NEWARK, NJ — Rain poured down on Newark on Saturday afternoon, but that didn’t bother the group of volunteers and spectators who convened on Halsey Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to paint a bright yellow message in giant letters on the street: “ABOLISH WHITE SUPREMACY, ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
They danced and laughed to music with hands stained by their day’s work. The project, organized by the city, Rutgers-Newark, the arts incubator New Arts Justice and Mayor Ras Baraka’s public art initiative, makes Newark the latest in a slew of cities to spell out its support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Efforts to condemn racism in the city have heightened amid international outrage over the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. On Tuesday, Baraka signed an ordinance into law that effectively bans white supremacist activity in Newark and redirects $12 million of the Police Division's budget to anti-violence services.
Residents also awoke on Friday morning to a bald pedestal in Washington Park where a statue of Christopher Columbus once stood, which the city said it removed due to the explorer’s brutality toward and enslavement of indigenous peoples in the New World.
As the momentum for Black Lives Matter builds nationally, Rutgers-Newark Professor Salamishah Tillet, director of New Arts Justice, said the intersecting communities of Newark are energized to match other cities politically and artistically in the ways they’re declaring their desire to end racism.
“It’s literally on ground level, so it’s not only clear, but there’s a sense that you can’t avoid the situation anymore or act like these issues don’t affect all of us,” Tillet said.
The font the organizers selected is called Martin, inspired by the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 led by Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a nod to the origins of civil rights activism that celebrates a new, inclusive moment, Tillet added.
In Newark, the placement of “ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER” on Halsey Street is significant for the location’s history as a center for commerce, student activism and art. The second mural is spread before the Essex County Hall of Records.
“What I find really exciting is that each city and town that’s been participating in this street mural project is putting its own spin on it,” Tillet said. “Black lives won’t matter until white supremacy is abolished, the two are in conversation with one another. I guess this is how Newark is going to do it, it’s both a solution and a statement.”
Kwen Moore, an art teacher, artist and curator who works with Femme Curator Arts and Newark Arts Council, came out with her 4-month-old son to help paint on Halsey Street. She said that public art like Newark's new murals create a sense of permanence for a movement that many may soon forget.
“I felt like my hands needed to be involved in the making of history,” she said. “We have short attention spans, and this is the way for it to be a reminder that we’re here, we’re present, and not just us as Black people, but as people.”