Trigger warning: This piece recounts instances and images of brutal violence and racial trauma.
When history books will tell the story of the life-changing events that took place in 2020, many will first seek to recall the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While immensely crucial to recall, there are various others who will lead the charge to document the civil unrest and societal reckoning that took place on the front of racial justice in the United States.
Deon Jones, a performance artist, knows all too well the weight that comes with the battle for racial equity. As a former mentee of the late John Lewis and EBONY 2021 Power 100 awardee, he has studied the generational art of resistance and understands the currency of utilizing his own voice.
In 2020, in the heat of the Black Lives Matter protests, he was shot at with a rubber bullet by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Peter Bueno and suffered extreme facial lacerations. After almost three years of intimidation, perseverance and a struggle for truth, Jones was victorious in his case against the LAPD and still alive to bring it to fruition. In the midst of enduring such a traumatizing incident, his federal court case win has now set a historic precedent in how law enforcement across the country will be held accountable for their response to protestors. Furthermore, it was the first time that the LAPD has been held accountable for their actions during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
Jones shared his story with EBONY and discussed his artistic quest for liberation and how he is continuing to process the aftermath of an unimaginable event that altered his life forever.
EBONY: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
Deon Jones: I am from a small town called Wiggins in Mississippi. I went to American University and spent two years in D.C. after college, and then I made my way to L.A. in 2016. I grew up in a single parent home and was raised by my mom and a lot of strong Black women around me. Like most Black families, I had some my grandparents and a village of folks who raised me, but I grew up very poor as well. I think growing up in Mississippi, and because of the history of Mississippi, I've always sort of been keen to racial matters—whether it was about what it meant to be a Black man growing up in this country, seeing the Ku Klux Klan march down the street, or hearing the stories of Medgar Evers. Those stories always stuck with me and allowed me to learn that racism really has nothing to do with me so how can I overcome that? I always thought that the biggest deterrent to racism was excellence, so it was important for me to do well in school and always push forward in that capacity.
I think that the guiding principle throughout my life has been that there was always a way for me to change the circumstances. Regardless of what I've done in my life or my work as an artist, how do I sort of make a difference in the world?
Did you always have a connection to being involved with activism?
Because of the stories I grew up hearing, I became a student of the civil rights movement. I was always very captivated by the imagery from that time. I refer to myself as being a performance artist, and my first connection to art was seeing those historic photos of Tommy Smith raising his face on the podium during the 1960s Olympics. Not only did I have a connection to the people within the art, but also those who created it—the photographers.
What also shaped my connection to activism was growing up in the church and understanding the role that the church played in the movement as well. It has always created this internal compass in our community's families. It informed how I showed up in the world.
From this long history that I learned about when I was little to my work now as an artist who makes music and spends a lot of my time in the art world, I'm posed with the question of: How do I create something that transforms lives but also releases trauma from a lot of folks? I center and think of those of us who grew up, Black and poor—or like me—Black, poor and queer, and how to make us a little bit more free through the connection to art and activism.
Prior to the chaos that ensued in 2020, what was going on in your life? What space were you in physically and mentally?
Since 2020, this term of racial trauma has come up. When you see something of the magnitude of what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we get so emotionally connected to it because we, as Black folks, can see our loved ones through these instances. We're not desensitized to it all; we feel it so much more deeply—like with the country waiting for the video of Tyree Nichols to be released on a Friday night—all of those emotions rise up in that moment.
I think in this country, our people were sick and tired of being sick and tired. So in the initial days of the protests, I was actually just sitting in my Downtown Los Angeles apartment. I heard the protests from the window earlier during that week and I asked myself, When my future children ask what I did in this moment in history, what will I say. The thought catapulted me from my desk and I joined the protests—until that day that I got shot.
Can you recount what happened on the day of your assault by the LAPD officer?
My friend and I found ourselves in the Trader Joe's parking lot as things escalated on Third Street in Los Angeles. We thought it was the safest place for us to be. We were amongst a crowd of people who were either recording what was going on or kept their hands up. Then I saw an officer, without a body camera, aim his weapon in my direction, and fire into that crowd. He hit me in the face with a rubber bullet, and it felt as if the person who hated you the most had blown it off. I remember praying, God, please don't let me die today. There was a ringing in my head, and I literally thought it was the countdown to death.
My ophthalmologist said that if the bullet had hit me any closer to my temple, I would have been blinded or I would have lost my life. After that, I was really scared to go to sleep because I didn't know what was going to happen to me if I closed my eyes. After baring witness to that and getting home and seeing my face, I knew somebody had to be held accountable.
When it was stated in the court room that the officer would be held liable, what went through your head?
I still have nightmares. I still find myself in different capacities and ways piecing together the impact of that day. I have a scar that I look at every day that reminds me of what happened. I have to frequently explain to people what this scar is from when they ask. When you almost lose your life, you are never the same.
Thank God for that jury. Thank God that they saw the truth and did the courageous thing by looking at the facts and what physically happened in order to return the verdict in our favor. I can only hope that this can help to free an entire generation.
When traumatic instances such as this occur, many forget that there is a human being that still must process the totality of what has happened. How have you found peace and solace since this event took place?
I don't think you ever escape it. What I have reflected upon in my work is that you cannot be afraid of life or death.
We are all going to die—that is the one thing in life that can be depended upon. Because of this, I try to always be fully present, especially with what I've experienced. I strive to do all I can to bring my full self and give all of what I have to every situation. I don't think I can ever truly escape this because it is a part of my life experience, for the rest of my life. Even in the three years since this happened, I am still processing it along with the experience of the trial. I am very much still processing that the word "trial" is not metaphoric. People literally try your credibility or character. People claim that you are lying while in the courtroom and you have to endure that. I had scriptures and a prayer band around me the entire time I went through that. But you're totally right—people forget sometimes that there were human beings who put their lives on the line in the name of justice and equity, and I am still processing what that really means.
But the moment that the verdict came down, I was repeating the 23rd Psalm over and over again to myself. I had my head down as I listened. When I heard the first three nos around the First Amendment, I just breathed in deeply. There was actually a feeling of peace that began to come over me as I knew that I had told my truth and my story. As that peace came over me, I heard a "yes" around the violation of the Fourth Amendment. We had won. I just began to weep. I thanked God for protecting me. All I could think about was reliving the moment that I got shot and the journey I had to be on for over two and a half years.