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City talks next steps for diversity mural downtown, delays tear gas ban

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — City Council members on Tuesday agreed to move forward with a project to paint a diversity mural downtown following a lengthy discussion about how the process should be conducted.

The idea for a mural was proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins in light of protests across the nation regarding racial injustice and police brutality.

Heggins presented the council with several examples from other similar murals across the U.S. and cited reasons for having an equity, diversity and inclusion mural downtown. She said it brings people together through a shared vision using the arts, enlivens city spaces, aligns with the city’s efforts to strengthen infrastructure, drives public-led initiatives and shouts, “Everyone belongs.”

The plan she presented stated that she would convene a group of local artists to bring to the council their scope of the project, which would include a design idea, content, proposed location, timeline, costs and suggestions on any other experts needed.

Much of the discussion that followed the presentation involved the appropriate process needed for the project. Heggins emphasized the efforts should be a grassroots effort, particularly among artists that the city doesn’t hear from often. But council members said the Public Art Committee should be involved with plans.

Heggins said she didn’t disagree with using the committee. Instead, she said, the committee isn’t diverse enough. Council member Tamara Sheffield said the Public Art Committee is a sub-committee under the Community Appearance Commission, so the members of the subcommittee aren’t appointed by council members. Sheffield added the council should consider allowing the Public Art Committee to one day be its own entity so the council can appoint its members

Sheffield said she’d love for the community to have another mural space to enjoy like the current mural on a large wall off of West Fisher Street in downtown.

“I don’t know who wouldn’t welcome that,” Sheffield said.

Council member David Post also said the city currently has “vehicles” for the way Heggins wants the project to be conducted, such as a nonprofit organization called Mural Preservation Inc. Heggins said she didn’t want to divert the system or process. But she said she didn’t want the system to be a barrier for the project being conducted.

Mayor Karen Alexander said many public comments submitted to council members opposed the idea of the mural and the idea for it to be painted on the street, with one reason being a safety hazard. One motorcyclist, Alexander said, expressed concern for the paint on the street becomes slippery and hazardous to motorcyclists when it rains. She suggested the mural be painted elsewhere — not on the streets.

Councilman Brian Miller said the Public Art Committee should be involved in the process because it would allow more citizen input. He added the mural is a good idea, but he thinks the recommendation for the project should be considered when evaluating the next fiscal year budget.

The proposal, originally on the agenda for the city council’s June 16 meeting, was to paint “Black Lives Matter” in downtown Salisbury, something that has been done in Washington, D.C., and other major cities. Miller said changing the mural from “Black Lives Matter” to something less political and more inclusive gives it a chance to be made possible.

After “reflection,” Heggins said, she changed her proposal because she didn’t want a “Black Lives Matter” mural to become a flashpoint in the community similar to the “Fame” Confederate statue.

Prior to the public comment period, the mayor said because of past comments made by the public attacking city council members, particularly at the June 16 meeting during the “Fame” Confederate statue relocation discussion, anyone who makes inappropriate or hateful comments or targets any council members will be “deemed out of order.” Alexander added that written comments would not be read aloud at the meeting. Written comments, however, were shared with council members and will be part of the public record.

One speaker, Walter Vaughn, expressed opposition to the mural and said Heggins only changed the words of the initial proposal to get it passed. Vaughn equated the Black Lives Matter group to the Ku Klux Klan and added that he’s concerned about Heggins changing the wording to bring that “divisive, hateful group into our community.”

Heggins responded to Vaughn’s comments by encouraging him to watch her presentation. She also asked that public commenters not speak to the intention of city council members without speaking with them first and not plant “untrue information about any of us.”

Nalini Joseph asked where funding for the mural would come from and if the mural would be specific to Black citizens. She noted she is an Asian-American from another country who feels welcomed in Salisbury.

Emily Ford said the mural could serve as a new symbol to celebrate and cited it as a “way to promote our city’s strength” in diversity. Additionally, it could serve as a way to showcase the talent of local artists. Ford also urged city council members to create an equity commission to review any racist and discriminatory policies currently in place and ensure current and future policies are anti-racist — a proposal that originally appeared in the Resolution of Reconciliation presented in 2018 and passed in 2019 when Heggins was mayor.

Another proposal from Heggins involved consideration of a ban on the use of chemical agents, including tear gas, by Salisbury Police, but she asked the council to remove that from Tuesday’s agenda and schedule it for the Aug. 4 meeting. The request came after speaking with city attorney Graham Corriher, who is obtaining additional information.

Corriher said the memo sent to council members included two attorney general opinions on whether the council can pass such an ordinance. Corriher said he’d like to provide a “more thorough analysis.”

Post suggested the council reach out to the dozens of people who submitted public comments regarding Heggins’ proposal and notify them of the updated meeting date.

Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes previously said he would share his comments on the proposal when it’s being considered.

Mary Walker spoke during the public comment period in support of banning the use of chemical agents, particularly tear gas, and questioned why Salisbury Police used it to disperse a protest that escalated on June 1. She said using tear gas “fails the community” and that “we can do better than this,” particularly by implementing other humane ways of de-escalating such situations.

Nancy Vick said she is unsure why Heggins feels there is “racial injustice throughout Salisbury” because she and most other people she knows don’t feel that.

Nancy Gaines said she applauded both proposals, the mural and tear gas ban, but wondered if they were the appropriate conversations. Instead, she said the council should focus more on access to resources and why the community isn’t seeing more proportional representation in the organizations about which the city is proud. In particular, Gaines cited not seeing more of the Black population at theaters in the city or at the annual “Wine About Winter” event downtown.

Beth Foreman urged the council to reevaluate years of policies that contribute to oppressive, unjust and discriminatory practices, adding that leaders can no longer claim ignorance. Foreman suggested leaders pay particular attention to contracts and who has access to resources.

An additional public comment not related to any agenda item was from Mandy Strickland, who proposed a mental health-focused walk downtown to promote love, peace and equality. City council members told Strickland she would need to contact the Salisbury Police Department to arrange and plan such an event.

In other business at the meeting:

  • Council members approved an item that would allow the city to create two parking spaces at the Salisbury Police Department where people can meet to make legal exchanges, including purchasing a vehicle, while feeling safe. The locations include the north side of the 100 block of East Liberty Street as well as a point 75 feet away. Both parking spots will be granted a 30-minute parking limit. The proposal doesn’t have a budgetary impact.
  • The council adopted an ordinance for the 2020-21 budget for $129,252 to appropriate housing stabilization funds.
  • The council awarded Eric Stilwell with a sidearm and badge in recognition of his retirement from the Salisbury Police Department on Aug. 1. Post formally apologized that a ceremony couldn’t be held for Stilwell and suggested inviting him back for one in the future when it’s safe to do so.
  • The council approved the installation of a directional bore duct and aerial fiber optic cable within the city and NCDOT rights-of-way on West Bank Street, East Monroe Street, Old Concord Road and South Arlington Street.
  • The council approved a request for the voluntary annexation of Rowan Woodland Apartments, LLC, and adopted a resolution instructing city clerk Kelly Baker to investigate the request.
  • Council members adopted a resolution that ratifies a sole source purchase contract with Tyler Technology, Inc., in the amount of $117,965 for purchase of ExecuTime software and equipment.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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