Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Wilmington council voices concerns, postpones vote on Black Lives Matter mural

A digital rendering of the proposed ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)

WILMINGTON — Mayor Bill Saffo asked his fellow council members to give city staff an additional two weeks to work through concerns over a two-part plan to erect a Black Lives Matter mural and create a ‘public expression’ plaza.

The first part of the plan would erect eight-foot aluminum letters in Jervay park on the northside of Wilmington, spelling out ‘Black Lives Matter’ which would be painted by local artists of color. The second part would take a rarely used spur of road nearby, and turn a block of either Cowan or North Front streets, and create an area of temporary public art.

Because the two separate parts were included on a single resolution, concerns about the mural were conflated with those about the freedom of expression areas.

On Monday, Councilman Charlie Rivenbark was outspoken about the mural, calling the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ “racist” and “divisive.” On Tuesday, Deputy City Manager Thom Moton presented additional staff-driven alternatives, including “ILM = BLM.” Saffo also mentioned an “ILM with hearts” idea. These were not created or endorsed by the organizers who brought the mural proposal to the city.

During both Monday’s agenda briefing and Tuesday evening’s regular meeting, council members expressed concern about the second part. In particular, both expressed concerns that anyone could effectively write whatever they wanted. These concerns were separate from the mural’s message and location but drove hesitation to vote on the overall resolution. Staff noted that resolution would only begin the process of the public pavilion, not immediately implement it. Staff also noted that the public expression pavilion could be based on ‘chalk-art’ that could be easily erased (i.e. in the event of profane or hateful writing or images).

A ‘high-level’ conceptual design for the public expression plaza.

Tuesday, Saffo asked for two weeks to work through these concerns, noting that the resolution was a ‘pilot program’ and that any concerns about it would certainly be part of future projects. City staff noted that this would not actually delay the timeline of implementing the mural, since the encroachment agreement to allow the sign would take about two weeks.

Several council members, including Kevin O’Grady and Neil Anderson, said they’d like to see the resolution split in two to allow a vote on the mural and public expression areas separately.

Councilman Kevin Spears, who had helped bring the proposal to council, expressed frustration that the ‘public expression’ part of the resolution, which had been intended as a balance to the mural to help ease council’s overall concerns about the ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign, had ended up being the issue the delayed the mural itself.

Spears expressed his dissatisfaction that resolution didn’t get an up-or-down vote; he later called for a substitute motion, supported by Councilman Clifford Barnett, Sr., allowing council to vote on the mural and postpone a vote on the public expression plaza. Barnett noted that the ‘elephant in the room’ was the mural’s actual language — which had not been decided upon — and that a vote from council would show support from the city.

Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes spoke at length about her concerns, including that the plan was “nebulous” and set a precedent that could allow other groups to push for their own murals. Haynes compared the process to the Downtown Alive program, which took staff weeks to work through the logistics.

Ultimately, Barnett convinced Spears that a two-week delay was not a denial, and council agreed that ‘definitive action would be taken no later than August 4th.’ The vote was unanimous, although Spears noted he wanted to vote ‘nay.’

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