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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The vandals tried, but the Black Lives Matter mural remains unscathed

Aug. 5, 2020 Updated Thu., Sept. 3, 2020 at 2:16 p.m.

The Black Lives Matter mural, shown July 20,at 244 W. Main Ave. in downtown Spokane. Sixteen artists completed the letters with their original designs.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
The Black Lives Matter mural, shown July 20,at 244 W. Main Ave. in downtown Spokane. Sixteen artists completed the letters with their original designs. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

I avoided it for days.

When I heard that the mighty, gorgeous Black Lives Matter mural downtown had been vandalized, I didn’t want to look.

I didn’t want to see the power of that mural diminished by dimwit bigots. I didn’t want to see, firsthand, that my worst fears had come true about how some in our city would respond. I didn’t want to see white backlash – the reliably ugly response to calls for racial progress – literalized in paint.

That mural, after all, is a potent artistic expression of beauty, humanity and history. A powerful representation of a simple, righteous principle that should unite the community and the country.

A bright, vibrant representation of the best of us.

It was so good that you knew some dumb someone – some all-lives-matter parrot with an ugly heart and a tiny mind – would try to spoil it.

Which they did. In the dark of night last week, someone tried to deface the mural, flinging red, white and blue paint on it overnight. A little earlier in the month, lame punks had done something similar to the George Floyd mural painted by local artist Daniel Lopez at Shacktown Community Cycle.

The BLM mural began as an idea among workers at digital ad agencies 14Four and Seven2 in early July; Terrain Executive Director Ginger Ewing got involved and recruited 16 artists of color to take one letter each and make it their own. Ad agency employees painted the large, block letters in white on the east side of their building at 244 W. Main Ave., and the artists brought them to life with vibrant color and powerful imagery.

I’d been swinging by the building periodically to check on the mural as it went up, and after it was finished. I loved seeing it become a reality – this massive, unignorable, unequivocal affirmation in the heart of our city – but I didn’t want to see the reality of the vandalism. The racism, bigotry and white grievance that is a daily part of the political conversation these days can make you feel heartsick and hopeless.

Why seek it out? It only was several days later that I drove into the parking lot at the building and took a look, prepared to be discouraged.

I wasn’t. Not remotely. Fearing the mural had been spoiled, I found, instead, a vision of triumph.

Yes, someone threw some paint on the mural. Yes, some of the artwork was marred.

But make no mistake: The Black Lives Matter mural is unspoiled.

The spirit, the message, the meaning and the might – all unscathed.

The vandalism was puny in every sense – small-minded, small-hearted, tiny-brained, morally miniscule and just physically small compared to the 140-foot-long mural. An optimist might choose to see it as a visual metaphor for the moment: A massive call for racial justice sweeps the country, too big and vibrant to be erased by the inevitable, tiny spasms of white grievance.

Among the gamut of emotions Ewing said she felt when she saw the vandalism was: That’s all ya got?

Looked at in a certain light, you might say the paint-flingers added an important element to the BLM mural. The movement for civil rights in America has been greeted by paint-flingers, and worse, of course, at every turn. While the calls for justice gained renewed momentum in the aftermath of the George Floyd video, they still face a wind of resistance from those among us who simply cannot see straight.

There’s reason to believe that wind is weakening.

You see it everywhere, from majority support for BLM in polling to the overt backing of BLM on the players’ jerseys in the strange, new NBA season. These days, it’s the nonkneelers who stand out at sporting events. It’s a majority movement.

In that sense, the puny splashes of paint might actually belong on the mural.

For perspective.

As Ewing put it, “It tells an even stronger narrative of why this mural needs to exist in the first place.”

Ewing said that people have donated about $13,000 to have the mural repainted and protected from future vandalism. It’s enough that there will likely be money left to put toward other as-yet-undetermined efforts to back the mission of BLM – supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, or helping fund bail reform.

The vandalism, in other words, has amplified the mural’s message.

“It’s big and powerful and beautiful and you can hurl as much paint as you want but you can’t take away the joy and the passion and the talent of the people behind the piece and the message,” Ewing said.

The vandals came and went under the cover of night, and they left their little mark. It only made the mural mightier.

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