West St. Paul, Minn. resident Ryan Weyandt and his husband Michael Hainlin commissioned a mural on their private fence in support of Black Lives Matter and candidate Kimetha “KaeJae” Johnson’s run for mayor in September 2020. The couple had previously shown support for Johnson by placing her political campaign signs in their yard, but that became difficult as those signs were stolen from their home. These thefts, the couple rightfully felt, had been done with malicious intent and were meant to silence a marginalized voice.
In response, the couple commissioned a mural that amplified a voice of change and placed it in an area where it would be widely viewed. The mural, besides being a painted campaign sign supporting Johnson, colorfully displayed the message “Black Lives Matter.”
State law had allowed the sign to remain as it was done during election season — political signs were allowed during this time according to state law.
However, the city received complaints from residents that felt the mural violated the city’s fence ordinance. According to West St. Paul City Ordinance 153.381, “Fences shall not contain pictures or lettering and shall be one uniform color”.
It is impossible to discern whether or not the near 20 complaints that the city council received were from different people as they remain anonymous. Though one thing is clear, the enforcement is driven by complaints as West St. Paul’s city council stated that the removal of the sign was not because of its content and that the removal was due to the fence simply violating the rules set forth.
Enforcement by complaint, however, creates inconsistent enforcement as the code is not enforced uniformly and creates a space for harassment. This is made clear by Weyandt’s past experiences with messages on his fence, as the city had never gotten involved before the current complaints were received.
The supposed neutrality taken by the city council is also a problem as their fear of allowing public art in the case of hateful messages to spread across the city is not a common reality. In Minnesota, across other municipalities, murals have been on display and there has been no overwhelming instance of hateful or negative art.
What the issue really is, is the lack of representation and support of the Black community in West St. Paul. Taking this fence down would only serve to silence the marginalized voice of the Black community of West St. Paul. The ordinance which calls for this fence to be painted over should be amended in order to allow empowering art like these and those similar to stay.
The aforementioned former mayoral candidate Johnson had been regularly threatened, with her campaign propaganda being defaced and ridiculed. Johnson was West St. Paul’s first Black candidate for any civic office in the city’s history. It is outrageous that in this day of age the phrase “first Black” anything is still in use.
According to an interview done by the “West Paul Reader” concerning her mayoral run, she noticed the lack of representation within her own city council and the disconnect between their views and issues to those that people of color face.
Even if only 5% of the city’s 20,000 residents are Black, it does not mean that they should be ignored. It does not mean that their issues do not matter. This sign is meaningful to people due to the political climate that it is existing in, specifically with the current police brutality towards the Black community.
In an interview with FOX 9, Johnson made it clear what this mural means to those in the Black community, saying that this helped them feel seen and created a sense of belonging. The sign made her own granddaughter feel that she mattered to the West St. Paul community.
This is what the sign means to the community and it should be allowed to remain. Murals like these create a sense of community within people that make them feel valued. The city’s ordinance should be amended to be less restrictive which would allow for the enforcement to be more uniformly applied rather than having an all or nothing situation that doesn’t help the community.
Valeria Valencia is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org