On a recent Saturday in downtown Tulsa, beneath the glittering glass windows of City Hall, about a dozen people descended on Second Street with blue tarps, black clothes, and a very familiar shade of yellow paint. The tarps served as stencils, outlining three large block letters on the street as they were unfurled. A woman in the group carried a white bucket toward the first letter and dolloped splashes of yellow across the dark asphalt. Behind her, a team wielding rollers smoothed the paint into a legible font. As the second letter began to take shape, a siren pierced the air, and a large white pickup truck, emblazoned with the logo of the Tulsa Police Department, zoomed toward the group. It was followed by a police cruiser—and then another. “This is an unlawful assembly,” a speaker on the truck boomed. “If you do not clear the street now, you’re going to be arrested.”
A half-dozen police officers suddenly arrived, approaching the protesters as they finished the third letter and began peeling away the tarps. The officers formed a phalanx in a crosswalk, blocking off the street. Behind them, a group of about ten white men armed with rifles and bulletproof vests appeared, as if summoned. The men, apparently members of an out-of-town militia, stood by in silence. Many of them wore bandannas that obscured their faces, and they told demonstrators who questioned their presence that they were on hand to “keep the peace.” The police focussed on the people armed with paint, not the ones armed with guns. As a familiar chant from the roiling summer protests—“Whose streets?” “Our streets!”—briefly drowned out the officers’ commands, the protesters completed a mural that spelled out “BLM” in bright-yellow letters.
It was Tulsa’s second large-scale Black Lives Matter mural but the first to warrant an immediate crackdown by the Tulsa Police Department and an armed militia. Three people were arrested on the scene, and officers quickly began searching for more suspects. Mayor G. T. Bynum, who had praised the original street art as a “beautiful mural” with an important message, quickly issued a statement: “Vandalism of public property is not a peaceful protest. It is a criminal act.”
Since the killing of George Floyd, in May, many cities have embraced Black Lives Matter murals as a symbol of their commitment to racial justice. Tulsa was informally among them, with an unauthorized but widely celebrated mural painted on its historic Greenwood Avenue. But a national backlash this fall, galvanized in part by the fractious political climate surrounding the 2020 election, has spread rapidly. And Tulsa—not entirely on purpose but now with undeniable conviction—has leapt to the forefront of the effort. “The police department knows that the city and the political establishment have its back,” Jess Eddy, one of the people arrested at the City Hall protest, told me. “And so they feel emboldened to crack down.”
The Black Lives Matter murals that now adorn streets in more than seventy U.S. cities emerged not as a form of protest but as a form of government P.R. In Washington, D.C., the first rendition of the famous yellow letters was painted by the District of Columbia Department of Public Works, under the direction of Mayor Muriel Bowser. The mural design quickly spread to cities in deep-blue states, like Sacramento, California, and deep-red ones, like Birmingham, Alabama, where local officials blessed the projects. In Tulsa, the creation of a Black Lives Matter mural took on increased urgency after President Donald Trump announced that he would hold his first campaign rally since the onset of the pandemic here, during the weekend of Juneteenth. The city government, expecting large-scale protests against Trump, seemed unlikely to permit any message that could be construed as political.
The day before Trump’s arrival, about fifty artists painted a street mural without city approval, writing “Black Lives Matter” across Tulsa’s Greenwood Avenue in the pre-dawn hours of Juneteenth. The choice of location carried historical resonance. In 1921, Greenwood Avenue was the epicenter of Black wealth in Tulsa; it was also the staging ground for a violent massacre in which white mobs destroyed more than twelve hundred homes and businesses in the neighborhood and killed as many as three hundred people. In October, an unmarked mass grave that held eleven coffins was found in a local cemetery during a search for victims. Today, a single block of Greenwood remains occupied by local Black entrepreneurs, some of whom can trace their heritage back to the massacre.
