The Significance of the Black Lives Matter Mural
By Shantay Robinson
For the past few weeks, the country has been in an uproar over the brutality inflicted on black people by the hands of police. Protestors have taken to the streets all over the world to fight for the realization that Black Lives Matter. The recording of 46-year-old George Floyd dying at the hands of Minneapolis police went viral and so many responded to the video with outrage. But the protests around the world were so much more. Floyd’s death sparked the protests, but the fact that the murder was captured on video and his murderers had yet to be charged, angered people to move into action. The protests were for black lives. They were also for Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and far too many more whose lives were lost at the hands of police who have not been charged and convicted for their deaths. The protestors want police forces to be held accountable for their actions. The black lives lost by police violence, especially when they have done nothing wrong, deserve justice. The protests are about police reforms that need to happen in order to ensure the safety of the communities they are meant to serve. These black figures who have died due to police violence, and the subsequent inaction by police departments, highlights the fact that black lives do not matter enough. So, when protestors are demanding that black lives matter, it is not because all lives don’t matter, it is because according to our legislators and judges the loss of black life is not important enough to prosecute the murderers of those lives.
While protestors were in the streets over the past couple of weeks, there have been some riots and looting in several communities, but the protests have been largely peaceful. Protestors have been met with aggressive police officers, but they were also met with police officers who showed solidarity with the cause. Corporations like Ben and Jerry’s and Reebok put out statements standing in solidarity with the black community. Activists like Tamika Mallory have been vocal about the fight for justice. Members of Congress were also photographed wearing kente cloth and taking a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The New York Times reported about a mural painted of George Floyd in Minneapolis and juxtaposed it to a mural painted of Amadou Diallo in New York. Diallo was also the victim of police brutality in 1999. Though these murals serve as cautionary tales, the violence by police is still happening twenty years later. Art has taken centerstage in the past week. On Friday, a mural by Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser was revealed. In bright yellow, painted directly on the street leading to the White House a mural of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was met with ecstatic support from people all over the world. The Black Lives Matter Mural has also been met with appreciation by Atlanta Congressman John Lewis who has fought for racial justice most of his life. About the mural, he stated, “It’s very moving. Very moving. Very impressive…I think the people in DC and around the nation are sending a mighty powerful and strong message to the rest of the world (that we will get there).”
The Black Lives Matter Mural is a work of conceptual art that provokes the consciousness of those who view it. Although on the ground it can seem abstract, as the entire phrase is not visible, the impact of photography and social media work together for the effectiveness of the piece. The mural also designates space for protestors who are fighting against police violence. Designating this space is symbolic action on the part of a politician, just as much as art can be. Art can do but so much but raising people’s awareness is very significant in this fight. And that might be what Mayor Bowser does with this mural. It’s symbolically standing up to the powers that be that deny black people their humanity. It could possibly serve as an awakening to politicians riding down that street of the lengths to which people are willing to fight for justice. Not only did Mayor Bowser have the mural painted, she renamed the street where it is placed, Black Lives Matter Plaza. We could say that the mural and the street renaming is a performative action by the mayor, and we will see if any lasting change happens. But by utilizing art, she’s shown that the voices of the protestors are being heard.
While Bowser is only one mayor, taking a stance like this could be an alarm for other mayors across the country to wake up and realize that black lives are not mattering to the police forces who serve their communities. Whether or not we will see real change remains to be seen. But since the protestors have been out, all four police officers in the George Floyd case have been charged with murder and the Breonna Taylor case has been opened for investigation. But this has all happened before. There were trials for the killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castille and all of their murders were set free. The vigilance of activists and protestors are really being tested at this time. The world is watching and protesting in solidarity with the black community in the United States. Will justice be served for the world to see? How will this protest be different from the uprisings in the 1960s and 1990s where lasting change didn’t occur? What will happen when lawmakers start to realize that black lives matter too?
Since the DC mural was created, there has been an addendum added to it by protestors who painted the words “Defund the Police.” There have also been similar murals created in other cities across the country, including, “End Racism Now” in Raleigh North Carolina, “Black Lives Matter” in Sacramento and Oakland California. While these murals do not have a direct impact on the justice regarding black lives, they are statements that the country is in this together. There have been protests in all 50 states. The murals make the statement that the protestors are being heard and that those who are not on the side of the fight for justice for black lives, have been put on notice. These bold statements, in the form of murals, speak of the voices of the people who are taking bold steps to fight for justice even in the midst of a pandemic. Protestors are risking their lives and their well-beings to see justice served and have changes made. Protesting in the midst of a pandemic shows just how incensed the people are. And the message can’t really get any louder than that. But Mayor Bowser’s mural can be seen from space; this artistic statement, like Nina Simone famously states, reflects the times in which we live.
Symbolic action by lawmakers is not enough. We need real changes. The inaction that has happened in far too many cases of police brutality cannot remain the standard. Not enough change has happened in regard to police brutality from the uprisings in the 1960s, 1990s, and today. For real change to happen we need for lawmakers driving up and down Black Lives Matter Plaza to take heed to the message Mayor Bowser is invoking. As a symbolic artistic statement, the mural makes its message clear to the world, now the real work needs to happen not just symbolic action. But symbolic action, if it does anything at this time in the journey, should keep people hopeful that they are being heard, justice will be served, and real changes will be made.
National Geographic live streamed LA92, a documentary about the uprising that occurred after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. While the documentary also features news clips from the Watts Rebellion in 1965, it could essentially be a commentary on what is happening today. Not much has changed. Just like in this contemporary moment, outrage was sparked because of the outcome of the police brutality inflicted on Rodney King. Even though the brutality inflicted on King was recorded and clearly showed excessive force, those police were set free. His life didn’t matter. So, when we are demanding that black lives matter, this is not because black people want special treatment in this country. But it’s asking for those who take black lives to be held accountable; we want justice served for black lives the way justice is served for any other life. Both the uprising in 1965 and 1992 were in response to police brutality. And so is this uprising in 2020. One difference about this contemporary movement is that its reach is pervasive. There have been protests around the world in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the murder of George Floyd. The 2020 Black Lives Matter Uprising, unlike the previous uprisings across the country, is highly publicized. And its pervasiveness might be the change we are looking for.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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