Over the last weekend of July, at least 30 volunteers joined artist Kristen Mann, 30, of Binghamton, to create a street mural in Downtown Binghamton to commemorate the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Yellow letters spelling out “Black Lives Matter” now span Wall Street, leading to the Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade. After months of planning, working with city officials and securing funding, community members turned Mann’s vision into a reality.
Mann wrote in an email that the inspiration behind her mural came from the changes she wanted to see in the Binghamton community.
“I wanted to make an impact within our community to show that our lives matter within a city that has not treated minorities the best,” Mann wrote. “George Floyd’s death brought back all the memories of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and so many others who died at the hands of police brutality. [Since moving to Binghamton] six years ago I recognized that the culture is behind because the resistance to change is stronger. We have people from all over but it still feels divided among each other.”
Since the killing of George Floyd, 46, a Black man, by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, thousands of protests in support of the BLM movement have erupted throughout the country. In Binghamton, there have been a series of demonstrations and protests since May 31. Artist Anna Warfield, 25, of Binghamton, worked with Mann on the project as her production director. She cited the mural as a reminder of the systemic racism present in Binghamton and the need to change it.
“As similar murals began to appear across the [United States], it seemed logical that Binghamton should be next,” Warfield wrote. “Systemic racism is unfortunately prominent here — look at the demographic statistics of Broome County Jail if you need something tangible to understand that statement — and we need to talk about it, get more people to recognize it, and demand change.”
The mural was carefully planned out according to location, measurements and visual impact. Much like the BLM street murals in Oakland, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and New York City, Mann chose to use the color yellow to ensure that her artwork would pop, regardless of the weather.
Its creation, however, was faced with challenges from Binghamton officials. As a local artist working on an independent project, bringing the mural to life was a complicated, grassroots effort. In June, Mann began a petition on Change.org to Binghamton Mayor Rich David requesting permission to host a “Paint Party for Local Artists” in celebration of Juneteenth. At the event, she hoped to create solidarity among the Binghamton community and bring awareness to the racial injustice experienced by Black Americans. In less than 24 hours, the petition had garnered over 1,000 signatures. Mann wrote that there were multiple hurdles to getting her project approved, which delayed the mural’s illustration. One such challenge was having to wait for the Binghamton City Council to pass the initiative. Since 2010, the mayor assumed responsibility.
“There was not a process in place in the city of Binghamton for a street mural,” she wrote. “I had to wait for a process to be made for me to go through and have the mural approved. I was given the run around with little insight on how to get the correct paperwork to certain people in the office.”
Warfield wrote that the artists went through an approval process with Binghamton representatives for the mural, urging city officials to recognize the importance of movements like BLM.
“It took about two months for us to get this done where in other cities it took maybe a night or a week,” Warfield wrote. “The point of our process — going to the city, speaking with and getting approval from [Binghamton] City Council — was to make officials recognize and validate the BLM movement through sanctioning this community action.”
Mann received a permit for the mural in early July. A GoFundMe page for painting supplies raised over $3,000. As per Mann’s permit, she was given two days to complete the mural. On the weekend of July 25 and 26, Mann and Warfield posted volunteer forms online to get community members to help them paint the mural.
Mann described the backlash they received during this process.
“Even though there has been a lot of people who have been supportive there has also been a lot of slanders that have taken place within the comments of all my news articles and interviews,” Mann wrote. “I have also had death threats and people threatening lawsuits that live here locally and out of town that may have family here.”
Warfield acknowledged the criticism, but chose to look past it and focus on the mural’s supporters.
“Clearly, not everyone is on board with the language in this mural,” Warfield wrote. “Our volunteer form received a fair number of upset/threatening responses. With things like that, all you can do is look past it to the 300+ other responses that were serious supporters of the mural effort and the BLM movement.”
Despite this, Mann said she received an “extreme dose of love” from community members who stood in unity with this message. Over 30 volunteers helped paint the mural over two days and keep the project ahead of schedule.
“The atmosphere was completely peaceful over the weekend,” Mann wrote. “So much peace that we actually were ahead of schedule and got it done sooner than I calculated. We were done with the outline of the letters, primer and the painting of yellow within the first day. I requested a permit for two days and we used most of the second day to add another coat of yellow and final touch-ups.”
On July 26, Mann hosted an unveiling ceremony for the mural where representatives from multiple community groups including Truth Pharm, Citizen Action of New York and Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) spoke and led a march through Downtown Binghamton to Wall Street. Kira Hawes, a junior majoring in environmental science, attended the ceremony and march. She said the actions organized by these groups has helped bring the Binghamton community together in support of the BLM movement.
“As a student I never felt involved in the Binghamton community,” Hawes said. “But living here over the summer and participating in these marches and hearing personal narratives of racism in the high schools or stories from the [Broome County Jail] has made me really aware of the radical change that needs to happen in this city.”
However, Binghamton still has a far way to go. While activists and artists have helped begin conversations about racial injustice in the community, Mann hopes that residents and students will dedicate more time to movements as the mural reminds them to do.
“The changes I have seen in the past few months are that more people are willing to sit down and have conversations to learn the history of Black culture,” Mann wrote. “I hope to see the youth of Binghamton rise up and want to change the narrative of Binghamton as well but with more open doors that are waiting for them versus having to knock them down. Binghamton residents can take action by educating themselves of everyone’s history, but also the history of what has been a black cloud and turn it into a better place.”