SCHENECTADY — There are no plans to remove the Black Lives Matter mural in front of City Hall, Mayor Gary McCarthy said on Monday.
The Schenectady Republican Committee last week called for the mural to be removed or for the city to “provide equal space and funding for a patriotic political message” while tying the Black Lives Matter message to a “Marxist” political organization.
“It’s old news. We put it up two years ago and have gone through all of this. It’s a non-issue,” McCarthy said.
Asked if the mural was there to stay, McCarthy said, “Yes.”
McCarthy made the comments following a City Council meeting where a number of community members, including leaders from the Schenectady NAACP, and elected officials spoke in favor of preserving the mural, including Council President Marion Porterfield and Majority Leader John Mootooveren.
“Black lives matter, and it will remain there and I will support that sign to remain there,” Mootooveren said. “I will ask my Republican friends who are calling for the removal of the sign to please, have your hands off that sign.”
The city installed the Jay Street mural in June 2020 with the backing of the City Council amid a national and local reckoning on race following the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota that saw thousands take to the streets in protest in Schenectady and other Capital Region cities like Albany, Troy and Glens Falls.
Similar murals popped up across the country around the same time, including one on Albany’s Lark Street.
Porterfield said the mural was painted in order to amplify the message that Black lives matter, a message, she said, that remains true given the recent racist mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket that left 10 dead.
“We can have our different beliefs, but believe this: Everybody’s life matters, and it’s unfortunate that we have to say Black lives matter because there are people who don’t think that it does,” she said.
But Matt Nelligan, chairman of the city’s Republican Committee, said his organization plans to continue to push the issue and is weighing a lawsuit to have the mural removed. He added that the issue has nothing to do with race, but is centered around the First Amendment, Nelligan said, adding that his organization believes everyone should be treated equally.
Nelligan said the Black lives matter message is linked to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, whose origins can be traced back to 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges following the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
The foundation, which provides funding for Black Lives Matter branches across the country, officially registered as a nonprofit in December 2020, after raising $90 million in donations following Floyd’s murder.
Nelligan said since the organization is political in nature, the city has an obligation under the First Amendment to provide equal space and funding to amplify other political messages or must remove the mural entirely.
“The First Amendment of the Constitution allows free speech, but when it comes to public property, you don’t get to take sides,” he said. “When you put Black Lives Matter, which is an organization not just a rhetorical sentence, on a public street and use taxpayer money, you’re violating the First Amendment.”
The Republican Committee has launched a petition calling for the mural’s removal, and Nelligan said the organization is weighing a potential lawsuit. He’s hoping an alternative solution can be reached before any legal action is needed.
“While we haven’t made a formal decision on it, we would consider legal action against the city, because the city doesn’t get to flout the Constitution just because they decide it’s a good idea to do so,” he said. “I think at the end of the day that may be sadly where it needs to go, but we’d be open to sitting down and talking with city officials about ways to resolve this in another way.”
Meanwhile, All of Us, a Schenectady-based grassroots social justice organization, has launched its own petition seeking to keep the mural in place, which organizers plan to present directly to the City Council next month.
The group’s co-founders, Shawn Young and Jamaica Miles, a city school board member, both spoke in favor of keeping the mural in place on Monday, saying city Republicans are using fear to roll back progress and linking the tactic to trends seen on the national level.
“What is happening in the city of Schenectady is a microcosm of what is happening across the state and across the nation,” Miles said. “The local Republican committee continues to follow the GOP mass communication strategy of fear-mongering and hate — a distraction of the everyday needs of the people.”
Miles pointed to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision repealing abortion rights and raised concerns about other rights being stripped, including same-sex marriage and interracial relationships in light of the decision.
“Black Lives Matter is a symbol of the continuing need for structural change that will truly fulfill the promise of freedom and justice for all,” Miles said.
All of Us has been a frequent target of criticism by city Republicans, who have released numerous statements condemning Miles’ statements and actions in recent months.
The organization released numerous messages criticizing one another on social media during this year’s school board election, an unusually political race that saw Republicans back a pair of candidates that supported placing police officers in city schools — an issue Miles opposed.
The Republican-backed school board candidates, Catherine Lewis and Vivian Parsons, were ultimately elected.
Nelligan said his organization is focused on issues that matter, like inflation and increased crime, and dismissed accusations that city Republicans are focused on rolling back progress.
“Our party is for equity of all people and for everybody that is endowed by their creator to have natural rights to have them, and that’s everybody,” he said.
Nelligan said he believes city Republicans have momentum on their side heading into next year’s election cycle, and that the party is planning to run candidates that will resonate with voters for all open City Council seats. He acknowledged that Republicans haven’t always been unified in the past, but said the party is working to establish a platform that will be unveiled in the coming weeks.
Republicans have struggled to resonate with voters in recent years. The city is a Democratic stronghold, with registered Republicans being outnumbered 4-1, according to Board of Elections data.
“We’re moving forward with a positive agenda to change the city, which we think needs change, and you can expect us to remain active and get even more active as we head into next year to make sure city residents have a clear choice on the issues,” Nelligan said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.