The colorful mural, adorned with hearts, a portrait of a local activist and the words “Black Lives Matter,” stands out at a busy intersection in West St. Paul, a community nestled against the Twin Cities. It is a treasured symbol for many black residents, a place of reflection and pride.
But the city says it must go.
“I’m totally saddened,” said Kimetha Johnson, the activist pictured on the 75-foot fence, who last year became the city’s first black candidate for mayor. “It’s an impressive work of art. The message is needed here. “
West St. Paul, where about 5% of the 20,000 residents are black, says the mural violates two sections of the city code – on fences and prohibited signs – and that its specific content has nothing to do with it. violations.
The commotion around the mural comes at a pivotal moment in the Twin Cities area, which anxiously awaits a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former white Minneapolis police officer who is charged with murder in the death of George Floyd , which was black. .
Thousands of residents poured into the streets of Minneapolis, St. Paul and West St. Paul after Mr. Floyd’s death, demanding justice night after night in protests that reverberated across the country. About 200 members of the National Guard are stationed in the area during the course of Mr. Chauvin’s trial; the witnesses will return to the stand on Monday, the start of the third week of testimony.
Ryan Weyandt, owner of the disputed fence and the house it borders, received a notice in November from West St. Paul officials informing him that he was in violation of the city’s signage ordinance.
He made a deal to keep the mural, which was created with spray paints and acrylics last summer, in place until April 15. But the city refused an extension beyond Thursday and told reporters Mr Weyandt could face fines of up to $ 2,000 for an additional 10 days the mural remains.
Mr Weyandt, who is white, said he asked local museums if they might want to keep their entire collections fence. If no one agrees, he will likely end up painting the mural, a result he finds very disappointing.
“We don’t want to remove it before the trial is over,” he said. “We want this message to stay.”
Dan Nowicki, a city spokesperson, said in an email that officials had received several complaints about the “non-compliant fence,” which violates part of the city’s code that states that fences must be of a uniform color and contain no images or inscriptions. In its original notice to Mr. Weyandt, the city cited a code prohibiting signs “painted, tied or in any other way affixed to fences, roofs, trees, rocks or other similar natural surfaces.”
“While the city understands that the message on this particular fence is very important to the owner and to many members of our community,” Mr. Nowicki said, “the city cannot and does not consider content or message when dealing with city code violations. . “
The notice Mr. Weyandt received also explained that during general election years, non-commercial signs are allowed “in any size, in any number, in any location, except right-of-way. public ”- from 46 days before state primary elections up to 10 days. after the general elections in November.
Such exceptions are common in city ordinances in Minnesota and allow people to post almost anything they want, said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “But once that time is over, the city or town or whoever has a lot of leeway to set restrictions,” she said.
Ms Johnson, who passes by Kae Jae and received around 35% of the vote in last year’s mayoral election, said the timing was particularly bad as the city demanded the mural be repainted in the middle of the trial of Mr. Chauvin.
She said she enjoyed bringing her 7-year-old granddaughter to the fence because of her strong signal to black girls.
“She literally enjoys reading aloud, ‘Black Lives Matter’,” Ms. Johnson said, adding, “For her, it’s seeing that the city is proud of her.”
On Saturday morning, Guillermo Maldonado Pérez, deputy director of a Saint-Paul school, and his 7-year-old daughter admired the mural. A petition in support of the painted message was circulating on Facebook, he said, but the request appeared to be mostly from people outside the region.
“Hopefully West St. Paul will change the way they allow people to express their values and opinions,” he said, noting the protests in nearby streets after Mr. Floyd was killed in May. .
Mr. Weyandt, the owner of the fence, said he and her husband were just hoping to project the “Black Lives Matter” message the best they could. They offered their fence as a canvas, hiring two artists who had worked on murals in the Twin Cities area.
“If a car pulled up at the stop sign, looked at the fence and took that thought home, then our mission was done,” he said.
Mr Weyandt said they had put messages and flags on the same fence several times before, but this was the first time the city had served them with a notice of violation. One of the flags, which was hung before 2020, proclaimed to “coexist”.
Joshua Rashaad McFadden contributed to reports from West St. Paul, Minn.