The Social Action Committee for Racial Justice has proposed two street murals dedicated to the anti-racism movement that surged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis policemen.
“It’s time that Chestertown comes to grips with its past,” said Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver after Monday’s town council meeting. “What the murals do is bring attention to Chestertown’s history of slavery, Jim Crow and racism. It brings the community together in solidarity with those who have suffered.”
If a permit is approved by the Town Council, one mural would read “Black Lives Matter” and run on High Street from the old Customs House — where active slave trading took place in the 18th and 19th centuries — to Cross Street.
The other mural would read “We Can’t Breathe” and run on College Avenue near the police station between High and Calvert Streets.
Mayor Chris Cerino and Councilmembers Tom Herz and David Foster expressed reservations at Monday’s town council meeting about placing a mural on High Street, arguing maintenance issues and whether the murals would fit in with the historic district’s 18th Century setting. They made no objection to the mural on College Avenue.
“First of all, black lives absolutely matter. I just want to make that clear. I’m not a racist person. We should be working with our black and brown community members to do everything we can to make Chestertown as welcoming as possible,” Cerino said. “I worry that this is going to look really out of place in our 18th Century national landmark historic district. I’m just going to go ahead and say that. A big yellow slogan I think is just going to look funny…I think the aesthetic is going to be an awkward fit running right down the middle of High Street…it’s going to be pretty in your face.”
He said there may be “equally effective ways to get that message across that maybe aren’t as permanent.” Cerino suggested investing in banners “all over town.”
The discussion of the street mural was not in the video recording of the meeting on the town’s website, but the Kent Pilot was able to record the entire meeting. Below is a recording of the street mural discussion.
Ward 4 Councilwoman Meghan Efland, who supports the street murals, countered that banners could get tattered over time and that putting murals on the street would make a stronger statement.
“We continually talk about what we can do to make more people feel comfortable downtown,” she said. “[The street mural] is a true statement that it’s something we’re committing to and saying it’s important to us…to me a banner doesn’t do the same thing as a mural or a painting on the street.”
“I get the passion and I get the urge to want to act, but maybe those residents aren’t going to like that right in front of their house,” Cerino responded. “We’re going to just say that’s too bad?”
Resident Maria Wood, who brought the permit request to the council at Monday’s meeting, said the murals would be paid for with private donations and the paint would be appropriate for streets. She said the proposed color scheme would most likely be red, black and green and added that street murals were being created all over the country in support of Black Lives Matter.
In a brief interview on Wednesday, Wood said whether the mural would need maintenance over time is a non-issue. She said there is a lot of enthusiastic support from community members who could take on the upkeep of the murals.
Ward 1 Councilman David Foster said it was the first time he had heard of the proposal.
“I’m not altogether certain at this stage that we want to paint our streets with that,” Foster said. “I need a while to think about it.”
Cerino was also concerned that other groups, such as a “Pro-Life” group might also want to do a mural on Cross Street.
“What do we say to that?” he asked.
Foster said that a lawyer should consider whether a permit for a Black Lives Matter mural would open the door to more requests from other organizations.
“Once you put one statement on a road, how do you say no to the next one,” he said. “I’d really like to run this by the lawyers and see what the boundaries are on this.”
“I think it’s critical that we be able to make a statement that Black Lives Matter,” Foster said. “But I’m not certain myself that’s the best way to make that statement.”
Ward 2 Councilman Tom Herz told the Kent Pilot on Wednesday it was important for the town to make a statement that Black Lives Matter but that he was still undecided on street murals. He said he wanted questions answered about maintenance, potential vandalism — and if the sign could exist for a designated period of time and then be removed.
He said he didn’t want the sign to be permanent.