The 1990s and 2000s had been disappointingly stagnant years in the push for racial equality, Daniel Pease thought. He was worried for the future of his mixed-race son, just 4 years old.
“I realize the clock is ticking. We’re running out of time and I don’t want my child growing up the same way we did,” Pease told the Daily Journal of San Mateo, Calif.
After seeing photos of street art in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City, Pease asked Redwood City for permission to paint his own Black Lives Matter sign across the pavement near Courthouse Square on the Fourth of July. City officials quickly agreed, and the city even provided him a bucket of yellow paint.
Little did Pease know that city crews would power-wash the 17-foot artwork away during the dead of night two weeks later, leaving only bare, faded asphalt.
Officials said they removed the piece on July 17 to prevent “driver confusion and traffic accidents” caused by street art, although no collisions had occurred, city spokeswoman Jennifer Yamaguma wrote in an email.
“No further art installation will be authorized on the city’s streets,” Yamaguma wrote.
But residents aren’t sure that the possibility of traffic accidents is the real reason for the art moratorium. They think a woman’s request might be to blame.
When the yellow-painted Black Lives Matter sign was rolled onto Broadway on July 4, local lawyer Maria Rutenburg figured the city streets had become a zone for political discourse.
So she emailed the Redwood City Council “asking for permission to paint ‘MAGA 2020’ next to it,” Rutenburg said. “I suggested the spot and the type of paint and everything.”
But city officials rejected her request, citing the decision not to authorize street art.
Reluctant to accept no, Rutenburg tried again. “My application to paint MAGA 2020 stands submitted,” she wrote.
During an interview, Rutenburg clarified that she never asked for the Black Lives Matter artwork to be erased. She simply insisted the city provide her an equal platform to voice what’s more important to her: President Trump’s reelection.
“It’s not really about Black lives for me. I did not fight BLM,” said Rutenburg, who is white. “And I want to make sure that it’s understood that I’m not a racist.”
City officials didn’t respond to a question about whether Rutenburg’s emails held any weight in their decision to prohibit all street installations, or whether traffic accidents were truly the sole concern. Either way, residents were unhappy about the city’s decision to erase the words.
More than 1,000 people signed a Change.org petition to protest the removal of the art piece, which had become “a powerful reminder of one of the greatest social justice movements in our country,” the petition says.
Redwood City’s “negation of the community’s voice is itself an example of white supremacy — privileging one white voice over the community’s,” it says.
In addition to the online petition, Rutenburg’s phone number and voicemail have become a forum for community viewpoints.
“I get like about 500 calls a day right now,” she said. “Some people thank me for doing it. Some people tell me, ‘I know where you live, and I’m going to come for you.'”
For Pease, the most disheartening part is not that the city removed the art piece, but that someone had “the audacity to come out with … a comparable counterpunch to Black Lives Matter.”
The artwork was “just words on the street. It doesn’t represent real change,” he told the Daily Journal.