at least its physical representation, is the stretch of NE 6th between Halsey and Clackamas. The street has long been in a state of disrepair, the cracks in its concrete expanding in both size and number with each passing year, time and weather taking their toll.
In Kintsugi, which translates to “golden joinery,” pottery shards are brought together with a lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The effect is not simply to repair the pottery, but to strengthen it. The clear veins of the resinous lines demand the viewer contemplate the cracks, and thus the breakage of the pottery, not as things to be hidden, but rather as part of the pottery’s history.
On Wednesday September 7, the last day of work on this phase of the memorial before its debut, I had the pleasure of stopping by and seeing what progress had been made. Even in the morning shade, the gold paint, laid down over the tar used to fill the cracks, glowed. Someone was adding some final touches to some of the bare tar that remained. Other people were setting up tables and chairs. Over on the sidewalk, a man worked his trowel across a four foot square piece of freshly poured cement.
Sharita Towne, who designed the project but does not like being referred to as “the artist,” explained the Kintsugi metaphor. Noting that we all have our own cracks that need repair, Towne told me how the memorial will remind people of “the need to accept the broken parts of people we know and love” and to “embrace and offer repair” to them.
Towne soon headed over to the tables where four people were using what looked like dental instruments to peel gold colored plastic, a darker shade than that used on the street cracks, from transparent plastic. It is delicate work, and when finished, each of the clear pieces read, “For Keaton Otis,” and also bore the image of a marigold. These pieces will be used to make t-shirts, not only a present reminder of Otis, but as well one recalling that Otis himself used to design and make t-shirts.
Aside from their beauty, all I know of marigolds is that they are often used by home gardeners, with varying degrees of success, to keep rabbits and deer away from the crops. Towne informed me that many cultures use them for both celebration and grief. The particular type in the vases is a calendula whose name reminds of the passage of time.
I walked over to the sidewalk where the work on the square was finishing. Bright letters emboss the middle of it, reading, “In Memory of Keaton Otis, January 4th, 1985-May 12th, 2010.” Above and beneath the inscription are two jagged lines, more Kintsugi, but also, I thought to myself, a reminder of this place, lying between two rivers, the Willamette and the Columbia, which both nurtured and took Keaton Otis. Before, during, and after his life, they roll, they flow, much as Otis’s memory will continue doing.
Ridhi, who is as humbly welcoming as Towne, looked over the square. She told me “there is always a sense of welcome” at this corner which over the years–has it already been twelve?–has attained something of a talismanic quality. I do not mean to say it is magical or religious, although for some it may be. And its history will not let me see it as a place providing protection. But there is no denying that for many who have lost loved ones to police violence, it has been a place of healing.
It feels strange to call this Monday’s dedication of the project a celebration. After all, what is there to celebrate about the murder of a young Black man by police? We are told time and again that police are here to serve and protect, but no one ever tells us who and what they serve and protect.
But Monday’s unveiling is a celebration. It will certainly mourn the loss of Otis, Bryant, and the ever increasing list of people murdered by police, particularly Black and Indigenous people, and people of color, almost always with impunity. But it will also commemorate those who continue fighting for justice.
Lives are not so easily put back together as shards of pottery. But for the past 146 months, the corner of NE 6th and Halsey has been a place that has offered the possibility of some repair, some healing. Many times, people there have talked about how the vigils filled a need. They provide the support of community that helps them get up when all they want to do is lie down.
“There’s a reverie in the gold lines for a cracked open world that lets us step out with our whole selves,” said Towne. “I think of Keaton, a creative person, breathing, walking and dreaming life into his community. So it’s for Keaton, and it’s for us. To keep holding each other close, and holding each other up, in memory and grief, and celebration of life within us.”
And so Monday will also be a celebration of the endurance of a group to which nobody wants to belong. It will celebrate the people who, despite unimaginable pain, help others pick up their shards and start piecing them back together.
The unveiling of the Keaton Otis Memorial will take place on Monday September 12, 2022 from 5-8 PM at Northeast 6th and Halsey. It will be a family friendly affair with food and speakers.
Unable to attend? The event will be live streamed. Tune in at the Justice for Keaton Otis Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JusticeForKeatonOtis.