It was a night of racial reckoning in the city of Milton on Tuesday as dozens of people spoke at a City Council meeting both for and against a potential ordinance change that would allow a Black Lives Matter mural on a city street.
The issue, which was first brought up at last week's City Council meeting, has divided the city of approximately 10,500 people, approximately 80% of whom are white.
"There are many common words being used here tonight: bringing together, coming together, unity, respect, love, all lives matter, Black lives matter," said City Councilwoman and Mayor Pro Tem Mary Ellen Johnson, who is also the council’s only Black member. "So there are some commonalities, and we will begin to look into that before we can solve any problem or answer any questions. We need to see what we will derive where everybody will grow together and move forward."
The Black Lives Matter mural was not on the official agenda, but that didn’t stop people from coming out in droves to voice their opinions on it.
In order to paint the mural on a city-owned street, the City Council would need to approve an ordinance change. Changing the ordinance would happen if the council agrees to put the item on the July 23 Committee of the Whole meeting. If it’s approved then, it will go to the next City Council meeting for final approval.
Due to social distancing guidelines, only 21 people were allowed to be in the official council chambers at once. A line of potential speakers wrapped around the building ahead of and during the meeting, in approximately 80-degree heat, as they waited to speak.
'It is a call to action'
Haley McGuyre is part of Milton’s Remembrance Project Coalition, which is working to identify Black people who were victims of lynching within the city of Milton. So far, the group has identified 12 lynching victims from 1866 to 1950, eight of whom are going to be submitted to be memorialized at the Equal Justice Initiative museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
At Tuesday's meeting, McGuyre provided context for the phrase "Black Lives Matter" and said it was more than just three words.
"Black Lives Matter is more than a motto, it’s more than a phrase, it is a call to action," she said. "It is a call to be anti-racist and not simply non-racist. It is a call to not be neutral on a topic that we cannot be neutral about."
Nalie Merricks, a 15-year-old rising junior at Pace High School, said she thought it was her duty to come out and speak in support of the mural to represent the voices of her generation. Her parents, Summer and Chris Merricks, are leading the effort to have the mural painted on either James Street or Cherry Street, a historically significant location in the African-American community.
"The Black Lives Matter mural is important because we are Black, and we are mixed, we have Black and white," Merricks told the News Journal prior to the meeting. "So it’s just really important for us because we know that when we go out in public, they see us as Black, or as part white. … We need people to come help us and join us, because when it’s only us, it’s only us. But if we have more people, it can make a difference."
Her younger sister, Aliyana Merricks, a 13-year-old rising eighth-grade student at Avalon Middle School, said that even though she was young and five years away from being able to vote, she thought it was important to voice her support for something that mattered to her.
"There’s not a lot of young people coming out here and speaking, because I’m, like, really young," she said. "I just want to come out and speak on their behalf."
'It is a very divisive statement'
Not all residents were in favor of the mural. With reasons ranging from "reverse racism" to "all lives matter" to claims of Marxism in the Black Lives Matter movement, multiple speakers pressured the council not to approve an ordinance change that would allow the mural to be painted.
Milton resident Josh Labossiere went so far as to call the phrase itself racist.
"Lives matter. When you put a color in front of it, no matter what color, it makes it racist," Labossiere said. "There are two kinds of people, good people and bad people. I think if we paint something on a road that has anything in front of it in any color, I think problems will arise."
Julian Vaipan, a Milton resident and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, said his experiences growing up internationally influenced his opposition to Black Lives Matter.
"I do not support painting Black Lives Matter on a city street," he said. "It is a very divisive statement. Instead of uniting us all as Americans, it divides us by color and teaches racism. When you’re a young child growing up, seeing that mural and reading ‘Black Lives Matter,’ you cannot tell me that it will not affect that child to believe that other color lives do not matter."
If the item is put on the July 23 agenda, the council will have the chance to vote on it for the first time. At least one council member, Shannon Rice, has already stated she was vehemently opposed to the mural. Councilman Casey Powell, on the other hand, said he supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.