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Posted under: Opinion

Do Black Lives Matter On Every Block? The Contradiction Between Street Murals And Street Realities In Black America

With all due respect, save the paint and street signs.

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I walk towards Black Lives Matter Plaza. Just weeks ago she was given a new name and stamped with a mural reading “Black Lives Matter.” However, she does not seem to be wearing her name well. The bold, yellow letters not only contrast the asphalt, but also serve as sharp contrasts to the realities of Black lives in the nation's capitol and across America.  

Police cars and army trucks line the barricaded streets. The protests have lessened, with spray paint and posters left behind. It's the first day of summer. The typical, vibrant D.C. streets are instead vacant with few pedestrians, yet the humidity and tension in the air makes them feel full to capacity.

As me and my 19-year-old brother approach the plaza we see Black and brown men and women sitting along the curb, extending cups to pedestrians passing by. The cadence of their loose change rings while sirens murmur in the background. If they walked a block further, they would be told by street signs and cardboard posters that their lives matter.

We pass Black vendors. We exchange head nods and keep it moving, but I can read the confusion in their eyes. Weeks ago their presence was not felt on these streets. The District's stay at home orders prevented them from selling their art and apparel outdoors, but today they sell alongside a street that tells them their lives matter.

I see the excitement in my brother's eyes as he embraces the scenery and soulful music. Alexander O'Neal’s “Sunshine” blares from a stereo. He is a tourist for the day, but as a D.C. transplant of four years, familiar with the hidden realities behind the yellow paint, I am not as easily impressed. I thank God my mask hides my facial expressions that would otherwise snatch my brother's joy. I want to bask in the sunlight, music and art decorating the streets, but I cannot reconcile with this fabricated gesture extended to the Black community.

Several neighborhoods over from the plaza lie Wards 7 and 8 of Washington. They are home to only one hospital and three grocery stores serving over 140,000 residents, majority Black and low-income. Just a few blocks away from Black Lives Matter Plaza lies Union Station, where dozens of tents line the streets, sheltering the city’s disproportionately Black homeless population. Amidst it all, the city is battling a pandemic, where food and health care are even scarcer than usual, and Black Washingtonians disproportionately account for nearly 75% of the city’s death toll.

But Black lives matter, right?

At the epicenter of Washington lies the White House, overlooking Black Lives Matter Plaza. As I stand in the center of the street and gaze ahead, I recall the 12-year-old girl who once gazed at this building with admiration. She grew to learn it is a product of the labor of her enslaved ancestors and home to politicians who oppress her community. I look further and see the many posters pinned to the gates guarding the White House.

The faces of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the many Black victims of police brutality cover the posters. The sunlight hits their smiles and they sway with the wind in front of the house that broke its promise for their lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness. I stare and they still smile as they face a street that tells them their Black lives matter, even though it is too late.

Under my mask, away from the spectators I do not smile. I bite my lip and hold back tears over the broken promises and Black lives lost. There is no value in street names or murals telling us Black lives matter, when policies and racial disparities say quite the opposite. It feels wrong to accept honorary murals and street names, when police budgets continue to rise while the health and wellness of Black communities continue to fall.

Within three weeks, D.C. has inspired a national trend. From Los Angeles to Flint, Michigan, #BlackLivesMatter murals are making appearances in many cities. In New York City, notorious for stop-and-frisk and the police murder of Eric Garner, Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to name a "Black Lives Matter" street in every borough. With all due respect, save the paint and street signs. We need defunding the police and the investment of tangible resources into Black communities to become nationwide trends.

I walk away from the plaza filled with frustration, at a crossroads of the streets telling Black lives we do not matter yet murals echoing the opposite. As a young activist I vow to pave a better road for generations ahead, one not tainted in blood or tears. A road whose name does not contradict the destinies and realities of Black lives. A road allowing Black residents to reach their destinations safely. A road, lined with pedestrians who show rather than simply tell Black lives that we have and always will matter.

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blogger, young activist & law student