On March 9, the Pullman City Council met to discuss, among other things, the mural slated to be painted on one of the concrete retaining walls on Spring Street, between Main and Paradise. The issue had been brewing since last August when a local Black Lives Matter group came forth and recommended to the council that a mural be painted somewhere in town, demonstrating the town’s commitment to end racism. The council passed the hot potato to the arts commission whose members went on to “unanimously” vote to “move forward with the project.”
Pullman seemed woke and heading in the right direction. But then came the next few months and the need to complicate matters needlessly. By February, the city had homed in on a nice sounding obstacle, a “complication,” claiming that neither the City Council nor the arts commission had followed the proper “city procedures for public art.”
In the meantime, artists, in good faith, had already submitted thoughtful responses. But that did not matter. Arcane administrative minutia far outweighed the need to “move forward,” gumming up what should have otherwise been simple and straightforward.
Instead we get this awful and dark discussion about this, that and the other, really nothing. The most offensive of which is the need to notify “property and business owners” within 300 feet of the upcoming artwork, that art is about to take place within their “nice and comfortable” neighborhood. For 300 years, and more, blacks had to endure being treated as property, suffering under the rule of the white man dictating what they can and cannot do.
To return to the white man for approval of art meant to shine light on modern day Black oppression is to make it clear that we haven’t moved an inch, affirming the continued belief in white supremacy. For who exactly lives and owns property anywhere in Pullman, but the white man. Pullman is 72 percent white and only 3 percent African American. Going prowling around the neighborhood asking for approval from the neighbors can mean only one thing and that is that no art about Blacks could ever take place without first finding approval from the white man. Implicit in the process of notification is the fear of art that might make the white man too “uncomfortable”, contaminating his otherwise pure and sanitized existence.
And yet this was not it. Equally awful was a recommendation proposing panels instead of one large mural, to which future panels could be added to expand the mural. These panels would be manufactured off site and shipped over and installed within the span of only few minutes. They can also be removed in the future, when time comes and we decide that Black Lives Matter is in the past and we need to move on. Easy come easy go, not realizing that there is nothing easy or temporary about ending racism, or confronting the fact that for hundreds of years, Blacks suffered under white subjugation and continue to do so.
The decision to paint a mural on a piece of concrete infrastructure is more than a mere matter of interest, but a very big deal indeed. For years, Black denial took place in cities, large and small, on infrastructure that looked and behaved just like the one on which the mural is slated to appear. Namely concrete streets, sidewalks, and parks. In the fifties and sixties, perfectly fine Black housing clusters were razed to make way for corporate headquarters, federal buildings and cultural institutions. Blacks were evicted and left to fend for themselves, leading to ripple effects of social, economic and racial injustices elsewhere in the city. George Floyd died with his face pushed against asphalt.
To use a piece of our infrastructure toward a message about Black oppression is the least we can do, making it clear, at least symbolically, that we are willing to surrender, indeed desecrate, a feature of the city that for years had desecrated the plight of others. This is not a passing matter that can be “clipped on” today and removed tomorrow, using panels, but one that demands a response commensurately stubborn and lasting as the problems that gave rise to the mural in the first place.
Adding insult to injury, the council recommended that a town hall meeting should be organized to hear from the public about what it wants to see featured in the mural or how to define the request for proposals. A public that is, again, 72 percent white and has little or no clue what it means to be black and suffer the consequences of racism. There is a time to play “community” and there is a time to be humble and defer the call for action for others to mobilize.
After all what if the community suggests that we should feature the face of Lincoln on the mural, a seemingly nice gesture but clearly wrong. Would we really follow through on that recommendation? The president may have been technically responsible for ending slavery, but the reality is such that he didn’t do that for the love of Africa Americans but to preserve a union.
Let’s cut the nonsense and do the right thing. Gumming up the system may give council men and women the nice feeling that they are being administratively responsible, but the reality is otherwise, more harmful and sinister than they realize. Just like they may not wish to spend too much time debating a fire across town, so they should not want to throw unnecessary obstacles in the path of the mural. The impact can be incalculably damaging.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.