A Half-Year of Unarmed

My life changed on May 25th, 2020. I just didn't know it yet. That's the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by the racist Derek Chauvin. At the time I'd been working on a creative project involving the web and teaching myself ES-6, the newest flavor of Javascript. Then the world got set on fire.

I started designing Unarmed jerseys in 2013. For over a week I wrestled in my mind about whether to design a new one for George Floyd. "Someone else will protest," I told myself, "this isn't my fucking job."

 


Meanwhile the movement for black lives roiled America in a year when the country was already tipped sideways by a global pandemic and the rancorous shouts of the coming election.

One day, looking over the 10 other jerseys I'd designed to that point, it felt like the rest of the people were staring back at me asking why I wouldn't design a jersey for George? I got over myself and decided to dedicate a morning to creating a new design. After several hours work and a few bouts of tears, I stared at a new Unarmed jersey in the colors of the Minnesota Timberwolves. I felt empty, lost. Something wasn't right. Then I remembered the powder blue and gold colorway of the erstwhile Minneapolis Lakers.

I redid the jersey in those colors, keeping two stripes from the Timberwolves design, knitting two eras of Minneapolis basketball together, and posted the design to social media. XXL props to USXL Printing and Hungry Vintage for throwing in with Unarmed and getting the design from the tweets to the streets. Within a week we posted the series along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I appeared on television four times the week after that.

 

 


Periodically over the years people asked me what I planned to do with the jerseys – would I ever make physical garments? I didn't trust the motives of most of the people asking the question and, besides, Unarmed was just an art project, a side thing. That changed on May 25th, 2020, too. I no longer wanted to write lines of Javascript, or rewrite lines from my latest screenplay. I wanted to figure out a way to wade into the racial chasm ripping my country apart. I wanted to create something that could help heal the wound.

One of the people who'd asked me about Unarmed over the years was my good friend Robert Pietri. His business partner and cousin Rick Gonzalez has decades experience in garment manufacturing and logistics. Robert asked again if I was interested in meeting Rick and this time I said yes. I spoke slowly on our first video call, the better to keep hold of my emotions – Unarmed can be potent – and we agreed to another conversation. Soon we were chatting weekly, soon even more often than that. Lalithra joined to help out with social media. I'll put our squad up against anybody's.

In the Fall I crossed the country, installing Unarmed in cities strafed by the trauma of police kilings. Our tour allowed us to see that each community is hurting in a slightly different way. It allowed us to see that there's a place for this work to help the process of healing. At the end of the tour I was finally able to meet with the team in-person after nearly six months of video calls, emails, and texts. The three of us sat down for a day of work, the first of many.

Here's an image of a young man I met in Louisville:


Unarmed feels more like a calling than a brand, more like a mission than an art project, more like a passion project than activism. It is all three. Over the next year we aim to bring out a series of products that enables us to fund actions against-, and families victimized by- racist police violence. We also aim to heal, to protect, to offer salve to communities scarred by needless race-based targeting. We aim to provide tools for joining this struggle to other Americans who can look away no longer.

Unarmed is for everyone who can love fellow human beings.

Over the next few weeks, months, and years we aim to bring out more garments, installations, and actions that snarl at injustice, champion a love of all people, starting with our most vulnerable, and push our society toward equity and inclusion. We want to rebuild the middle, for everybody. Thank you for joining us. I can't wait to see what we'll achieve together.

 

- Raafi Rivero