City council criticized for delaying progress of Black Lives Matter mural

Story by Benjamin Regan
Associate Sports Editor

Image courtesy of Zach Brown

The City Council made strides toward an anti-racist future by proclaiming February 2022 Black History Month and condemning South Pasadena’s history of institutionalized racism by approving the Sundown Town Resolution at its meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 2. However, the Council was also lambasted by public commenters for foot-dragging on the Anti Bias Club’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) mural project that was previously approved by the Parks and Recreation and Public Art Commissions in September 2021. 

During the public comment section of the meeting, 50 community members — 34 verbally and 16 via email — voiced their support for the BLM mural to be painted in South Pasadena’s Orange Grove Park. Specifically, commenters requested the Council agendize the BLM mural, approve the project at its next meeting, and delegate the City Manager to enter into a contract with artist Zach Brown. They are pushing for the project’s approval to educate the public about significant Black figures, serve as a reminder of the city’s racist past, and to motivate future generations to work towards an anti-racist future.

“[This] is a project with positivity and inclusivity,” Anti-Bias Club Vice President and junior Alexa Morales said in a public comment. “I believe that through this project, kids will absorb the beauty and knowledge that these great African-American activists have to share. We must urge the importance of our message because there is no need for a student of color such as myself to feel ostracized or alienated when being a part of this town.”

Commenters criticized the City Council for its inaction around the mural, postponing its place on the agenda three separate times, the last of which was set for Wednesday, Jan. 19, even though the city leaders conditionally approved the project in October 2020. In the weeks since the most recent cancellation, the Anti-Bias Club has reached out to City officials many times asking to meet, but received no affirmative responses.

Previously, the City had also compelled  the Anti-Bias Club to change the location of the mural from the west side of City Hall to the current spot at Orange Grove Park over liability issues. The City Attorney cited one of the issues as concern over people potentially suing the City of South Pasadena if they were hit by a car while standing in the adjacent gas station driveway taking a photo of the BLM mural. Brown, the mural’s artist, tried to counter the City’s inaction by framing the anti-racist project as beneficial to the town and its representatives.

“I would like to ask [the City Council] to do everything and anything in [its] power to see this mural done,” Brown said. “It has been a long, and at times arduous journey getting this project completed…. We are offer[ing] a gift to this community. Offer[ing] the gift of art, and… an opportunity for education and progress for all members of the South Pasadena community.”

Other residents criticized the double standard between the City’s treatment of the BLM mural and past public art projects. In an initial contract the City Attorney sent to the Anti-Bias Club, only three days were allocated for the school district, the contracting party representing the club, or the artist to remove potential graffiti on the mural. Failure to do so could result in the termination of the contract and removal of the BLM mural. However, in the South Pasadena Arts Council’s (SPARC) outlet box installation in 2018, the City granted artists 30 days to respond to degradation of their artwork, and that maintenance was also a shared responsibility between the City and the artist. The proposed contract for the BLM mural also guaranteed the City the exclusive right to remove or relocate the mural for “any reason, or no reason at all.”

Public commenters were originally given the usual three minutes to speak, before the City Council cut it down to two minutes and then eventually one because of the quantity of participants in the meeting. 

Community members praised the mural’s inclusion of over a dozen prominent Black figures including activist Marsha P. Johnson, author James Baldwin, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and astronaut Mae C. Jemison as beneficial to helping expand the public’s knowledge of Black history and culture. Additionally, commenters expressed appreciation for the art work’s local significance: highlighting local activists London Lang and Fahren James, who were instrumental in bringing BLM protests to South Pasadena in Summer 2020; depicting sun rays to symbolize the city’s history as a sundown town that excluded people of color from residency; and the space on the right side of the design intentionally left blank so viewers can step into the mural, representing everyone’s role in the anti-racism movement.  

“This project promotes the values of love, diversity, beauty, inclusivity, and intersectionality within the Black community. I believe strongly that this is a positive mural that unites South Pasadena and establishes a hopeful vision for the future,” public commenter Alexander Aquino said. “This mural will hopefully inspire more public art featuring underrepresented communities and luminating the struggles and contributions of those previously relegated to the shadows.”

Anti-Bias Club President and senior Lulu Talesnick Lopez expressed her gratitude for the public comments on behalf of the BLM mural.

“I am hopeful that this overwhelming support for the mural urges the City Council to act and… revise our contract for the mural,” Talesnick Lopez said. “I felt incredibly emotional and moved as I listened to all of the public comments…. It showed me the power and strength of community and inspired me and the rest of my group members to continue moving forward, using the momentum we have from this meeting to advocate for the mural..”

In accordance with protocol, Council members did not respond to public comments, and they did not agendize an item for the next meeting about the BLM mural.

After approximately 90 minutes of public comment, Mayor Michael Cacciotti  made a proclamation declaring February 2022 in South Pasadena as Black History Month to recognize the diversity of South Pasadena and advance equity and inclusivity. 

The City Council then unanimously voted in favor of the sundown town resolution, condemning the city’s history as a sundown town that perpetuated racism. City Council members delegated City staff to review and remove racially restrictive housing covenants in city-owned property. In the late 1940s, South Pasadena enforced an air-raid system in which alarms would sound when people of color must be outside of the city limits, at sunset. The City also enacted an official policy in 1946 to exclude people of color from society unless they were servants and caretakers.

This resolution also requires City staff to attend informational training sessions on race and equity, and to continue promoting diversity in every aspect of the city. Furthermore, Council members must support an annual community forum regarding the City’s commitment to equity, while backing inclusionary legislation and policies. “The Music in the Parks” concerts must also feature a culturally diverse group of performers. 

As the council approved this resolution, public commenters criticized the City for proclaiming its anti-racism but not approving the BLM mural.

“[The City Council] needs to make good on [its] commitment to those who worked on the BLM mural,” public commenter Anne Bagasao said. “This is an embarrassment to have the mayor follow up that resolution for Black History Month after an hour of comments asking [the Council] to do what [they] all said they’d do…. It’s an embarrassment. Just get it done.”

The Anti-Bias Club continues to advocate for the inclusion of the BLM mural on the Wednesday, February 16 City Council meeting agenda, and encourages supporters of the project to sign up for its mailing list.

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