For many of us that live in neighborhoods where protests in opposition to police violence against black people have taken place, the look and feel of the neighborhood has changed as many businesses have boarded up their windows. In some cases the boards went up due to actual broken windows, but in most cases, businesses have boarded their windows in anticipation of possible property damage. This anticipatory boarding up of windows creates the impression of mass property damage and looting even when in actuality, very little of that may have happened.
These boards are symbols of fear from capitalist ventures afraid of the social upheaval caused by mass protests, and yet street artists have taken these ugly symbols of fear and turned them into canvases for the protests themselves.
These Black Lives Matter pop-up murals have sprung up around the country wherever local businesses have boarded up their windows. I took a walk around my own neighborhood recently to photograph the protest board art created by local artists in Chicago.
The piece below is a reminder that 2020 was supposed to be the year that Andrew Jackson would be replaced on the front of the twenty dollar bill by Harriet Tubman. This would have made her the first black woman (and first black person of any kind) to be featured on official US money. It would have been especially symbolic considering that it would be Harriet Tubman, a woman who escaped from slavery herself and then risked her life freeing other black people from slavery, replacing Andrew Jackson, a man who as president used fraudulent and manipulative means to forcibly remove indigenous people from their homes in order to clear the land to make room for plantations and spread the institution of slavery, leading to the mass death of thousands of indigenous people along the Trail of Tears.
Although the planned 2020 changes to the twenty dollar bill originally were decided under the Obama Administration, a year ago Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that the switchover from Jackson to Tubman would be delayed until 2026. It’s clear that the Trump Administration had no intention of replacing Trump’s favorite president, whom he shares so much in common with, not the least of which is a tendency towards fascism and ethnic cleansing, with a woman who spent her life fighting against the subjugation and oppression of black people in the United States. Although there are a lot of political fights more important than who should be featured on our money, in this piece the artist Shannon Kay reminds us that symbolism matters. The fact that Andrew Jackson is still being featured on our money while black women like Harriet Tubman are pushed aside, is a powerful and shameful symbol of who this country deems worthy of celebrating.
The piece below has a bit of a story behind it. This board, on the window of a yoga studio, was originally tagged with the words “Black Lives Matter.” Later, someone used black paint to paint over and hide those words. Local artist Isabella Scott, after seeing that the words “Black Lives Matter” had been erased, took it upon herself to paint over the board yet again, putting the words “Black Lives Matter” back up, this time surrounded by colorful flowers, as though it’s a rebirth and reaffirmation of the sentiment and meaning behind the words and protests. She then reached out to others in the neighborhood, asking that anyone who wants to may add their message of support to the board. Look closely at the painting and you can see the words of many of my neighbors, nestled among the flowers.
Lastly, I want to share this particular board art mural which features the names of black people who have been murdered directly by police or police-supported vigilantes. Most board art murals, though still political, often feel uplifting. They tune into the feelings of connection that comes from people coming together for a common cause to fight against oppression. Although there is room when protesting to lean into the feelings of power that come from joining together with others in our community to affirm our values and ideals and dismantle oppressive systems, it doesn’t change the fact that the need for these protests comes from a deep ugliness. People of color and black people in particular are targets of the police and the US judicial system. They are subject to harassment, violence, and murder by the very people who are charged with keeping our communities safe. This mural is making sure we do not forget that the reason why we need to keep saying that black lives matter is because so many of our institutions have made it clear that to them black lives are disposable, whether it’s police inflicting violence themselves or the justice system condoning violence against black people. I encourage you to take the time to learn the stories behind each of the names on this mural, each of whom would be alive today if it weren’t for the racist violence inflicted against them: Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Keith Lamont Scott, Freddie Gray, Jordan Edwards, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland.
If you’re interested in seeing more black lives matter board murals, I posted many more photos over on my Flickr. I would also encourage you to check out the instagrams of the artists that painted these murals: @britnimaraart, @hannah_ellen_art, @shanlandia_, @_bethswanson_, @theartbyizzie, @dazeyface, @norisvenglund, @chersugarlee