Seeing a message of solidarity at such a tumultuous moment excited many neighborhood business owners and residents. “I was happy to see it,” Tori Tyson, who has owned Blow Out Hair Studio on Greenwood Avenue for fourteen years, told me. “It brought young people, old people, Black kids, white kids, different people together, and they had a conversation.” The mural became a community attraction, a site for high-school graduation photos and snapshots with newborn children. On June 20th, people danced atop the letters during an impromptu block party, shortly after the President left the city. An aerial shot of the mural appeared on the home page of the Times’ Web site and on countless social-media feeds. “It’s kind of like a badge of honor,” Nehemiah Frank, the editor-in-chief of a local news outlet called the Black Wall Street Times, said. “To leave the mural there says that we recognize, as a city, that Black lives have not always mattered to the Tulsa government, but today we’re gonna change that narrative.”
Even as the murals spread to more and more cities, though, a variety of rhetorical and legal attacks were levelled against them. On July 1st, President Trump called Black Lives Matter murals “a symbol of hate,” after the city of New York placed one in front of Trump Tower. Later that month, Bob Jack, the chair of the Tulsa County Republican Party, told the Tulsa World that he wanted to paint a “Back the Blue” mural just south of where the President had held his rally. Jack wrote a letter to city officials asking whether such a mural would be permitted. Members of a pro-police Facebook group called Back the Blue Tulsa brought similar questions to a local city councillor. The gambit seemed less focussed on expanding freedom of expression than restricting the expression that was happening in Greenwood.
The conservative outcry was effective. Within weeks of the Republican protests, Mayor Bynum scheduled the mural removal for August 3rd. That morning, road crews were greeted by a sea of cardboard boxes installed on the street by protesters. They represented the tombstones of Black people who had died at the hands of state-sanctioned violence, from 1921 massacre victims to Terence Crutcher, an unarmed man who was killed by a Tulsa police officer in 2016. Jess Eddy, a co-founder of Whites Against Racism, a group that tries to engage white allies in the fight for racial justice, slept beside the mural overnight as a volunteer watchman. “Whenever Black bodies come into an encounter with police, there’s an increased chance of violence,” he told me. “Therefore, as a white man, I have a responsibility to be in between that.” On that day, the mural stayed.
The matter was not settled, though. After efforts to convert the street to private ownership failed, it ultimately fell on city officials to decide whether to keep the mural. The most straightforward solution would have been to adopt it as a form of government speech, explicitly endorsing its message. Here, there was precedent. In Washington, D.C., a conservative legal-advocacy group had argued that the city violated its First Amendment rights when the organization was not allowed to paint a competing mural (“Because No One Is Above the Law!”) on city streets. City attorneys argued that the Black Lives Matter mural was a government message, not a public forum. When activists added “= Defund the Police” to the mural in a similar font, the city argued that this had also been accepted as government speech, comparing it to a donated art installation. (The case is pending in U.S. District Court.)
Most councillors in Tulsa rejected that idea. “It was illegally put on the road by an activist,” Connie Dodson said at a public-works committee meeting in August. “If we adopt that as government speech, we’re adopting that criminal offense.” Two councillors who supported the mural, Vanessa Hall-Harper and Kara Joy McKee, proposed removing it next spring, when a repaving of Greenwood Avenue was already planned. Other councillors insisted that the removal happen immediately. “Time is of essence for me and for many of my constituents,” Phil Lakin, a council member who represents a district on the southernmost edge of Tulsa, more than ten miles from the mural, said. The council recommended that the repaving of a single block of Greenwood Avenue be moved up by five months, to October. However, the responsibility for directing crews to start removing the mural ultimately fell to Mayor Bynum. “You cannot tell one group we’re not allowing public messages to be displayed on city streets,” Bynum told me in an interview, “but I’m going to look the other way while this other one was on this street and just allow it to be there.”
When Tori Tyson arrived at her hair salon before dawn on October 5th, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt imprinted with the American flag, she expected to see the mural one last time. But the work crews had begun grinding up the pavement at 4:15 A.M. By the time she unlocked the door to her salon, the entire street had already been pulverized, the words Black Lives Matter ground into yellow-specked gravel and poured into a dump truck. Tyson stood outside her front window and watched as Tulsa became the first major city in the U.S. to remove a Black Lives Matter mural. “I was not surprised in Tulsa but hurt, because the world is watching us,” she told me later. “It’s embarrassing.”
