Eric Drooker, the artist who created this week’s New Yorker cover art, has never been to Ferguson, Missouri. But like some of the suburb’s citizens, he has been arrested for protesting the police in his hometown.
That experience colors his latest work, a Dantean depiction of silhouettes raising their arms in the “hands up, don’t shoot” position through a miasma of tear gas while the headlights of a police vehicle burn in the background like the eyes of a “wild animal,” Drooker said.
“The painting is most definitely informed by my experience, as someone who’s been on the receiving end of police brutality — as well as someone who’s witnessed numerous incidents of police violence toward peaceful protesters,” Drooker said. “The composition is a subjective view of someone in the street, beholding a military-style assault by police.”
Police riot was an “an unforgettable, apocalyptic scene.”
Drooker remembers beating a drum and marching in a musical protest in New York’s Tompkins Square Park in 1996 after the city evicted squatters from a 13th Street building, some of whom were his friends. The group was “demanding justice, as if we were going to do anything about it, walking in circles playing music,” Drooker said.
Then, Drooker noticed police officers were following the protesters around the park. He got skittish, “like a cat.” Then, he said, police moved in and began arresting people en masse. They slapped three pairs of handcuffs — one metal and two plastic — on Drooker and put him in a waiting cruiser. He was photographed, fingerprinted and booked on charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. They didn’t stick; Drooker was protesting in a public park.
“You’re supposed to be able to do that, according to the First Amendment,” he said.
It wasn’t Drooker’s first time watching a protest devolve into arrests. In 1988, protesters in the same park defied curfew and yelled at police officers who were ordering them to leave. A tense standoff ensued.
“Then without warning, riot police charged into the crowd on horseback,” Drooker said. “Screaming and chaos ensued. People reacted by throwing bottles, bricks, and firecrackers at the cops. I took it all personally. This was the park I’d grown up in . . . my playground as a child. I’d never seen this level of violence firsthand — I saw the police just cracking people’s skulls open and galloping into the crowd — helicopters hovering above tenements — an unforgettable, apocalyptic scene.”
Drooker memorialized the episode in a poster, “Police Riot,” which was posted throughout the neighborhood, he said. It would eventually become the cover art for a single from the band Rage Against the Machine.
Drooker turns around “emergency cover”
Drooker didn’t have the luxury of witnessing Ferguson’s protests firsthand, so he had to rely on photographs from the scene. He began researching the piece on Monday after receiving an email from The New Yorker’s art director: the magazine wanted to do a cover story on Ferguson and needed art as soon as possible. Drooker got to work. At one point, he got so frustrated with the quick turnaround that he nearly quit. But at 1 a.m. Tuesday, he had a draft. After the magazine approved the painting Tuesday, Drooker spent a few hours refining the piece, then overnighted it to New York.
Drooker says breaking news sometimes forces New Yorker cover artists to work quickly. He got a similar email after the Boston Marathon bombings and created the artwork that eventually ran on the magazine’s cover.
While these “emergency covers” require a quick turnaround, they offer artists a chance to contribute to the conversation surrounding big stories, Drooker said.
“I feel like I’m getting to put my two cents into a national story,” he said.