Paint fades, but murals remember people killed by police

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Paint fades, but murals remember people killed by police
A mural of Amadou Diallo, who was fatally shot by the police in the Bronx in 1999, has been a fixture on Wheeler Avenue since 2001, though the image was redone in 2017, in New York on June 3, 2020. Across the country, artists have created portraits of George Floyd, Diallo, Eric Garner and others as markers of pain and loss. Mohamed Sadek/The New York Times.

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Their faces are painted on the walls so that people will not forget.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, grocery shoppers at the Triple S Food Mart walk by an image of Alton Sterling near the spot where the 37-year-old black man was fatally shot by two police officers in 2016.

In the Bronx, New York, a portrait of Amadou Diallo adorns a building on Wheeler Avenue close to where he was killed in a hail of 41 police bullets in 1999.

But the murals that memorialize people killed in deadly encounters with police do not always survive as legacies of loss.

So it is with the mural that was painted on a Staten Island, New York, storefront in 2018 to mark the death of Eric Garner, who suffocated in a police officer’s chokehold in 2014. This week, when protesters decrying the death of George Floyd in Minnesota marched on Staten Island, they passed the spot on Bay Street where Garner had died, but the mural has been painted over.

In Minneapolis last week, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain and Xena Goldman created a mural of Floyd near the site of his fatal encounter with police. Now Herrera and Goldman are working on another one down the block.

“I hope that no one desecrates it,” Herrera said. “If they do, we will paint again.”

The portrait features Floyd’s likeness crowned by a flaming sunflower that contains the names of others who have died in custody or in encounters with police. The mural, and more significantly the outrage associated with Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer now charged with murder, have inspired similar images of him everywhere from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Idlib, Syria.

“We needed to see his face,” Herrera said. “We needed to show that he was a human being.”

When they are first painted, murals can act as ad hoc altars for public mourning. But their existence is often fleeting. A mural of Philando Castile, who was killed in 2016 during a traffic stop by a Minnesota police officer, was destroyed when the building was demolished later that year. The officer was acquitted of manslaughter at trial in 2017.

In making his 2001 mural of Diallo in the Bronx, Hulbert Waldroup dressed the officers who shot Diallo in the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, a depiction that upset police officials. The mural was later vandalized with black paint, but the image was restored by Waldroup.

The mural was ultimately repainted by Hawa Diallo, no relation, in 2017 with Waldroup’s permission after years of deterioration. The new version, requested by the community, eliminated some of the painting’s controversial elements. The police officers, who were criminally charged in Diallo’s death but acquitted, are no longer shown. The current version emphasizes Diallo’s West African roots.

“Everyone may not have my views,” Waldroup said in an interview. “When you put something on a wall, you know it’s temporary. I’m now OK with the mural changing.”

Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou Diallo, was present at the unveiling of the redone mural in 2017.

“Time passes by, but for those who love, time will never pass,” she told reporters. “We will never forget what happened that night.”

In Trenton, New Jersey, a 2014 mural marking the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old student who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was removed soon after it was created.

The mural on a vacant storefront gate was sandblasted after some police officials said they worried it could damage community relations. The artist, Will Condry, protested the city’s decision and eventually met with the mayor and chief of police alongside representatives from the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union, who joined in arguing that his portrait of Brown, dressed in his high school graduation cap, should be restored.

“I had a seat at the table, and I thought progress was being made, but once the attention died down they pushed me out,” said Condry. “I was disappointed.”

Federal and state officials in Missouri declined to prosecute the officer who shot Brown, and the officer later resigned from the force.

“Artists have a responsibility to promote the truth,” Condry said. “When you see an image of someone who was murdered by police, that’s going to speak to you.”

There had been tension, too, in Louisiana, where Jo Hines created the mural of Sterling in 2016. A federal investigation declined to bring charges against the officers, one of whom was later fired for having violated the Baton Rouge Police Department’s use-of-force policies during the incident.

The Sterling mural has evolved over the years, gathering messages of prayer from people. Some have added images of balloons and teddy bears, small updates that allow the mural to function as a living memorial.

But Hines also remembers how tense things were when he first made the mural. “Depending on what I painted, the attitudes of people would change. If I painted something angry, there could have been violence,” he recalled. “But I saw women and children walking by and decided that I would do something for Alton’s family.

“It’s about honoring Alton,” Hines said. “We know what happened to him, but allowing that person who was done wrong to live forever through a mural is a more powerful message.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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