WILMINGTON — Almost a year after 18 artists erected the installation “Black Lives Do Matter: End Racism Now” in Jervay Memorial Park, city council voted on a resolution Tuesday evening that extends the life of the display another year, through Sept. 26, 2022.
Sponsored by Councilman Kevin Spears, the resolution garnered a 5-2 vote, supported by everyone on council except Neil Anderson and Charlie Rivenbark.
Clearly visible upon entering downtown from MLK Parkway onto Third Street, the installation has been a point of contention among some council members since it was first proposed in 2020. Brought forth by local artists, including UNCW professor Janna Robertson and GLOW Academy teacher Greyson Davis, as well as Support the Port’s director Cedric Harrison, the design was originally planned as “Black Lives Matter,” to be painted on the pavement along Third Street — an image often seen in cities worldwide, coming out of last summer’s protests spurred by George Floyd’s murder.
Councilman Rivenbark was clear in his dissent a year ago:
“Whenever anybody said anything besides ‘Black Lives Matter’ they were castigated as being racist. I think this is probably the most racist and divisive thing that I’ve seen come before [council]. If you think Black lives are the only ones that matter, you’ve got a problem. That’s racist . . . we’ve got a melting pot of people here in this town. And I can imagine a small white child seeing that and saying, ‘What about white lives?’”
He suggested “All Lives Matter” take over in its place.
Through numerous council meetings, the art morphed into an installation claiming “Black Lives Do Matter: End Racism Now,” with the additional words suggested by city staff. It was a meet-in-the-middle idea to soft-shoe any affiliation between city government and the national activist organization Black Lives Matter.
A year later, Rivenbark stands firm in his disapproval. At Tuesday’s meeting he said, “I was against it then and I’m against it tonight. I don’t think it’s as uniting as you think it is. I think it’s more divisive. It just is.”
Rivenbark was speaking in response to Councilman Kevin Spears’ notion that the art unified citizens and had received positive attention since being installed.
Organizers Robertson and Davis wrote in a letter to city council ahead of Tuesday’s meeting that the project has been utilized as an educational resource in schools, with some UNCW professors lecturing on the site.
The 18 metal letters, each measuring 4-feet-by-8-feet, also gained national attention, as a location for the locally filmed production “Our Kind of People,” which pulled permits to shoot scenes last month in Jervay Memorial Park.
“The installation has brought awareness to a park previously underutilized by Wilmington residents,” the letter noted. “This town marker is unique to Wilmington, and in its short existence is swiftly interweaving with the town’s fabric.”
Spears described the installation as “beautiful” to council — his own “personal Statue of Liberty” he was proud to vote on keeping up for another year.
The councilman defended the piece to Port City Daily Wednesday morning as well. He said the message of “Black Lives Matter” — or in this case “Black Lives Do Matter” — reflects the reality many Black people wake up to in 2021: facing danger for the color of their skin.
“How divisive can something be when we saw the footage of multiple people being killed last year, some at the hands of law enforcement, and some because someone else felt as if they didn’t belong?” Spears questioned. “Yet, we saw people of a different hue (dangerous people) be taken into custody without even a hair disturbed on their heads. Dylann Roof killed nine people in SC, and was taken to Burger King as a fugitive.”
Spears told council members Tuesday the art’s impact had not reached its full potential and called its extension a “vote of confidence” from city council. While protests, he expressed, may have died down from last year, it doesn’t mean racism was remedied.
Actions, such as the Rise Together Initiative, which council voted Aug. 18 to adopt, could help. Rise Together breaks down ways the city will tackle systemic needs in the community. Spears said the installation ties in with this resolution, which states “the Mayor and City Council seek to nurture a better understanding of the ongoing challenges of equity, diversity and civic inclusion, the City’s progress in responding to these challenges, and to facilitate an actionable plan for our ongoing response to these challenges.”
“[T]his vote of confidence is a step in the right direction for what we want to be, for what this city wants to be, for how citizens of this city want to go forward,” Spears said at the meeting.
“Well, I have to say I really like it,” Councilman Kevin O’Grady offered. “I wasn’t sure when I saw the pictures a year ago, but we said, ‘OK, let’s put it up.’ And now I think it’s so uplifting. It’s bright. It lifts the spirit. And I think it’s a great contrast to the more somber memorial [of 1898] we have just a block away.”
Clifford Barnett also agreed to its continuation, mirroring Spears’ sentiments that the city still has a lot of work to do and issues to address, but this small step illustrates its willingness. “We have to address [issues] civilly,” Barnett said. “We have to address them so that we can make Wilmington the city that our grandchildren would love to live in. So I’m definitely in favor.”
Neil Anderson questioned city attorney John Joye as to whether the resolution for the installation’s continuance would be written as “government speech,” as it was from 2020.
“Monuments accepted by the city, even if it’s paid for by private folks, even if private folks continue to own it, the city can adopt that as government speech,” Joye explained. “And when it’s the speech of the city, then you have much more control than if you just open up a designated public forum — then you have to let everyone come and say essentially whatever they want to say.”
Because the city asked to modify the original art installation with the addition of four words, Joye said it will be maintained as the speech of the city until this council — or any elected council thereafter — votes to change the resolution.
Spears didn’t hide the fact he would like to see the art installation become a permanent fixture.
“I knew when we passed this last year, that would not be the end of it,” Rivenbark said. “And I fully expect it to come back every year. It’ll never go away.”
Though Spears wrote to Port City Daily he doesn’t think Rivenbark “is a bad guy,” only “stuck in his ways,” he does question how these set of beliefs help constituents in Wilmington that are Black or brown.
“I would only hope that Charlie would look to educate himself on the matter going forward,” Spears said. “I think it takes so much more than being nice to be an effective leader.”
See pictures of the Black Lives Do Matter art installation here.
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