NORRISTOWN — The decision to create a Black Lives Matter art installation created a number of conflicting opinions during Wednesday night’s Norristown Municipal Council meeting.
“We’re gonna move forward, and we’re gonna keep moving Norristown forward, unapologetically when we have a social class of Black folks that are down, and out, and tired, and this is 2020,” said council President Derrick Perry. “We shouldn't be talking about this.”
Perry initially suggested having a local artist work on the project, which would be located downtown on Swede Street between the Montgomery County Courthouse and One Montgomery Plaza, according to the resolution. Work is anticipated to begin in October.
However, there could be some potential procedural obstacles associated with the project, according to the resolution.
“If you commission an actual mural, you would need to grant yourself a conditional use permit because of the artwork involved; If you decide to have Black Lives Matter painted, no conditional use permit is required,” the resolution states.
Additionally, Municipal Administrator Crandall Jones contacted Montgomery County Board of Commissioners’ Vice Chairman Ken Lawrence Jr. and Chief Operating Officer Lee Soltizyak about the matter as there is current construction and road closures in the area.
The Memorial Day death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers, sparked outrage nationwide, with protests in major metropolitan areas, including Philadelphia.
In Montgomery County, several marches and rallies have taken place condemning racism and police brutality. As tensions continued to rise between community members and law enforcement in other areas, Perry praised the efforts of the municipality’s police force.
“...[I] also want to give kudos to our police department and Chief [Mark] Talbot who’s being unapologetic in regards to how police should police the community, right?” Perry said. “Because when we’re looking at overall across the country, our police department is not being like other other police departments, and I love that about them.”
Nearly a dozen people submitted statements to be read aloud during Wednesday night’s virtual meeting expressing their opinions for and against the initiative.
“I believe it is important that Norristown creates a Black Lives Matter Mural across from the court house,” said Thaddaeus C. Peay II, vice president of the United Men of Color Association. “The mural is a sign of what Norristown stands for as a community. Norristown believes and knows Black lives matter and we should not be ashamed to display it for all to see.”
“I am a Black woman who believes in the progress of Black people and that there is still work that needs to be done to help benefit everyone in society,” said Norristown resident Victoria Francis. “I believe that the introduction of this mural will symbolize a group that does not genuinely believe in helping the plight of the Black community.”
It appeared that Norristown resident Christine Winchester Perry could see both sides.
“Though I support BLM as a movement, it’s a complicated issue, especially with its perceived connection to violence and rioting,” she said in her statement. “I would support a mural that in some way emphasized the use of peaceful protest and non-violence.”
The people who commented were not limited to just the Norristown area. They hailed from several towns across the Greater Philadelphia area, including Collegeville, Eagleville and Upper Darby.
“I believe people of color have been systemically marginalized and public recognition and reparation can start in our community with this art,” said Eagleville resident Julia Flannery.
However, others appeared to view the agenda item as a political message.
“Borough administration should be apolitical and council is supposed to be unbiased and bipartisan. Shame on all of you,” said Mary Jo and Ed Lester of Norristown.
Councilman Hakim Jones initially stepped lightly when offering his opinion on the matter.
“As a public official, I would never use my platform, or my position, to stoke any type of hatred, fear or separation as we are a diverse community,” Jones said.
In recent months, Jones observed a number of entirely peaceful demonstrations in the county seat, and added that a painting or mural would be a welcomed addition to the downtown landscape.
“I would just say Black lives do matter. If you want to make it about division, I don’t think that’s most appropriate,” Jones said. “I think what we’re doing here at the local level has nothing to do with what people are seeing in other parts of the country when it comes to violence and destruction.”
Other members of the public raised concerns about the financials associated with this undertaking.
“While the sentiment is great, I would urge council to use more restraint in spending now so they do not have to ask us for a tax increase later, said Norristown resident Debbie Stilley.
“There were issues about the budget,” Jones said. “There’s a larger group of folks who are willing not only to help with the design, but also help with some of the funding so this would not be a burden to taxpayers’ dollars.”
For Perry, he underscored the importance of having this displayed in the community and asked those opposing some hard questions.
“...The people who feel as though that this is divisive, or this goes against a social class, or we’re leaving something out, how do you think Black people feel all their lives? Or how do you think they feel when it comes to laws or anything else?” Perry said.
“Yeah. You wouldn’t be able to feel that because you’re not Black, and you wouldn’t understand,” Perry continued. “If you did want to understand, you would want to have those meaningful conversations with people who don’t look like you, or who [are] discriminated against almost every day or laws that discriminated against us or anything.”
When all was said and done, the resolution passed in a 5-0 vote, with council members Heather Lewis and Sonya Sanders absent from Wednesday’s meeting.