Black Lives Matter paintings in Fayetteville, North Carolina and New York City were recently vandalized. A mural of George Floyd was defaced in Brownsville, Texas, as was a mural in Spokane, Washington. If the crowning achievements of Black protest are temporary murals and street art, these events are hurtful, if not devastating. Murals and paintings on buildings and streets you don’t own mean very little. Ultimately, Black people must place the greatest emphasis on what they actually own and control.
The vandalization of Black Lives Matter artwork can be seen as a positive. Lest Black people forget, racism is alive and the notion that everyone is suddenly rooting for Black people is pure fantasy. Acts of white backlash serve as a reminder that the only true protection Black people have is not in gestures of goodwill from white allies but rather, Black people owning and controlling as much as possible. From real estate to businesses, to political seats of power, if Black people don’t own it, it means little. Symbolism and cultural expression have their place but in the final analysis, protest that doesn’t lead to collective power in the form of ownership is fleeting.
What do Black people own? Murals on plywood hanging from businesses that Black people don’t own have an expiration date. When those murals, however, are attached to buildings owned by Black people, they can live forever– as long as the ownership of the building stays within the community. Ed Hamilton is a legendary sculptor based out of Louisville, Kentucky. His artwork can is displayed prominently in cities across the nation. Hamilton, in fact, is the artist that created The Spirit of Freedom, a 9-foot bronze statue at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington. The mural in tribute to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd outside of his studio hits much different because it’s his studio.
White backlash is to be expected. Black people cannot attach their hopes and collective passions to anything they don’t own. Black people shouldn’t consider street paintings to be the ultimate aim of protest. If Black people don’t own it, they can’t control it. If Black people don’t control it, it can be taken away at any moment and must be considered temporal. Anything temporal shouldn’t be Black people’s focus.