Is a ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural coming to Johnson City? City leaders, community members weigh in

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Protests, marches, and calls for equality continue across the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

In recent days, large street murals stating ‘Black Lives Matter’ has popped up on roadways in popular cities across the nation, prompting the question, is this something that could be done here in Johnson City?

The ‘New Generation Freedom Fighters’ who have been organizing a majority of the protests in downtown Johnson City and some surrounding cities have sparked discussion around the consideration of a mural here in Johnson City. The conversation started in a social media post and has made its way to the attention of city officials.

Katelyn Yarbrough, a spokesperson with the group, released this statement to News Channel 11 in reference to the mural:

“New Generation Freedom Fighters has a goal and agenda in mind for the health and well-being of the present and future state of Johnson City Tennessee. We are also an organization that is deeply motivated in meeting our community’s concerns and desires. We carefully consider the request to our community and hope to back initiatives that we believe will help make Johnson City Tennessee a healthier and safer environment for all people, especially black people and people of color. If our local businesses and our local community feel this mural is helpful, we are happy as an organization to include it in our conversations with the city as we work to plan a better Johnson City for all people.”

Officials with the city of Johnson City have become aware of the idea but say they have not yet received any concrete plans or requests in reference to a mural. While a mural sounds like paint, brushes, and the dedication of a few volunteers, it’s much more complicated than that, according to city officials.

City Manager, Pete Peterson, cited that the historic zoning designations would be amongst the biggest difficulty in making a mural of this size a reality.

“It’s multiple levels of review and approval through public art, historic zoning, the regular zoning, of course, most of the streets in the downtown area are state routes so it would require the approval of the state of Tennessee to go on a street,” said Peterson.

Peterson went on to say it might be easier to complete on the wall of a privately owned building with fewer hoops to jump through. While they say they respect all forms of free speech and expression, Peterson noted they must consider all requests equally.

“Certainly we respect free speech and do everything we can to protect and preserve that but I think everyone needs to be conscious of the fact that whatever the message is, we will have to give the same level of consideration and approval to a counter-message if someone wanted to put something counter to whatever the message is,” he said.

Community leaders, like Aaron T. Murphy with Good Samaritan Ministries, said he appreciates the consideration of a mural but doesn’t want it to distract from the real mission at hand.

“The black community would appreciate something of that magnitude, but more importantly, what are we going to put in place to effect and usher in the change that’s needed for today,” said Murphy.

The city said there is no formal process for a mural like this seeing as normally paintings and markings on the streets are not allowed, but they would take all requests into consideration.

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