The Black Lives Matter street mural painted along Hamilton Avenue in front of Palo Alto City Hall on June 30 had barely dried before it became the center of a controversy that has some calling for the removal of one of its images.
What was intended to be a local effort to bring awareness to systemic racism and police brutality soon sparked into a debate between local community members, questioning whether Joanne Chesimard, better known as Assata Shakur, was an appropriate figure for the Black Lives Matter movement and mural.
Earlier this month, an Indianapolis-based lobbying group called the National Police Association started an effort to have Chesimard's portrait removed from the second "E" in the mural, which Oakland-based muralist Cece Caprio painted with approval from the Palo Alto Public Art Program. (The police association has no known official ties with police departments. Several reports, includings ones from the Baltimore Sun and Indy Star have made inquiries into the organization's identity and legitimacy.)
Caprio was one of 16 artists selected to paint a block letter in the nearly 245-foot-long and 17-foot-tall mural that spells out Black Lives Matter.
Chesimard was a civil rights activist in the Black Liberation Army who escaped prison and fled to Cuba after being convicted of killing a New Jersey State Police trooper in the 1970s. Decades later, she became the first woman to be added to the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list.
"For law enforcement required to enter the building is there any description other than a hostile work environment?" the association asked in its online petition seeking for the removal of Chesimard's image.
Despite the push to remove Chesimard's portrait, the city wrote in a July 9 blog post that they do not intend to remove or expedite the removal of the temporary mural, which, according to City Manager Ed Shikada, should remain visible for up to a year, depending on road and weather conditions.
"Stop trying to decide our right way of putting our message up," said Kenan Moos, 21, after a July 16 press conference that was held in front of City Hall to defend the Palo Alto mural. "No matter what we've done, they've been mad. We silently kneel at games, they get mad. Peacefully march, they get mad. We call them out in their public meetings, they get mad."
For some protesters and activists, Chesimard's conviction is evidence of an unfair and flawed, racist criminal justice system that bungled a case involving a Black person and using Chesimard's likeness for a Black Lives Matter mural is wholly appropriate.
Speakers at the press conference said the extent of Chesimard's role in the death of the state trooper remains disputed. They said Chesimard, who reportedly lives in Cuba where she was given political asylum, never held the gun that killed the state trooper. Forensic analysis showed no evidence of gun powder residue on Chesimard's fingers and her fingerprints were not found on guns at the scene. In addition, Caprio and the speakers believed Chesimard never stood a chance against a fair trial because she faced an all-white jury. ( The Guardian reported that there was sufficient evidence that the trial was unfair, with at least two jurors expressing prejudice before the trial began.)
"Her life was destroyed by the criminal justice system," J.T. Faraji said after the press conference. "She literally had to leave family, friends, everything. Why? Because of a racist system that feared her — that feared liberation, that feared equality, that feared righteousness. Who better to put on the mural than Assata Shakur?"
On the day of the mural painting, Caprio said she used Chesimard's portrait because she is an "amazing, radical Black Panther who is brilliant, intelligent and shared so much wisdom that is still very much relevant for us today." Below, Caprio painted a quote from Chesimard's "To My People" letter that is commonly recited in Black Lives Matter marches: "We must love each other and support each other."
"Shakur is very important to the Black Lives Matter movement and organization," said Kimberly McNair, a postdoctoral research fellow for Stanford University's African and African American Studies department. "So much so that a quote from Shakur's 1973 letter entitled, 'To My People,' is recited at every Black Lives Matter action and event. This has been a tradition in the movement for seven years now and happens locally, nationally and globally. That quoted stanza — now a recitation — is called 'Assata' and is found at the bottom of the letter. I've even heard 'Assata' repeated at non-Black Lives Matter network actions by other Black activist organizations."
The debate over the mural has continued online.
"Black lives matter," one Weekly reader commented on a July 9 Palo Alto Online article about the mural. "But anyone, Black or otherwise, who murders in cold blood should not be celebrated or memorialized in any way. These artists are stupid if they think reasonable citizens will support their cause while they defend Joanne Chesimard. As if there is a lack of heroes and champions of civil rights and social justice to honor."
Some online commenters and readers have called the mural "a slap in the face to law enforcement" — a taxpayer-funded art project that glorifies a cop-killer and endorses acts of crime and violence.
Caprio, Moos and Kiyoshi Taylor, a Los Altos resident who also spoke at the conference, were asked if they support the killing of cops. Their answers were the same.
"I don't support the taking of lives, period," Moos said.
The Palo Alto Police Department declined a request for comment.