How the proposed mural would appear from North Third Street heading northeast onto MLK, Jr. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — The controversial proposal to erect a ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural, paired with a ‘public free expression area,’ returns to Wilmington city council this Tuesday, with some tweaks aimed at easing tension over the plan.

These changes include changing the language of a proposed Black Lives Matter mural to read ‘Black Lives Do Matter.’ The change is the result of public concerns, voiced loudest by councilman Charlie Rivenbark, over both the mural and the Black Lives Matter movement, which he described as racist and divisive.

Organizers behind the project objected, saying the words were also a slogan representing their call for social justice, independent of the movement itself. City staff suggested adding the word ‘do’ and adding an end-block reading ‘End Racism Now’ to distance the mural from the movement — if approved, those words will be “adopted by the city as its own statement,” according to the resolution.

Another potential major charge — or rather, delay — is in a separate resolution to support a ‘Designated Public Forum for Artistic and Cultural Expression.’ Originally put forward as a companion to the BLM mural, the free expression plazas won’t likely materialize until next year.

According to the city’s proposed resolution, staff would use the ‘Black Lives Do Matter’ mural as a ‘pilot program’ to “help inform staff of what works and what does not work” and then refer the issue to the city council’s governance committee. That committee will return a report on the issue — but it will have until April 30 of next year to do so.

Tensions

The proposal began as a plan to paint “Black Lives Matter” on North Third Street in downtown Wilmington. Organizers and city staff came to an agreement to, instead, propose a series of 8-foot aluminum letters spelling out the slogan and painted by local artists.

The proposal grew to include an accompanying ‘free speech’ or ‘public expression’ plaza, intended to assuage council members who were concerned that if the city was seen as supporting only the BLM mural would lead to other groups feeling slighted and would demand their own public displays.

Ironically, the free expression plaza idea ended up causing additional headaches and concerns, with council and staff pointing to potential legal precedents and problems that could arise if ‘negative’ sentiments or statements were posted.

And, of course, many residents voiced their unambiguous objections to the Black Lives Matter mural itself. Councilman Rivenbark was the most outspoken representative of this sentiment. While Rivenbark was criticized by many for this stance, city emails reveal he also received a fair amount of support, as well.

Collectively, these objections and concerns were enough to delay the project. Mayor Bill Saffo asked city staff to take weeks and attempt to work through some potential issues.

As requested by several city council members, the original plan — which paired the mural and free expression plaza in one proposal — has now been split into two resolutions, one for the BLM mural and one for the free expression plaza. This should, in theory, prevent council members from conflating concerns about one with the other — it will also make it more clear, if and when council takes a final vote, on which members support which aspects.

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