MONTPELIER — City councilors have unanimously rejected a request they temporarily close State Street to accommodate the painting of a patriotic mural they fear would muddle the message of the three-word one that is already there.
During a sometimes-spirited discussion that spanned nearly 90 minutes, councilors concluded the phrase “Black Lives Matter” shouldn’t be bracketed on State Street by the American flag and the final few words of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Before Wednesday night’s virtual meeting was over Republican gubernatorial candidate John Klar accused Councilor Conor Casey of “stoking conflict” in advance of entertaining his request, and Casey called Klar a “racist.”
“I don’t think all conservatives are racist, but I definitely think you are,” Casey told Klar as the discussion of the Brookfield man’s pre-Independence Day request was nearing an end.
It opened with Klar defending a proposal to paint “liberty and justice for all” in big red, white and blue letters similar in size to the yellow ones that now say “Black Lives Matter” on a stretch of asphalt in front of the State House.
Though Independence Day has come and gone, Klar said his campaign’s interest in painting the mural remained, and his request the council close the street to accommodate that work when it saw fit still stood.
“I speak for a lot of Vermonters in trying to secure our Constitution as a middle ground between perhaps different perspectives on how to proceed to solve a problem we all agree needs to be addressed,” he said. “No one is supporting police brutality; no one wishes to see people impoverished or compromised or oppressed.”
Klar said Casey, who was publicly critical of his proposal in advance of Wednesday’s meeting, should recuse himself, and the council should afford him the same opportunity it did when it expedited the community-led request to paint the Black Lives Matter mural last month.
Klar argued the law — specifically the concept of “content neutrality” — was on his side. So, he said was Alice Flanders, a Black woman from Hartford he invited to attend the meeting because “… white people like Conor Casey can tell white people like me that my words should be dismissed because of my white skin.”
Flanders said she doesn’t have white skin and the self-described 65-year-old grandmother appreciates the history of racism, but is skeptical of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Flanders, who is Republican candidate for a legislative seat in her district puts herself in the “all lives matter” camp – one she viewed as consistent with the preachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the mural proposed by Klar.
“Black lives matter, brown lives matter, pink and purple polka dot lives matter, too. My chickens’ lives matter, but yes ‘liberty and justice for all’ — we Vermonters can all rally behind that,” she said when asked to wrap up by Mayor Anne Watson.
Citing a legal opinion obtained from the city’s attorney, Watson said the council could comfortably deny Klar’s request, suggesting the Black Lives Matter mural it permitted to proceed could be viewed as “government speech” — negating the First Amendment argument advanced by Klar.
Councilors heard from several Montpelier residents – three from the same household – that is what they should do.
Maggie Lenz described Klar’s request as a transparent attempt to attract attention to his struggling campaign.
“Deny this application, don’t dilute this message,” she said, referring to the Black Lives Matter mural.
That view was echoed by others, like Conor Kennedy and Meg Walz, who questioned Klar’s motivation and the timing of his request.
“I think it would be a terrible disservice to bracket the message of Black Lives Matter with this message,” Kennedy said.
Councilors also heard from Ericka Redic, a Burlington woman, who described herself as the “lighter half of an interracial couple,” who was both troubled by what she viewed as the “divisive messaging” of the Black Lives Matter movement and appreciative of some of the racial issues it has highlighted.
That said, Redic expressed support for the mural proposed by Klar.
“‘Liberty and justice for all’ is not a response to ‘B(lack)L(ives)M(atter),’ it’s not in addition to (it) it’s not trying to cover (it) up, it is an affirmation that this country is created for everyone and everyone has equal rights (and) equal justice under the law,” she said.
Though the audience was divided, the council was united defending Casey, who fired back at Klar and argued the fact the Black Lives Matter mural that has been vandalized twice was evidence that message shouldn’t be edited or added to.
“I’m not against the concept of ‘liberty and justice for all,’ I think it’s a great aspirational statement, but right now it’s a farce in America,” Casey said. “It’s maybe something to aspire to, but until we can recognize that Black lives matter, I don’t think ‘liberty and justice for all’ is alive and well in America.”
Others were less strident, but all agreed the council was within its rights to deny the request and concerned that approving it would detract from the message of the Black Lives Matter mural and, whether intended or not, potentially be interpreted as a rejoinder.
“Should we approve this particular design, at this particular time, in this particular place?” Councilor Dan Richardson asked. “I don’t think it’s a close call.”
“Context matters,” she said.
In any event, Watson said she believed it would be inappropriate to paint the image of the American flag on a city street.
After unanimously denying Klar’s request, councilors approved a new flag policy that includes a provision for the display of “special flags” including the Black Lives Matter banner they recently agreed to fly on one of the flagpoles at City Hall.