While statues of white supremacy are being toppled in Richmond, beheaded in Boston, and thrown into rivers in the United Kingdom, Black Lives Matter murals are popping up. In action sanctioned by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a team of 8 artists and a host of volunteers painted an abstract mural of 50-foot-high, all capital letters, spelling out “Black Lives Matter.” The yellow letters are illuminated from sidewalk to sidewalk, and over two blocks on D.C.’s stretch of Sixteenth street, which leads to the White House, in front of Lafayette Square. It is said that one can see the letters from a satellite photo. Bowser also went a step further and renamed the area Black Lives Matter Plaza, commemorating it with a lustrous street sign created by Wayne Bennet Pettus, a sign fabrication technician for the D.C government and rapper.
Before the creation of the illustrious mural, Executive Director of the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center Keyonna Jones, along with eight other artists, met at 3:30 a.m. on Friday. Jones recalls the Zoom call discussing the conception of the mural being quite uncomfortable. The multicultural artists would only complete the mural if they could remain anonymous. They did not want to face the conundrum of political backlash. There was a feud brewing between the mayor and President Trump over control of the District’s streets and his inflammatory language in a tweet, threatening to unleash vicious dogs on protestors. Once the artists were ensured anonymity, they moved forward with their plans for the mural with the logistics of finishing it by midday.
“The first ‘B’ took us three hours,” Jones recalled. Once they figured out the measurements and proportions, four of the artists moved down the street, blocking letters while the other four painted. Then they ran out of the three gallons of paint part way through the “L” in “Black.” They did not get more paint until 7 a.m., and it was a different shade of yellow. The deadline was only four hours away. The paint rollers started breaking. As the middle of the night transitioned into the morning, people stopped to watch and spread the word on social media. “People were coming up from all over, asking if they could help. We did not know what to say. The community took over,” Jones said. “I don’t know how many there were in the end.” The mural was completed on time.
Mayor Bowser said during a news conference, “There are people who are craving to be heard and to be seen and to have their humanity recognized. We had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on an especially important street in our city. That message is to the American people that black lives matter, black humanity matters, and we as a city raise that up.”
While people have experienced joy from the murals painted in prominent public spaces around different cities, there is some skepticism. The Washington, D.C., chapter of Black Lives Matter condemned the mural and Pettus’s street sign. In a tweet, the BLM group called the project “a performative distraction from real policy changes” and said, “Bowser has consistently been on the wrong side of BLM D.C. history. This is to appease white liberals while ignoring our demands. Black Lives Matter means defund the police.”
Nevertheless, the history-making mural encouraged other cities to follow suit. In Raleigh, North Carolina, artists painted “End Racism Now” in yellow on a downtown block in front of the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh. In Oakland, protesters painted three blocks near city hall with “Black Lives Matter.” Dallas, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also have murals prominently displayed in their cities. New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio has decided that the city will paint “Black Lives Matter” in bold lettering on a prominent street in every borough. One mural is already planned for the street in front of the city hall in Syracuse, NY, to coincide with the city’s Juneteenth celebration. New York will also follow the move of Bowser by co-naming streets with the same phrase.
Hopefully, the murals are more than paint on pavement and a photo-op. There has to be transformative action behind the phrases of Black empowerment adorning city blocks. In the words of political activist, philosopher, and professor emerita Angela Davis, “You have to act as if it were possible to transform the world radically. And you have to do it all the time.”
Kelly Washington is a freelance writer and blogger living on the southside of Chicago. You can follow her on social media @ Sunrise and Sugar (Facebook).