Now, Tulsa City Council members have ordered that the mural be washed away. The decision from Wednesday’s council meeting comes after a pro-police group asked the city to paint a mural in support of the Tulsa Police Department.
Councilor Connie Dodson insisted that the decision was not tied to the Black Lives Matter message of the Greenwood Avenue mural — but rather said that if it was allowed to stand, other murals, like the pro-police message, would also have to be allowed.
“I applaud it,” she said in Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s great. But at the same point, it comes down to: Yes, if you allow one, then you have to allow all of them."
Black Lives Matter messages have been painted on streets around the United States this summer, and many have attracted controversy. In New York, a mural on Fifth Avenue, outside of Trump Tower, has been vandalized at least four times, and at least two of the people responsible have been charged with a hate crime. Similar incidents have occurred in Martinez, Calif.; Cincinnati; and Oak Park, Ill. But in other places, like Redwood City, Calif., the city has ordered the street paintings erased after political opponents have demanded their own messages on the asphalt.
On the eve of Juneteenth, Ryan Rhoades, the artist who organized the 250-foot street painting, and dozens of volunteers painted through the night. Rhoades had never intended on having the mural last for a long time, he told KOKI, explaining that he had intended to buy chalk-based paint, which would wash away from the rain. But it lasted and symbolized a moment of hope and healing for the community.
“We were out here doing the Electric Slide on it and people were taking Black empowerment selfies with it for weeks,” Rhoades told KOKI.
The city knew that Rhoades didn’t have a permit, but unlike in other cities, officials turned a blind eye. That was until Bob Jack, the chairman of the Tulsa County Republican Party, sent a letter to a city councilor and the mayor’s office inquiring about painting competing messages, according to the Tulsa World. The street would read “Back the Blue,” a message in support of the Tulsa Police Department. Jack also mentioned a proposed mural that read “Baby Lives Matter."
At this week’s meeting, council members had a lengthy discussion on how to handle the street painting. Dodson cited road safety concerns, noting that federal law doesn’t allow markings on streets. Some council members supported the idea of moving the message to a private property.
“There really isn’t anything in our laws that makes a street into a canvas to convey a message or essentially make a sign out of a street surface,” Senior Assistant City Attorney Mark Swiney said.
Briana Shea, who helped get the Black Lives Matter mural painted, said that she was disappointed with the city council’s decision, given its impact on the community.
“Having that painted there as Trump flew into Tulsa and he was able to see that, I think it says a lot about Tulsa and our history here and how we are not proud of the history but we wanted to make it known that 99 years later we’re still healing from it, and I thought that mural that we did bring healing,” Shea said in an interview with the Tulsa World.
Greenwood, which was known as “Black Wall Street” for its concentration of wealth, was a neighborhood built by and for African Americans. The street was lined with luxury jewelry and clothing stores, restaurants, nightclubs, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, and a movie theater. The district’s economy was booming because the wealth stayed in the area. But the community was annihilated when hundreds of White people marched into the district and murdered hundreds of Black people in a violent rage. The district was set ablaze and more than 10,000 residents were left homeless, The Washington Post reported.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) reopened an investigation into the massacre in 2018, after The Post published a story about the event. Bynum, who is White, wanted specifically to look for mass graves, an ongoing effort that has been met with fierce dissent from some in the community.
“I want to be on the right side of history,” he told The Post in March.