After two weeks of citywide protests against police brutality, New York City has decided on an all-borough response to the outrage: The city will paint “Black Lives Matter” in bold lettering on a street in every borough.
The move, which will also co-name those streets with the same phrase, follows in the footsteps of Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser, who ordered that her city paint “Black Lives Matter” in 35-foot-tall yellow letters on a major thoroughfare. Less than a week later, cities from Oakland to Charlotte have emblazoned those words on their streets. In D.C., however, protesters made an almost immediate revision, adding the words “DEFUND THE POLICE.”
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wants those murals to send the message that “this city must fully, fully deeply feel, and this nation must as well, that black lives matter.” But without political action, those murals are empty mimicry, especially from a mayor who insisted during recent protests that the NYPD used as “light a touch as possible,” despite videos showing police pushing, beating, and pepper-spraying peaceful protesters.
Iesha Sekou, the CEO of Street Corner Resources in Harlem, says these efforts offer “good vibrations” from the mayor but that she would be “remiss if I stood here and didn’t talk about those mothers and grandmothers like myself. I have a 23-year-old grandson, and the fear I have with him engaging the police — I’m nervous until he gets back in the house,” Sekou said alongside the mayor during his mural announcement. The mural also includes the names of victims of police brutality.
City Hall says it will start conversations with the City Council and advocates to determine the best location for those murals, and that the administration will be working with the Council to get street co-naming legislation passed “as soon as possible.” Brooklyn became the first to receive a mural over the weekend, with bright yellow letters painted on Fulton Street between Marcy Avenue and Brooklyn Avenue in Bed–Stuy. The project was kicked off Saturday by Spike Lee, Reverend Al Sharpton, state Attorney General Letitia James, and local Council member Robert Cornegy hoisting paint rollers alongside volunteers.
But the most powerful ways the mayor can say “Black Lives Matter” right now is by taking action to crack down on police brutality and by redirecting funds from the NYPD’s $6 billion budget, which represents 6 percent of the city’s $90 billion proposed budget. A growing movement of New York elected officials and advocates argue that could happen through a hiring freeze and by cutting police involvement in homeless outreach, public schools, and mental-health response — efforts that could save money while reducing overpolicing.
It’s not enough to defund the police; advocates argue those dollars need to be diverted toward programs that support and help communities of color, which were hit hardest by COVID-19, in their recovery from the pandemic. De Blasio has taken a step toward this by pledging for the first time in his tenure to cut police funding and put that money toward youth and social services.
So far, the mayor has declined to say how much funding he plans to siphon, saying those details will be worked out with the council in the weeks ahead (the council generally votes on the final budget by July 1).
The mayor has also backed state efforts to repeal Law Section 50-A, which for 44 years has shielded police disciplinary records from the public, but in 2016 his administration broke with longstanding precedent with a stricter interpretation of that law and then defended the policy for years. The state legislature passed a bill repealing that law this week as part of a package of police reforms. And on the city level, the council is debating its own bundle of bills aimed at police reform and accountability.
But scenes of police brutality that play out on streets across New York won’t actually change unless these and other measures are pushed forward by the mayor and lawmakers. A massive mural with a powerful message is only as good as the actions taken by the officials who put it there. After Eric Garner was put in a NYPD-prohibited choke hold and killed by a police officer on Staten Island, it took five years for the city to fire that officer, and local lawmakers are still mulling legislation to ban choke holds in the city.
It’s unfortunate that it took the killing of George Floyd in a separate city to push the mayor on defunding the police and accountability in his own city. But unless he builds on the words he plans to paint in murals across New York, they’re just paint on pavement.