A black fist included on a mural painted beneath a Garden State Parkway overpass was literally whitewashed on Tuesday, igniting a fierce firestorm from residents of all races and colors.
Clifton City Manager Dominick Villano said it wasn’t his call to mar the "Use Your Voice" mural, completed by teenagers last weekend on the overpass above Allwood Road following approval from city officials.
“This issue is now moot because I’ve just been instructed by the NJ Turnpike/GS Parkway Authority to remove all murals off all of their properties,” Villano wrote in an email to Daily Voice shortly on Tuesday.
“In anticipation of the NJDOT contacting me, I met with the artist last week to discuss removing any political statements from the mural,” Villano told a resident earlier. “[I]n essence she was to change the fist to a peace sign or something similar.
“The artist changed her position over the weekend, and I explained to her that I would have the DPW paint over the fist only," the city manager wrote in a shared email. "I have further instructed DPW to blend in the white box where the fist existed.”
Villano previously wrote to several resident that it was “not my intentions to paint over the mural, unless the NJDOT instructs the City to remove it off their property.”
They noted, however, that he had also referred to the fist as a “political” statement -- which they took as an early signal of trouble.
Sharif Nealy, following a conversation with Villano, said the city manager "doesn't want the political undertone of the Black fist because it stood for Black Power in the 70's and Black Lives Matter as of recently."
Cries of protest continued to swell throughout the day on Tuesday.
“Those kids did a fantastic job on this," Glenn Nibbling wrote. "I don’t see anything wrong with it."
Dozens upon dozens of others agreed.
“We tell our children to express themselves and take part in the community and when they do certain people in the city want to shut them down,” Feras Awwad noted.
“They worked so hard and have done such an amazing job,” Awwad added. “The fact that they took time out of [their] lives to contribute such masterpieces to make our city more beautiful and colorful is a sign that our youth is active and cares for the community.
“Instead of suppressing them, we should uplift our youth. Give them the resources and platforms they need to continue. Our city should have such beauty everywhere.”
Rachel Castelino said she felt double-crossed.
"May Yuasa is young Asian artist who got together a team of Clifton students to paint a mural celebrating diversity in Clifton," Castelino said. "The design was approved by the City Manager and the students then spent days in the heat painting. While people would stop and harass them, they knew they hadn’t done anything wrong so they kept painting.
"Finally the painting was done last weekend, and the city contacted the artists to tell them their work would be painted over because of 'community complaints'," she said. "The complainers felt the Black fist portrayed was too political. They assured us they had no intention of repainting the mural and then repainted it."
Castelino, like others, noted that blue lines had once been painted down the middle of streets in support of police. “That was a political statement if you want to get down to brass tacks,” wrote Kris Heireth.
The white rectangle, in fact, “is a far more political statement than the fist it concealed,” Andrew Pfaff contended.
“This work of art was done by student VOLUNTEERS on some of the hottest days of the summer for free with donated paints and supplies,” Mohini Savalia noted.
“It boggles my mind that there are some grown adults who would rather spend their tax dollars to PAY to have the barely-dried paint removed,” Savalia added. “I hope all the haters are content with the fact that they can go look at the now white box that represents the fruit of their complaints.”
If the fist was so offensive, Heather Gordon asked, why were there so many posts “full of positivity and appreciation towards these talented young artists”?
“Considering that our town motto is ‘the city that cares,’ shouldn’t we be modeling care for ALL people?” she added.
“What was the whole point of making the artists work on this project, then?” asked Roman Chyshkevych. “And how is the black fist considered political but ‘use your voice’ isn't? [They] could have just painted the whole thing one solid color instead of showing it's true colors and riling people up in the process.”
Angel Emerald brought a perspective borne of more than four decades of activism:
“If you want to go down the path of calling the whole thing racist, then what you will have is lingering bad feelings. It may be a few people who have racist thinking complained, but again, the CITY decided to take an action that devalues the kids who participated in the activity.
“Stick to the facts, people, and as a community figure out how to get this back on track.
“BTW, the held up fist by a black person means Black Solidarity. When white people hold up their fist, it too means solidarity for equity and justice. It is not just a symbol of Black Power, it is a symbol of Solidarity as human beings for equity and justice.
“We need to learn to talk about these issues with rationality and respect and compassion. Not using inflammatory tactics. Those are the kind of tactics enemies of the people use.”
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