City Council Again Reaches No Consensus On Black Lives Matter Street Painting

Aug 20, 2020

Two weeks ago, members of the Tulsa City Council voted to postpone a decision on what action, if any, to take regarding the "BLACK LIVES MATTER" street mural painted in the days leading up to Juneteenth and President Trump's controversial rally in Tulsa. 

On Wednesday afternoon, they again reached no consensus, leaving the matter for a future meeting.

Councilors have been discussing the matter for weeks, after Mayor G.T. Bynum said the mural must be removed due to its being placed without a permit or authorization. Bynum and others, including Mark Swiney of the city's legal department, have expressed concern over allowing the painting to remain, saying it could trigger a slippery slope of municipal government having to decide on a message-by-message basis what speech is allowable.

At Wednesday's meeting, councilors played familiar roles from past discussions on the mural.

Councilors Vanessa Hall-Harper and Kara Joy McKee presented a list of dozens of American cities with similarly painted "BLACK LIVES MATTER" messages put down in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in May, and said that they'd researched ways other city governments have managed to keep unauthorized messages.

"Constituents have painted the street, and we could, just before the centennial of the [1921 Tulsa] Race Massacre, erase the words 'Black Lives Matter' and bring international attention for being the city, the only one, that has erased the words 'Black Lives Matter' just before the centennial of the Race Massacre, or we could accept this gift," McKee said.

McKee said the message should not be controversial.

"This is something that Dolly Parton is willing to say, and nobody thinks that Dolly Parton is a terrorist," McKee said.

Councilor Phil Lakin said his concern over the prospect of embracing the painting and allowing it to remain has nothing to do with the content of the message.

"I get very, very wary of putting the council in the position of deciding which messages are good and which messages are bad, which ones are right and which ones are wrong," Lakin said. "Whether we can paint 'MAGA,' or 'Jesus Saves,' or 'Jenks Trojans Rock,' or 'G.T. For Mayor,' or 'Lakin For Council,' or what. Which ones of those can we paint and which ones can we not paint?"

Councilor Connie Dodson, who has previously suggested the message "Black Lives Matter" may be too "political" a message to endorse, expressed more concern over the illegality of the painting, and broached the idea of bringing criminal charges against the muralists.

"It was illegally put on the road by an activist, or just someone looking to put their own speech out there," Dodson said. "If we adopt that as government speech, we're adopting that criminal offense that allowed it to be put there."

"The fact that it was an illegal application and there's been no arrests and no charges also means that those that might otherwise do it may feel free to do it and not have any repercussions, either," Dodson said.

Councilor Cass Fahler, who set the discussion in motion weeks ago by bringing an agenda item before the council regarding a group that had requested to paint "BACK THE BLUE" in a similar style, did not speak on the topic at Wednesday's meeting.

The mayor's office said Wednesday that they will continue to wait for a decision from the council before proceeding with any potential removal of the painting.