After a big community-involved event this week Brooklyn became the home to the first Black Lives Matter (BLM) mural in New York City. Painted along a busy Brooklyn thoroughfare, the mural, painted in large sunflower yellow block letters, is similar to the one commissioned by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser which leads to the White House’s 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. address. The Brooklyn mural stretches 565 feet from Harriet Ross Tubman Ave./Fulton St. and Marcy Ave. to Brooklyn Ave. in Bedford-Stuyvesant. To further the conversation, the artwork presents a unique touch as it displays the names of unarmed Black civilians killed in racially motivated attacks of police brutality, among them Sean Bell, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. The mural also has a row of caskets as twenty bars––representing the year 2020.
Robert Cornegy, Brooklyn Council Member for District 36, which covers the mural’s location, helped spearhead the project along with Dr. Indira Etwaroo, executive artistic director of The Billie Holiday Theatre in Restoration Plaza.
Cornegy determined that with the pushback against the Black Lives Matter organization with the “All Lives Matter” response––despite the continued murders of unarmed Black people––it is important that the Black Lives Matter narrative be repeated.
And despite the obvious gentrification of the area, he stressed that in Bed-Stuy, “the last bastion of Black homeownership…of small businesses..of political power..of ecumenical power, there should be no place else in the city, or state of New York where Black Lives Matter more than in Bedford Stuyvesant…This community is 65% Black, and if we’re not gonna speak up for ourselves, how can we expect anyone to speak up for us? [It] is symbolic.”
He added, “We have city, state, and federal representatives that are leveraging their political careers to make sure that Black Lives Matter in the budget…in legislation and policy.”
The Amsterdam News questioned why it was necessary to reiterate the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in paint, no less on the street, when surely it is more than obvious to us, as Black people.
Asked if the slogan sought to seek validation from others about the value of Black life, the term-limited politician––who reportedly is looking to run for borough president next year––replied,
“We shouldn’t be committing violent acts against one another…We can’t continue to keep devaluing our lives…Black-on-Black crime is a real thing.
“I did this for us. This wasn’t to validate that statement to other people around the world. This was so that other people who love us validate us…not another segment of society. This is us talking to us for us.”
The painting of the street began early in the morning on Saturday, the 13th of June. While all the letters and bars were done a day later, the finishing touches were still being made in the days following. More than thirty Brooklyn-based visual artists joined famed artist Cey Adams and Dawud West to bring the mural to fruition. “There’s a lot of things that have been going on lately, and for years, that have been questionable, or even reprehensible,” said West. “For people to take notice has been a task. So, this, actually, makes you take notice.”
According to Adams, the focus of the mural is also to give a visual display of emotions. “By incorporating the names into the mural, I wanted to illustrate the pain of the victims and their families affected by racial violence. As a Black man in America, I feel a sense of pride but also anger and sadness,” Adams said.
The mural’s unveiling brought out notable Brooklynites including, NYS Attorney General Letitia James, Rev. Al Sharpton and Spike Lee, as well political figures NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Assembly Member Tremaine Wright and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.
Brooklyn being Brooklyn, the pride in this community project was reflected in the dozens of people who came out to help paint in the lines all day Saturday; those who set up tables to vend selling T-shirts, and masks; as DJs Carlos Sanchez and Dean Floyd kept everything nice, smooth and lively.
Snippets of sidewalk conversations ranged from bragging Brooklyn artist-Style that the Bed-Stuy is the first area in New York City to have the sign painted on the street; to annoyance at the premise; to embracing the notoriety of being the first area to have such a huge art installation from a small business and tourist standpoint.
The mural was unveiled with a Sunrise Ceremony on Sunday with prayer, and a powerful and heartfelt performances by Brooklyn artists Carl Hancock Rux, and Marcelle Lashley who performed her moving tribute “Brown Baby.”
With the country’s eyes opening to the constant displays of police brutality and misconduct towards Black and Brown citizens, similar murals have and will continue to spring up in various parts of the nation. In between navigating his daily coronavirus pressers, Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed his desire to see similar murals and co-naming streets in all five boroughs. He has closed the block to vehicles for the remainder of the summer and vowed to work with the MTA to coordinate nearby transit.
