As the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests continue, artwork affiliated with the movement has become a flashpoint for disagreement in cities across the country.
On Saturday, July 4, a woman in Martinez was filmed using a small bucket of black paint and a roller to cover up the first, bright-yellow “L” in the city’s new “Black Lives Matter” mural. During the video, a man accompanying the woman calls racism a “leftist lie.”
The Martinez Police Department is reportedly now searching for the couple who defaced the artwork, which had been permitted by the city.
Artwork has played a central role in Petaluma’s protests, raising conflicts among community members—and legal questions—over the past month. As a result, at a meeting on Monday, July 6, the Petaluma City Council weighed in on several art-related questions but left underlying legal issues largely unaddressed.
The council approved the creation of a Black Lives Matter street mural without discussion. The artwork, similar to the ones cropping up in cities across the country including Martinez, will spell out “Black Lives Matter” on a yet-to-be-determined public street.
Next, the council temporarily approved an impromptu art installation at the city-operated Leghorns Park, which, in recent weeks has become the center of a legal debate after a man visited the park multiple times to tear down signs, allegedly hitting one woman in the face with his elbow in the process.
Although numerous protesters witnessed the man in action on June 20, a responding police officer told protesters there wasn’t much he could do.
The officer, caught on film, explains that he cannot arrest or charge the man for removing and destroying the artwork because the artwork exists in something of a legal gray zone.
The city chose, at that time, not to enforce the municipal code that usually bars citizens from installing unpermitted art or signs in many city-owned spaces. Because the art was technically not permitted, the police could not prosecute the man for removing it, the officer says.
“We can’t play favorites, so to speak,” the officer comments. “If we’re charging him with taking down the signs, then we’d have to charge you for putting up the signs.”
In a series of interviews last week, the Bohemian attempted to clarify how the Petaluma Police reached this understanding of the law and who offered them legal advice.
Deputy Police Chief Brian Miller said in an interview that the man’s decision to remove the art could be considered free speech under the First Amendment. He also said that the District Attorney’s office advised the police department that the man was “acting on behalf of the City” when he tore down and destroyed the signs.
The District Attorney’s Office denies they offered the department that advice, and City Attorney Eric Danly stated in an email, “The person who removed the signs was not acting as an agent of the City.” Nor did the public attorneys advise the police department that the vandalism of the artworks was protected as freedom of expression.
Although it is now caught up in a nationwide political discussion, the Leghorns Park installation had decidedly non-political beginnings.
Back in December, the Kindness Committee, a group founded by local high school students, began installing their artwork on fences at public schools and parks. The early installations included phrases such as “be nice,” “go for it,” and “be happy,” according to a presentation two of the group’s founders gave to the city council.
In June, as the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests began, the Kindness Committee began installing work in support of the movement at parks around the city. Only then did the students’ artwork become controversial, the Kindness Committee’s members and supporters said during the council meeting.
In mid-June, after some of the signs were ripped down, the Kindness Committee organized a “sign hanging party.” Some of those signs were ripped down as well, but local Black Lives Matters activists and sympathizers continued to add their own work to the Kindness Committee’s Leghorns Park display throughout the month.
In letters submitted to the council, a few residents criticized the appearance and political significance of the artwork. One man, speaking during public comment, said that permitting the artwork, even temporarily, could lead the city to slip into lawlessness.
Those statements—and the people who removed the art—seemed racist, supporters of the artwork said.
“I think this art has brought out the racism in our community and I encourage you to pass this resolution,” former councilmember Janice Cader-Thompson said during the meeting’s public-comment period.
Ultimately, the city council approved the artwork until Aug. 6 with an option to extend until Sept. 15.
The council did not address the underlying legal issues raised by the June 20 video of the police’s response to the man removing the artwork. But, if he returns to tear down the now-permitted artwork, the police will be obligated to charge him.
Does city-permitted artwork pack the same political punch as unpermitted artwork? Protesters who spoke at the meeting seemed to think the city’s approval signifies a small step in support of the movement, although the city, as with most others in the North Bay, has been slow to embrace the movement’s larger calls for systemic police reform, reallocating funding away from law enforcement or abolishing police departments altogether.
For their part, protesters continue to use unpermitted artwork as a tool.
During a march on Saturday, July 4, protesters installed artwork all over the station’s sign and front doors.
“Abolish the police,” one poster taped over a sign in front of the station read.
Although the police did not attempt to stop the installation, the artwork had been removed by Tuesday afternoon.
Nearly a month earlier, on June 12, the Petaluma Police Department took to Facebook with a post featuring artwork in support of police.
“We would like to thank the chaplains, volunteers and community members who showed their support this morning by placing colorful signs on our building… Please know your posters have been moved inside for us to enjoy for weeks to come,” the Facebook post, which was tagged #thinblueline, stated.
Additional reporting by Peter Byrne.