'Society's Cage' Conveys the Oppressive Weight of America's Racism

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A man in black jeans and t-shirt in front of rows of rebar.
Randolph Belle stands in front of 'Society's Cage,' an art installation currently at Oakland City Hall. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

After police officers killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, four Black creatives from the Washington, D.C. office of SmithGroup Architecture resolved to convey, in a work of art, the omnipresence and impact of institutional racism.

Initially debuting in Washington D.C. at the National Mall, and later shown in Baltimore, Maryland and then Tulsa, Oklahoma during the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, Society's Cage currently stands in front of Oakland's City Hall.

"It needed to be in the seat of government," says Randolph Belle, Executive Director of Support Oakland Artists. "Because that's where all of the policy makers and legislators are who can impact the topics at hand. "

Society's Cage is a literal 15' x 15' cage, composed of large steel rods and small lights. It is inscribed with names of those who've died at the hands of police violence, as well as those whose lives have been dedicated to fighting racism. Standing in the middle of its rods, among its heavy weight, one feels the heinous displays of race-based hatred this country has shown.

The rusted steel pipes and electric lights that adorn the Society's Cage art installation.
Rusted steel pipes and electric lights adorn the 'Society's Cage' art installation. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

It's also mathematically accurate. Created by Dayton Mark Schroeter, Julian Arrington, Monteil Crawley, Ivan O'Garro, the piece's dimensions draw upon statistics related to inequalities in the criminal justice system.


"Only a quarter of the rods reach to the ground, reflecting the grim fact that one in four Black Americans will be incarcerated in his or her lifetime," reads the project description.

Belle notes that the walls of the piece represent four of racism's most horrifying manifestations: death by lynching, death by police officer, capital punishment and mass incarceration.

There's an audio aspect to the piece; haunting, recorded sounds of chains, crying and pain. The audio's duration is exactly 8:46, the amount of time George Floyd struggled for his life while pinned under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin.

Viewers are asked to hold their breath as they walk through the exhibition, a nod to Floyd's utterance in his final moments that he couldn't breathe. Attendees are also asked to read the names and quotes written on the raised platform.

After the piece rolled into town earlier this month, organizers held an unveiling with the designers and project sponsors. Subsequently, the piece became a fitting backdrop to protests against the overturning of Roe v. Wade, as well an de facto memorial for the victims of the May 14 mass shooting at a Black neighborhood in Buffalo.

"The piece was created in response to white supremacy," says Belle, who assisted in bringing the artwork to the Bay Area. "It was a tragic coincidence that Society’s Cage was up at that site at the time."

Belle says the piece was made to force audiences to reckon with the pervasive presence of racism in this country. After all, some people might be able to look past racism. But it's difficult to not see a huge metal cage.

'Society's Cage' is on display at Oakland City Hall through Sunday, May 29. That evening, from 7pm–10pm, a closing reception at the site includes the project designers, speakers, Black Panther Party alumni members, musicians Kev Choice and Dame Drummer, Oscar Grant's uncle Cephus Johnson, illustrator Emory Douglas, Oakland Poet Laureate Ayodele Nzinga, activist Cat Brooks, Destiny Muhammad, and a host of artists organized by HipHopTV.

For more information, visit the 'Society's Cage' website or its Instagram.