SCHENECTADY — The chalk outlines appeared early in front of City Hall on Tuesday, and quickly emerged into bright yellow letters:
Black Lives Matter.
The city on Tuesday became the latest municipality nationwide to emblazon the phrase on city streets, joining cities from Oakland, Calif. to Albany following widespread demonstrations after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
City resident Doug Burris watched as workers taped down the letters on the stretch of Jay Street between Franklin and Liberty streets.
“I think it’s really nice,” said Burris, who is Black. “Black people need help.”
City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield advocated for the street art after receiving feedback from city residents.
The lawmaker acknowledged some have dismissed the mural as mere symbolism.
But symbolism matters, she said.
“If symbolism didn’t matter in these times, we wouldn’t be taking down certain statues,” Porterfield said, referring to efforts across the U.S. to remove monuments of Confederate figures and other figures with racist pasts.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said the art is acknowledgment of the “imperfections that exist within society.”
“Right in front of City Hall is the significant place to put that message out,” said McCarthy, who estimated the downtown mural had a $10,000 price tag.
While supportive of the gesture, some activists have been critical of the city for not bringing local artists into the fold for the downtown design, which was selected after scouting other locations.
“This is a good opportunity for local artists to be a part of it instead of sitting on the outskirts looking in,” said William Rivas last week. “If funding is allocated to the project, at least some of it should go to local artists in the community and they should be able to paint or be given a stipend.”
City officials say the mural is just the beginning of a broader public arts project, and the city is working with the Hamilton Hill Arts Center on additional initiatives that will be announced later this week.
“Hopefully this will continue on because the value of public art adds to the attractiveness of the community as a whole,” McCarthy said.
Porterfield believes public art has a therapeutic effect during a time of dueling national crises, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve seen lots of protests, and people have different ways of expressing themselves with what’s going on,” Porterfield said. “To be able to do that artistically — to just let it out to paint names, to paint faces of people and to just release the pain and grief people are feeling right now — that’s huge. People need to have the opportunity to release how they feel about that.”
The city has had three protests since Floyd's death on May 25, all of them peaceful.
Following two weeks of sustained protests, the state quickly enacted a series of laws designed to bolster police accountability, including repealing a statute that shielded police disciplinary records.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo also signed an executive order earlier this month requiring police departments statewide to alter department strategies with community input.
McCarthy said the city has internally started having those discussions.
But he stressed that during his nine-year tenure as mayor, he’s told new police and fire department recruits to lead by example, measures essential to building and maintaining community trust.
“To obtain that, you’ve got to earn it every day,” McCarthy said, who acknowledged the mural is just a starting point.
“There’s still inequities within economic opportunities that exist within urban areas,” McCarthy said.
Schenectady-based activists All of Us led the demonstrations in Schenectady and is part of a coalition seeking further reforms in the Capital Region.
“This symbol is an acknowledgement of the moment we are in,” said All of Us in a prepared statement. “We look forward to seeing when the people inside City Hall, reading that message every day, give the same commitment to creating the structural changes Black people are calling for as they gave to painting the words on the ground.”