The Chestertown Council approved a motion Monday to legally adopt the words “Black Lives Matter” and “We Can’t Breathe” as a legal expression of the town’s anti-racism stance and a small first step towards reconciliation with Chestertown’s black community, which has suffered since the first enslaved people arrived on the banks of the Chester River in the 17th Century.
The vote clears the way for murals proposed by Wanda Boyer, Maria Wood and Arlene Lee to be placed on High Street and College Avenue.
The vote came after local attorneys and private citizens fought back on concerns from Mayor Cerino and Ward 1 Councilman David Foster about violating traffic laws, fear of litigation and concerns that the town would be forced to approve messages in the future that are controversial.
Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver and Ward 4 Councilwoman Meghan Efland supported the murals when the idea was first introduced at the July 6 council meeting.
Local attorneys, Barbara Jorgenson and Arlene Lee, and resident Rebecca Murphy poked holes in the town attorney’s position that it would violate Maryland’s Uniform Traffic Code and put the town at risk of litigation.
“Black Lives Matter murals have been painted on streets in big cities, small towns [and even] other countries,” Murphy said. “I’m a pretty avid news consumer and I have heard nothing about any jurisdiction being sued — in particularly over some obscure traffic provision.”
Town Attorney Stewart Barroll did not attend the meeting, which was live cast on Zoom.
Jorgenson said she spent the last week looking for worst-case scenarios where the town could face litigation or repercussions from the State Highway Administration.
She acknowledged that there are restrictions on state roads but local streets can be painted if the town so chooses — as long as traffic markings are not obstructed.
“Our town council has said that painting the roads is illegal, but we don’t have any details on that,” she said. “I have spent a lot of time in the past week looking at the town ordinances, the Town Charter, the Transportation Article and the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. I don’t see anything in those that say you can’t paint on the street. The only thing it says is that you can’t obscure the traffic markings — and this proposal doesn’t obscure the traffic markings.”
She said the public should know the details behind the advice from the town’s attorney, Stewart Barroll, about why Boyer’s proposal is illegal. The proposal places “Black Lives Matter” on High Street between the crosswalks at Lawyers Row and Cross Street.
Jorgenson also doubted the town would be sued and reminded the Mayor and Council that a group of only eight residents represented by a local attorney, Phill Hoon, agreed not to sue once they became educated about the proposed mural on High Street.
“That’s eight out of 5,000 people in town,” she said. “The Hoon people have disappeared, so who’s going to sue us? We need to know the details of Barroll’s legal opinion.”
Jorgenson pointed to Cambridge, Maryland where a mural was painted on the street and no subsequent lawsuit opposed it. Nor has the town been besieged by other groups wanting to paint murals, she said.
“This is a very good example of what could possibly happen here,” she said. “My assessment is that it’s not illegal and there aren’t going to be any lawsuits.”
She said the murals could be painted this weekend if the town so wishes.
Local attorney, Jim Astrachan, a nationally recognized constitutional lawyer and a lecturer on constitutional law, made arguments specifically about other groups that may want to paint competing street murals that the town would not want to support.
“If the speech is adopted by the town and [the town] controls how it is rolled out, then nobody else has any entitlement to claim equal time because your speech as a town is not subject to First Amendment rights,” he told the council. “You have an absolute right to say what you want to say and not say what you don’t want to say.”
He said that if the town adopts the message properly “it will not be challenged successfully by anybody who wants a competing message on the city street.”
Moral Obligation to Recognize that Racism Exists
Bishop Charles M. Tilghman, Sr. of the Kent NAACP said those who are offended by the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ often respond with ‘all lives matter.’ But it dismisses the history of oppression against blacks in America and in the local community.
“Yes all lives do matter,” he said. “But if you were going down the street all the houses on that street are valuable, and if one house is on fire, that particular house is the house that needs the most attention,” he said. “I was born and raised in Rock Hall and I know what racism is. We just have to…awaken the consciousness of people that don’t want to believe that racism exists in Chestertown and surrounding communities.”
“We’re at a crossroads in this community where something really needs to happen,” Tilghman continued. “People truly need something to grab a hold of so they can feel like they matter and that we are people of value…I think it’s time for Chestertown to get in some good trouble.”
Paul Tue, co-chair of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice said the murals “were long overdue.”
“I don’t feel that it’s hard to do the right thing,” he said. “We have an opportunity…we are morally obligated to stand on the right side of history.”
He said the legality and the jargon could be figured out to make the murals a reality.
“We have an opportunity to make a grand gesture to black people,” he said.”This would go a long way with the black community. I’m begging you all to make the right decision here.”
Heather Mizeur, a former gubernatorial candidate and former state delegate, said that looking for alternative places for murals other than what’s in the proposal was more about making white people comfortable and that it was up to government counsel to navigate elected leaders towards reaching the goals they set out.
“To truly show that black lives matter is to vote in favor of the proposal that the black lives in our community are asking for,” she said. “Having alternative solutions in other locations that help white people who are uncomfortable with this proposal gain more comfort is not respecting or honoring black lives.”
She said town leaders should not hide behind counsel’s recommendations.
“As someone who was on a city council and served in high levels of government, counsel’s job is typically to help legislators and leaders discover through the law to find the way to “yes” when we want the answer to be “yes” and to find a way to “no” when we want the answer to be “no.”
“In this case, I’m asking you to have the courage of your convictions and remember that double-crossing our conscious is something that is really hard to live with.”
Cerino said in order to move forward with the murals and change his vote he would need assurances that the community would do the upkeep on the murals, even in the event of vandalism. He received those assurances and flipped his vote and so did Foster, joining Tolliver and Efland to make the vote unanimous. Ward 2 Councilman Tom Herz was recused from participating in the historic vote.
Though the town moved forward with the mural project, it was not done by approving a permit. The council simply passed a motion to move ahead with the project and added a line underneath each mural that reads “Chestertown Unites Against Racism.”