FLORENCE, S.C. — Suzanne La Rochelle said she cried Wednesday when she learned of a plan to removal the Black Lives Matter mural in front of the Pearl Moore Basketball Center.
Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela confirmed Thursday afternoon that the city would would be removing the mural.
"Yesterday, when I learned of the proposed removal of this mural that I helped work on, I cried," La Rochelle said at a news conference held Thursday morning at the mural. "It's an absolute tragedy that the city would remove this piece of artwork. The empowerment I watched during the three or four days this mural was being created, it was joy. It was bliss."
She added that the African American community in Florence was feeling heard and respected as the mural was being painted and after it was done.
"Now you want to slap them in the face and remove this," La Rochelle asked. "That's just wrong."
The news conference Thursday was organized to inform the community about the removal of the mural and to let the city know that the artists, community members, and community organizations who contributed to the project do not consent to the removal of the artwork.
C. Wyleek Cummings, one of the mural organizers, said at the news conference that he attended a meeting Tuesday with Mayor Stephen J. Wukela, City Councilwoman Pat Gibson-Hye Moore, Deputy City Manager Scotty Davis, and a couple of other people involved with the development of the mural.
It was not made clear at the news conference what precipitated the Tuesday meeting.
Cummings said before the news conference that he went into the meeting thinking that the city was going to plan some educational programs around the mural.
Cummings said he was told at the meeting that the mural, as proposed and accepted by the city, was not supposed to be a permanent installation but a temporary one painted with water-soluble paint — meaning it would be significantly affected by a heavy rain — and biodegradable.
The permit request addressed to Democratic mayoral candidate and current City Councilwoman Teresa Myers Ervin includes language indicating that the materials used would be biodegradable and not permanent.
"The intent expressed by Mr. Cummings understood by the City was that this would be a community project and temporary in nature, with the use of biodegradable materials," Wukela said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. "The City authorized the temporary mural to be painted with biodegradable paint that would wash away within a normal rain cycle. The organization applied for, and accepted, permission on these terms. Unfortunately, and in violation of the terms of the City’s permission, the organizer used permanent paint."
Cummings acknowledged that the painters had used road paint, which is designed to be able to mark lines on roads, instead. But he added that this paint was also biodegradable and that the mural was already showing wear and tear from the weather and cars driving on it, thus it would not be permanent. Before the news conference, he gave a timeline of 24-36 months for the mural to last.
The other reason Cummings said he was given was a First Amendment concern.
Among other rights, the First Amendment provides a guarantee to all citizens the right to freely express themselves. Under certain circumstances, the government can limit this right but generally the government most do so in an equitable manner.
For example, the city could not allow a Black Lives Matter mural to be painted semi-permanently and then deny permission for someone to paint a White Lives Matter mural semi-permanently in the city.
Cummings and other speakers rejected this concern.
He said that the artwork was not designed to be political speech but a chronicle of the history of African Americans: an educational piece and not a political statement. Cummings and other speakers also added that they had no affiliation with the national Black Lives Matter organization but instead were a group of community members and organizations seeking to help the community come together after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
McCray said he particularly resented Wukela's mentioning the KKK during an explanation regarding the First Amendment concern. He said he didn't feel it was proper to compare an organization that is classified as a domestic terrorist organization to a group of community members and organizations painting a mural.
In his statement, Wukela did not address the First Amendment issue that would likely arise should the city permit the mural to remain.
Most of the people who spoke including McCray, Damian Douglas, Thomas Porter, Kenerick Crawford, Cummings and La Rochelle implied that they believed both reasons Cummings said he was given to be a pretext for the city to remove the mural due to pressure applied from groups that did not want the mural in Florence.
The implication is that after the mural was completed, Wukela and the city received several phone calls and comments regarding the mural from those on the right side of the political spectrum. Because of that pressure, Wukela and the city created issues of the paint and the First Amendment to get the mural removed.
There are facts that conflict with this allegation. First, the city council is composed of five Democrats and two Republicans. And second, Wukela and a majority of the city council just voted on an unrelated issue to approve a rental registry ordinance despite pressure from people on the right side of the political equation.
Wukela also said in his statement that the mural had been defaced by "bigots who painted racial epithets on the face of the mural."
"I am deeply disturbed by the racially motivated vandalism of this piece of art," Wukela said. "I am also disappointed in the organizer’s failure to comply with the terms of the authorization for which they applied. In any event, given that the mural has been defaced and that it is in violation of the City authorization, the City will be forced to remove the mural. Suffice it to say, going forward, no permits will be authorized for painting on City streets whether permanent or temporary."