WILMINGTON — A proposal to erect an eight-foot-tall Black Lives Matter sign in northeast Wilmington pushed city council members into a heated debate on racism and freedom of speech on Monday morning.
During the agenda briefing, councilmembers heard a two-part proposal that will be up for a vote Tuesday evening. The first part of the proposal would erect an art installation, with letters spelling out ‘Black Lives Matter,’ in Jervay Park on the northside of Wilmington. The second part would turn a largely unused block nearby into a ‘public forum for all expression.’
Councilman Charlie Rivenbark did not mince words, saying he felt the Black Lives Matter sign would be ‘racist’ and hurt the feelings of some residents, specifically white children.
“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],” Rivenbark said. “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?'”
Rivenbark suggested a sign reading “All Lives Matter,” a phrase that has become a popular rejoinder used to dismiss or counter the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes expressed more measured concern, echoing legal analysis from city staff that a ‘free expression’ area could create a situation where negative or unpopular messages could be posted, out of the city’s control.
Specifically addressing the proposed Black Lives Matter sign, Haynes asked if the city could find a “more positive” and “less divisive” message to display. Haynes questioned the description of the Black Lives Matter sign as an “art installation,” saying “art installations are usually less controversial.” Haynes also took issue with what she perceived as a disparity between the size and prominence of the Black Live Matter sign and comparatively smaller, lower-profile area for other sentiments.
Haynes also questioned letting “one group have twelve-foot letters and others can have a piece of plywood on a stick … I don’t know if it’s fair.”
UNCW professor and artist Janna Robertson appeared frustrated with Haynes’ pushback and said she had thought that given Wilmington’s “bloody history towards African Americans” and “some of the current scandals” — likely an allusion to three police officers fired for making racist comments and threats — that the city would be happy to support the proposal. Robertson also corrected the Mayor Pro-Tem’s inaccurate assertation that taxpayer dollars were being used for the sign.
Robertson, who helped design the Black Lives Matter installation and is one of three organizers asking the city to install it, did ultimately ‘thank’ Haynes for her suggestion that organizers find a ‘more positive’ message — Robertson did say the group would be open (but “not as happy”) to use “Black Lives do Matter” or “End Racism in ILM” as an alternative to distance the proposal from the Black Lives movement, but only if that association was a concern for council.
Councilmembers Kevin Spears and Clifford Barnett, Sr. were outspoken in support of the mural. Both called on their personal experience as Black residents and parents. Spears specifically refuted Rivenbark’s claim that Black Lives Matter was racist, pointing to the importance of addressing recent cases of inexcusable police violence against Black people, including the killing of Breona Taylor and the murder of George Floyd. Barnett asked council to consider ‘the big picture’ and put the proposal in the context of national and local concerns about systemic racism.
The proposal will likely receive further legal and logistical review before a vote slated for Tuesday evening during council’s regular meeting. The meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Wilmington Convention Center (where a strict social distancing policy is being enforced). The video of the meeting can be viewed live here.