Despite the mayor’s insistence on objectivity, Tulsa’s handling of murals has hardly been impartial. In August, as the city council deliberated on whether to remove the Greenwood Avenue mural, someone painted a thin blue line clean across its bright yellow letters. Police made no effort to investigate the vandalism. Later, after someone spray-painted “BLM” in yellow paint on the spot where the mural had existed, police officers questioned area business owners and the city parked a security van on the street for round-the-clock surveillance. (A Tulsa Police Department spokeswoman denied that officers investigated the incident, but multiple entrepreneurs on the street said, and video footage from a local news station indicates, that they did.) Bynum told me that the police department regularly investigates attacks on “lawful murals,” and noted that the one on Greenwood was illegal. However, after a legal Black Lives Matter mural painted on a local building was repeatedly vandalized this fall, and the owner of the property filed a police report, the department failed to assign an officer to the case for more than a month.
Vandalism has been a problem for Black Lives Matter murals not only in Tulsa but across the nation. In Ithaca, New York, a mural was doused in black paint, on October 4th. In Pittsburgh, in late September, two men shot paintballs at a downtown Black Lives Matter mural, while one of them wore a Trump hat and a sweatshirt with a Confederate-flag design. At the University of North Carolina, Asheville, e-mails threatened violence if the college’s mural was not removed, prompting a campus lockdown. A street mural painted in East Nashville on October 17th was marred by burnout tire tracks the next day.
In some of these communities, police tried to identify and arrest the murals’ vandals; in Tulsa, officers portrayed Black Lives Matter, both the message and the movement, as a threat. On the Saturday when protesters painted the mural in front of City Hall, a separate march in support of law enforcement was held nearby. Several officers participated, including Wendell Franklin, the Tulsa chief of police, and Chris Witt, a lieutenant on the force. At the start of that rally, Witt warned pro-police demonstrators that Black Lives Matter protesters might try to approach them in the street. “I need you not to panic—don’t run,” he said. “These officers are going to come up to form a line in front of you to protect you.”
When the pro-police demonstrators marched near the Black Lives Matter protest, though, the protesters applauded them and their right to peaceably assemble. Frank, the editor of the Black Wall Street Times, who helped organize the protest, encouraged the applause. Later, when some B.L.M. protesters began an anti-police chant, after the mural was painted, Frank cut them off with his megaphone. He said that, despite the day’s optics, he wanted to avoid a dichotomy between pro-police and anti-police protesters. “I don’t want people to think that the police are the ones that are the targets,” he told me. “The target is ending systemic racism and eradicating white-supremacist ideas from the American culture.”
Since the painting of the Black Lives Matter mural in front of City Hall, the city’s practice of selective enforcement has intensified. During the City Hall protest, Jess Eddy, the Whites Against Racism founder, was immediately arrested for breach of the peace, after officers said that he refused to leave the street. When police spotted a woman several blocks away with yellow paint on her clothes, they chased her down and arrested her. She now faces felony charges for malicious injury to property, a crime punishable by up to thirty days in jail. The Tulsa Police Department put a photo on Facebook of four masked people painting the street, asking followers to contact Crime Stoppers with information. The Tulsa County district attorney has declined to pursue state charges, saying that his office’s resources are better used targeting violent crime. Tulsa police, though, continued to search for whoever recently spray-painted “BLM” in other parts of downtown Tulsa. “They’re hiding their racism behind the law,” Frank said.
Today, both Second Street and Greenwood Avenue are again blank canvasses. Two hours after the mural was painted in front of City Hall, a government cleaning crew washed away the paint, the remnants pooling in milky yellow puddles by the sewer grates. No city officials have provided any information about the white militiamen who stood behind the police during the protest. The fight over the murals has galvanized the people protecting them as much as it has angered the people so desperate to see them gone. When the original mural was vandalized with a thin blue line, local residents restored it within hours. “Time after time, that mural brought the community together, and it was beautiful,” Briana Shea, who helped organize the painting of the Greenwood Avenue mural on Juneteenth, told me. Shea has been working with a foundation that honors Terence Crutcher, the 2016 shooting victim, to paint a series of identical murals in church parking lots around the city. And, since the police enforced their crackdown at City Hall, people have also started painting murals in their own neighborhood driveways. In the coming months, Shea hopes to paint a hundred of the murals on private property around Tulsa. While the city seeks to punish people for writing the words, the spirit of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” cannot be erased, even if the words are washed away, paved over, and criminalized.
*story by The New Yorker