BENNINGTON — The Select Board has approved an “All Black Lives Matter” street mural along the edge of South Street in front of the Bennington town offices.
The board voted unanimously Monday to allow creation of the mural by a local group of artists, advocates and other volunteers, but not before hearing from several residents opposed to the idea or urging a delay to allow more public comment.
Artist Cindy Taylor and Mary Gerisch, of Rights and Democracy-Bennington, described the project during the board’s teleconference meeting. They said the plan is for the artists involved in the collaborative effort to lay out the wording and the mural design in the no-parking zone in front of the town offices.
“Our plan should minimize disruption for traffic,” the group wrote in a proposal to the board. “We will paint the mural in one pass at night using several volunteers. The design will be marked in chalk and then taped to facilitate a group effort with minimal mess and confusion.”
Volunteers would paint in the various sections, Taylor said, following the guides provided. The nighttime event, scheduled during a period of low traffic flow, also will include lighting and music and food to encourage a community spirit.
“We’d like to make it a little bit of an event,” she said, adding that the painting process should be done in one evening.
Social distancing and facial coverings would be required for participants, the women said.
Gerisch said the design is based on a mural created in Los Angeles that added the word “all” to symbolize inclusion of Blacks and other members of the LGBTQ+ community, and all people who have felt marginalized through their mistreatment by police or authorities.
The All Black Lives Matter lettering will face the offices, according to an overhead view of the design mock-up included in the proposal submitted to the Select Board.
The overall design also will “give Bennington a unique perspective” on the sentiments symbolized by the Black Lives Matter movement by including the Green Mountains and the Bennington Monument in the design, the women said.
The group also plans to maintain the mural, which will be created with industrial-grade paints applicable for road surfaces. No taxpayer dollars would be required for the project, they said.
Communities across the country have painted "Black Lives Matter" murals in roadways, prompted by the May 25 killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd told the board he had consulted with the Vermont Agency of Transportation on placement of murals in a street that is also a highway, Route 7.
AOT Secretary Joe Flynn, in a response sent to Hurd, said in part, "We recommend that any painting applied to the roadway be done in a way that will not impair safety markings such as stop lines, turn lines, lane designation markings, or other directional markings. The painting should not interfere with crosswalks and not resemble one.”
Flynn also suggested that the town "coordinate the work in a work that minimizes impact to traffic flow and maximizes safety of the art installers and choose materials that do not create additional hazards such as slippery surfaces.”
Hurd said the proposed location “makes a lot of sense,” as it is out of the traveled way on South Street in what would be a parking zone if parking were allowed there and in a place where it can be easily maintained. He said it is likely one-lane traffic can be maintained while the mural is being painted.
Board member Jim Carroll asked Hurd whether he thought security cameras should be considered for the area, since vandals have defaced similar murals in other areas of the state and around the country.
Hurd said “there may be cameras we can access already, but I’ll have to check on that.”
Board member Jeanne Conner said she hopes someone in the group could write up and post an explanation of the mural design and its symbols for the public viewing the finished work.
Taylor called that “an excellent idea” that could increase awareness of the meaning of the mural.
While all board members expressed support for the mural project, some residents calling into the meeting were opposed or warned that a great number of townspeople are opposed and their voices were not being heard.
Jason Lillie said that judging from comments about the proposal on social media, the mural “is not something that a majority of townspeople want.”
He added that the board could also find itself fielding requests for a “Make America Great Again” mural or to express any number of other sentiments. Approving the mural, he said, might “open the town up to a lawsuit” if other proposals are rejected, he said.
He advised the board to open up the proposal to public comment, which he said could reveal significant opposition. Lillie said he was not necessarily against the mural but was questioning the process of applying to produce a public work of art.
“I think pushing this through so fast, you are going to have repercussions,” he said.
Board Chairman Donald Campbell said he believes legal issues have been considered by the group proposing the mural.
Audrey Pietrucha also called in to the meeting. She said it is “regrettable” that the state, which bans billboards, allows what she termed political expression “in the form of road graffiti” to be created on public streets. But she added that the town is not obligated to approve what she said amounts to a “political statement associated with a controversial group.”
The mural “is not welcomed by many in Bennington … and I urge the board to think carefully before allowing it,” Pietrucha said, adding that other groups will subsequently seek to use the space for their “political messages.”
She said it also “seems an insult” to the Bennington Police Department to allow the mural near to the department headquarters on the opposite side of South Street.
Mike Bethel called to urge the board to postpone a decision to allow for more public comment.
“I think you need to let the community weigh in about this. I think you should table it," he said. "I don’t think delaying it for a couple of weeks or whatever is going to hurt anything about the cause.”
He also recommended that the board put the issue on the Nov. 3 ballot as an advisory ballot question.
In response to the comments about allegedly making political statements, Taylor said, “As an artist, I would classify it as artistic expression.”
After Campbell asked the board for suggestions on how to proceed, Carroll made a motion to delay a vote until the next meeting on Aug. 10 to allow more public comment, but the motion did not receive a second.
The board then voted unanimously to approve the mural, subject to a final review from the state AOT.
Campbell said he believes the board is making “a social statement,” rather than allowing a political statement in approving the mural. It would illustrate that the town is “welcoming to all people," he said, and recognize that this is an important moment in the history of civil rights.
Gerisch said the mural will be “a tangible demo of the town’s support" for people who have been marginalized throughout America's history, despite declarations that "all" should enjoy freedom in the nation's founding documents. The mural also says “we’re out there trying" to people considering a move to Bennington, she said.
Hurd said on Tuesday that no date has been set as far as he knows for the mural painting. He doesn't believe further approvals are required from the state as long as the requirements the AOT outlined are adhered to.
However, he has sent the proposal to the agency for review.
"The placement is probably the safest since it is outside the traveled way making it safer to paint and maintain, and in front of the seat of government much as the BLM is in front of the capital building in Montpelier," he said.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien