A U.S. agency is advertising a target dummy that resembles a Black man. An Oakland artist wants that to stop

After watching footage of insurrectionists carrying Confederate flags into the U.S. Capitol last year and erecting a gallows on the grounds outside, Tracy Brown started thinking about buying a gun for her protection.

The Black Oakland artist and activist took a few firearm safety courses and was researching guns online when she stumbled onto a troubling realization: Video after video showed people shooting a target dummy that, to her, had the facial features of a man of African descent: wide-set nose, large lips. Not only that, but the 20-pound rubber figure, from a California company called Kistabra Inc., was being sold for $90.99 through a federal government website to other federal, state and local agencies, including the U.S. military and police departments.

“My first thought was, ‘What the hell is this?’” Brown recalled. “It’s specifically made to look like a Black man. This isn’t some accident or mistake.”

Roughly one year after her discovery, Brown is using her art to draw attention to what she says is a tool of institutional dehumanization, one that contributes to the disproportionate government killings of Black men. On Wednesday, she premiered an art installation in which she transformed one of the dummies into a commentary on police killings. She is currently circulating an online petition calling for the federal government to stop helping sell them.

“The folks who make and sell these things are in a position of power,” Brown said. “We also need to remind them they are also in a position of responsibility.”

In January 2019, the U.S. General Services Administration inked a five-year contract worth at least $2,500 with Kistabra Inc. The GSA procures equipment, goods and services for federal, state and local agencies. It does this by offering long-term contracts — called GSA Schedules — to commercial companies like Kistabra Inc. Through the GSA, these companies can sell their products to any government agency without signing contracts with each.

Kistabra Inc. was founded in Arizona in 2013. The company’s website says its “realistic 3D targets” have been sold to “hundreds of Law Enforcement agencies” and “every branch of the US Military and to all types of customers in many other countries.”

It’s unclear how true that is. Dun & Bradstreet, a business analysis firm, estimates Kistabra’s annual revenue to be a relatively modest $230,000.

During a virtual panel that Brown coordinated Thursday, Mikail Ali, a former San Francisco police officer and current president of the Bay Area chapter of the National African American Gun Association, said the SFPD didn’t use the dummies while he was with the department.

“When I first saw it, it made me sick to my stomach,” Ali said. “I immediately recognized it for what it is: It’s a tool that I believe desensitizes those who use them in the area of use of force, as it relates to white people. Period. End of story.”

I reached out to the president of Kistabra Inc., Mike Lessnick, to ask the intent behind the dummy’s design, but never received a response. And the only online interview I could find of him addressing the topic is in a 2018 YouTube video titled “Is the Rubber Dummy Racist? Well, listen to what Mike, the CEO, has to say!”

“I’m sorry it looks the way it does, but the reality of it is it was just a solid model I pulled off the internet by searching for a human form,” he says in the video. “I’ve been taking a lot of flak over social media and things like that for it, but I never respond to it simply because I think we got more important things in the world to worry about besides arguing that point.”

Lessnick clearly moved on, as he’s still selling the same product four years later. The dummy’s outer “skin” is spray-painted white. The layer below is black. According to the company, this color pairing helps shooters see where their bullets strike. Kistabra Inc. says the dummy can absorb “thousands of rounds” and even sells “kill shot” packets, which are filled with red powder and can mimic the spray of blood when struck by bullets.

Brown’s art installation, which formally premiered at Oakport, a downtown Oakland co-working and event space, features one of these rubber torsos. She scrubbed off its white paint and attached angel wings to its back. The wing feathers feature names of dozens of people killed by police violence.

During the hour I spent with Brown at her debut last week, nobody else entered the art gallery. Her online petition, which she plans to submit to GSA officials on Juneteenth, has a small goal of 200 signatures. As of Friday morning, it had 158.

But her campaign has been noticed. On Friday, GSA spokesperson Andra Higgs sent me this statement: “We’ve just been made aware of the petition and we are committed to reviewing this matter thoroughly. GSA is committed to advancing racial equity and we look forward to following up when we have more information.”

Brown said she hopes her work helps address the long-maligned image of the Black male body.

“As Black people, all we can do is tackle one issue like this at a time,” Brown said. “And hopefully create some change.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Justin Phillips appears Sundays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @JustMrPhillips