Of all the dozens of police killings of unarmed Black men, women and youths/children; the barbaric killing on May 25, 2020 of a handcuffed George Floyd as he pled for his life on a busy Minneapolis street from under the knee of then police officer Derek Chauvin, was the straw which broke the proverbial camel’s back. This, just after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery (killed by white would-be pseudo-vigilantes in Georgia), Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Koquice Jefferson who were each shot to death in their homes by Louisville and Texas police. Louisville “BBQ Man” David McAtee was also recently reportedly killed in crossfire by police.
A white cop shot Rayshard Brooks in the back at a Wendy’s fast food drive-thru on Friday June 12, following which someone in the community burnt the Wendy’s to the ground as an immediate response. Rayshard Brooks’ Black life mattered to his wife and four children. Rallies and marches for him were instant, and combined with the going protests for Floyd and Taylor.
The constant cycle of grief at the hands of police brutality has seen protests for 25 plus days straight in New York and the world over. The recent litany of police murders of unarmed Black men, women and children, will have real activists continuously making demands for real justice.
There have been some murder and manslaughter charges against the four cops in the Floyd case, plus the instant cop firings, some police policy changes, some promises made, funds earmarked, old legislation suddenly passed aiming to curtail or expose violent behavior…all in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“There has been some incremental progress, but the question is will it be sufficient to save Black lives, now that we acknowledge that they matter?” said retired detective Marquez Claxton, a regular MSNBC contributor, and the director of public relations and political affairs with the Black Law Enforcement Alliance. He determined, “I am sure that there will be some incremental movement, but will it be substantive? Will it be long term impactful versus short term just spur-of-the-moment significant?”
There are those who question the whole Black Lives Matter movement moment, because they are concerned about how the controversial organization has been able to emerge as the lead voice in the fight against police brutality. Observers are eager to point out that the anti-police brutality movement is decades upon decades old, with a myriad of grassroots organizations that have been doing the work: whether cameras were around or not. Some Black activists questioned whether or not the BLM movement has been pushed in order to control the strategy; and deter what could have been an organic groundswell which would have responded with great animus to the continued murders of Black males and females––adults, youths and children––at the hands of police.
“I do not like the phraseology, I don’t understand who the hell are we trying to convince that we matter,” said a perturbed elder, as he watched the multi-generational artists line up the Black Lives Matter letters and mark the points.
On his Facebook page Iyaba Ibo Mandingo asked, “Is Black Lives Matter a demand, an exclamation, an admonishment or…a plea?”
Omidiran Ogunlade responded, “I was actually thinking about this today…We wouldn’t be saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ If All Lives Mattered! So, tuh say: ‘Black Lives Matter,’ is only half of the sentence! The complete statement should be: Black Lives Matter! We Demand Reparations Now!”
“I understand the movement and the purpose for it,” said recent high school graduate Mya Benjamin, as she watched the artists color in the splash bright sunflower yellow paint on the grey road. “However signs and chants do not change the fact that we are still being killed by systematic racist brutality almost every day.”
The college-bound Bed-Stuy resident added, that while she has reservations about the messaging in general, she and her peers were enjoying the great community energy and comradery. “It does bring the community together, and gives people who are not Black another viewpoint. Like those of us who live in the neighborhood, they have to see it every day.”
For the artists it can be personal, and political.
Dr. Indira Etwaroo, executive artistic director at The Billie Holiday Theatre said, “Sixty-five years ago in 1955, Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, asked for an open casket at her son’s funeral. She said that everybody needs to know what they did to ‘my son.’ This courageous moment sparked the Civil Rights Movement. This street-sized mural with the names of our brothers and sisters who have been killed by racially motivated violence in this country is the courageous act of a collective of Brooklyn artists. We join with other cities across the country and say that this is our open casket to the world–– laying bare the senseless and continued killings of Black people. In order to heal and to move forward, we must address that the current systems in place are inadequate to ensure life and liberty for all people. That is what this mural stands for here in Brooklyn, home to the largest African American community in the nation.
“The artists are speaking truth to power.”