Hey everyone. We’ve been tracking a public mural project in Pullman that seems to have begun with good intentions, then quickly derailed over a botched proposal process and eventually imploded in recriminations over what some residents believe is an unwillingness to just come out and acknowledge that Black Lives Matter.
In some ways it’s the kind of story that has been happening across America since last June. In a few important ways, though, it’s the kind of story that could only really happen in a small farming town with a large public university like Pullman. — Luke
When Pullman fumbled an “End Racism Now” mural project, activists and artists ran with it.
By Jenna Nash and Daisy Zavala
As protests demanding systemic change emerged across the U.S. last summer after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, hundreds of Pullman residents joined the movement. Activists from a group called Palouse in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter organized marches that hundreds of local residents attended. Later, the group proposed that the city produce a Black Lives Matter mural.
The mural commission process that followed demonstrates the uneasy racial dynamics of a community characterized by a large, diverse public university in the heart of an overwhelmingly white farming community.
Jason Kennedy, a member of Palouse in Solidarity, says the group proposed the mural to the Pullman City Council in July as a way of demonstrating the city’s desire to be an active participant in the change that protesters sought.
“Art like this allows a community to say ‘hey we are going to progress, we are about change and we are about acknowledging this shift in society that has needed to happen for over 100 years,” Kennedy says. Contemporaneous reports show organizers unequivocally requesting the mural contain the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
Pullman City Councilmembers Brandon Chapman and Dan Records appeared to support the group. Others were more circumspect. “I don’t see this as a permanent piece of art,” Councilmember Al Sorensen told the Daily Evergreen last July. Still, the process went forward; the Council tasking the Pullman Art Commission with gathering submissions and public feedback.
Despite the calls for a mural that explicitly had BLM in its design, the post on the Art Commission’s Facebook page requested designs for an “End Racism Now” mural that would “express solidarity to end systemic racism.”
The difference between “End Racism Now” and “Black Lives Matter'' has proven to be an almost unbridgeable gap in the community.
The town and the school
Pullman generally has an inclusive reputation. Having a large, diverse public university in the heart of town helps that perception, and since 2016,Whitman County has been the most reliably Democratic-voting county in Eastern Washington’s 5th congressional district — more than Walla Walla and even Spokane. But people of color in Pullman say that doesn’t tell the whole story.
On the one hand, there’s the outright racism. Jason Kennedy says that, when people showed support for Black Lives Matter on social media, they were threatened.
Kennedy, who is Black and has lived in Pullman for about seven years, says he experienced multiple incidents of people driving past his house, shouting the n-word at him after recognizing his vehicle from the protests last summer. Kennedy says the harassment compelled him to sell his truck and buy a “less conspicuous” car.
Just across the state border in Moscow, the volatile atmosphere surrounding local protests stopped some people of color from protesting at all, Kennedy says, out of fear for their safety even though they wanted to.
Mikayla Makle, President of the Black Student Union at WSU, believes there is a lack of consistent, meaningful support for the Black community in Pullman. People don’t talk about the hate crimes that happen, she says, and in the rare case they are acknowledged, it’s brief. Makle specifically questions the lack of action taken after a 2019 report by The Daily Evergreen showed Black people are nearly 5 times more likely to be arrested by the Pullman Police Department.
“When are y’all going to actually make that kind of change,” She asks, “actually implement some type of training so that it’s not the majority of the arrests are Black people, but Black people only make up two percent of the population?”
Local scholars also point to “colorblind racism” — a failure to see the role race plays in social equity, says Jennifer Sherman, associate professor of sociology at WSU. Rural communities, which exist in a relative vacuum of diversity, have a tendency to resist acknowledging racial issues at all.
This doesn’t always manifest as outright prejudice, Sherman says. It’s sometimes simply a lack of exposure to, or knowledge of, the problems faced by communities of color. People in ethnically and culturally homogenous places might not have ever been exposed to the issues faced by other cultures and races. The effect, though, is to leave people of color feeling invisible, or silenced.
“This isn’t an urban issue, this isn’t somebody else’s problem,” Sherman says, “This is an issue that’s as old as our nation and it persists in every corner of it.” In a place like Pullman, this can lead to warm affirmations of unity that lack bite, follow through, and most importantly, structural change. Jason Kennedy says that’s exactly how it feels living in a town where local leaders installed a sign featuring the word “Welcome” in 60 different languages, but have balked at taking a more resolute stand against racism.
“[The mural] needs to say Black Lives Matter,” he believes. “If we can’t as a community get behind that simple sentence and support people of color, then what’s the point of the welcome sign in the entrance of Pullman that’s written in many different languages?”
Mistrust the process
In total, the Arts Commission received seven mural submissions, including two submissions from local artist and illustrator Jiemei Lin, who has lived in Pullman for about five years and works as a graphic designer at Washington State University. In that time, Lin, who is Chinese, has become a sought-after muralist in the region, contributing to the Black Lives Matter Mural in Spokane, the Spokane Arts Alleyway Project, and a beautiful cuisine-themed mural at Feast World Kitchen.
One of Lin’s designs featured a rainbow background with the words “End Racism Now Black Lives Matter.” It was a favorite of many people, including two city councilmembers. It seemed to make others uneasy. Councilmember Al Sorensen took it a step further, repeating the now-common refrain, “When it comes down to it, does any life matter more than another?”
Prior to the council’s review, though, confusion with the process had arisen when the Arts Commission created a Facebook post asking community members to “vote” for their favorite of seven submissions for the mural, when they were merely supposed to assess public opinion. The post was later deleted and re-posted to instead request “feedback,” but the damage had already been done. People thought the project was a public competition and became angry when the city appeared to ignore their “votes.”
The confusion led to controversy when neither the Arts Commission nor City Council took accountability for the mess, choosing instead to cast blame on each other for the muddled process.
Former Arts Commissioner Katie Bunch Emerson, felt city council was wrongly passing blame on the entirely volunteer-based Arts Commission. “[City council] needs to clearly state what they want and what they expect from the Arts Commission,” she says.
According to City Councilmember Chapman, members of the Arts Commission initially seemed excited about the project. They never requested clarification from the city council, and only complained about a lack of clarity after backlash arose on social media.
Inexplicably, the Arts Commission recommended to both accept Lin’s rainbow design while also suggesting the call be reopened entirely. The commissioner’s hope was to attract more submissions. The decision actually resulted in fewer.
Several artists withdrew themselves from consideration in solidarity with Lin, and Lin herself withdrew a second design she had submitted. That design, which featured the smiling faces of children of all ethnicities, was popular on social media, but Lin says she felt the design was ultimately misleading insofar as it depicted a world that doesn’t exist and because it didn’t challenge racial inequities.
The happy faces might have looked pleasing on the wall, but they didn’t represent reality.
“What came back to us was a huge mess,” Chapman concludes.
During a city council meeting on Feb. 23, only two city councilmembers, Chapman and Dan Records, voted to accept Lin’s piece, while the others balked. People are now questioning how serious the Pullman city council really was about “ending racism” if they can’t even commit to a mural.
Chapman says he hopes Pullman will add a diversity and equity committee, like many cities in Washington already have, to its boards and committees. This is something the city of Pullman needs looking into the future, Chapman adds.
Four of seven Arts Commission members, including Gail Siegel, Judy Dunn, Chair Jerri Haris, and Bunch Emerson, resigned as a result of the project.
The controversy, combined with new worries expressed during a Feb. 23 council subcommittee meeting over the structural integrity of the retaining wall the mural would have been painted on, has led city council to change the project entirely. Now, they are moving forward with a series of panels instead of a singular mural. A new art piece on the wall will be unveiled every Juneteenth.
The process left Lin feeling disillusioned as a person of color and disrespected as an artist. “It really bothered me that after [the city council] heard the story of people of color in the community actually struggling every single day of their life, they still felt that that’s a message they should hide,” she says.
Lin says she has never seen this level of unprofessionalism from city leaders in the decade she has worked as a professional artist. The way the Pullman city council handled the original mural project sends a very clear message, Lin says. They did not value the time or energy she put into the design.
“They are not only disrespecting me as an artist,” she says, “As a person of color I feel that I am silenced.”
Black Student Union President Makle sees the entire mural project as performative. “Are you going to provide any type of information about what Juneteenth actually means, or are you just doing it just because it’s Juneteenth?” Makle asks.
Projects like the mural aren’t enough, she adds. Activism might be trendy right now, but more permanent solutions, like investing in Black artists, businesses and scholarships at WSU are necessary to address the inequities Black people face.
Kennedy and Lin, among others, speculate the underlying motive of the city’s decision was to remove the phrase “Black Lives Matter” from the artwork. “It feels like you’re sitting there screaming and you’re still not being heard,” Kennedy says. “We’ve lost faith in our city government process.”
Where the city government failed, though, the community appears to be stepping up.
Lin and a group of friends spent March creating a new non-profit called Pullman Arts Foundation and, on April 1, launched a gofundme campaign to raise $12,000 to paint an updated and even larger version of the mural on the side of a building downtown near the WSU Visitor Center.
The campaign met its goal in just 36 hours and has raised over $15,000 to date.
Like many crowdfunding campaigns, the mural project offered perks in the form of stickers and yard signs featuring the new design. Over 100 people pledged enough for yard signs while 145 donors gave enough to receive stickers.
If activists and Lin are correct that the botched mural process was at least partially due to certain City Councilmembers’ and Arts Commissioners’ desire to avoid the controversy of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in a public space, their actions seemingly brought about the opposite.
Instead of one public reminder that Black Lives Matter, Pullman will soon have hundreds.
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