I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, Dover. On July 12, 2008, on this blog, I documented a part of the lead-up to me graduating high school:
There’s a little tradition at Dover High School – graduating seniors can elect to paint a mural on the high school’s driveway. It’s a great way to leave a mark until it’s paved over sometime in the next year. With the help of a few friends, I painted what I consider to be an awesome driveway mural.
A few days ago, on her personal website, Ariana Lasher described something that happened recently in Dover:
On May 27th, Jody Grant, a Dover High School senior, painted a mural of the “resistance fist”, a symbol used in the Black Lives Matter movement, on her school’s driveway. Within 24 hours, before she could even finish her artwork, the school’s administration made the decision to paint over the memorial. With yet another black individual killed, and riots breaking out among the nation in the fight for justice, Grant wanted to raise awareness in her own way. Now, she is left outraged.
It’s worth reading the whole writeup, if you haven’t already.
Mike Tierney, superintendent of the Dover Union Free School District, initiated the removal. I recently emailed Tierney and some other Dover administrators the following note, asking them to reconsider what they’ve done here:
Hello Mike Tierney,
I recently learned of the decision to paint over Jody Grant’s driveway mural, a memorial to Black lives ended by systemic, ingrained racism and the unaccountable institution of police in America. I wanted to drop you a quick note to explain why I’m disappointed by this decision, but also why I think it’s possible to make things right here.
Painting over a memorial to Black lives lacks empathy, and is itself an act of violence when considered in the context of life for Black people in the United States of America. And claiming to personally support the mural’s message is an empty gesture that lacks principles. In your job as an administrator of a public school, with authority over the direction of young people’s lives, I think it’s really important that you understand why your decision has caused real harm.
In an email, you said:
I decided to take down the mural because (although I agree with her message and proud of her want for change) it was not the appropriate time/place of manner for her message.
When is it inappropriate to mourn? I can think of driveway paintings that would be considered inappropriate by most people, but Jody’s mural does not fit into any of those molds. It’s not obscene. It doesn’t directly cause harm or incite anyone to cause harm. Instead, it’s relevant to living a curious life in pursuit of kindness, and reflects on something that’s personally important to its creator.
I suspect you would permit, or maybe celebrate, a driveway memorial to a specific student who was killed in a drug overdose, or was a victim of drunk driving. The same for a memorial to the country-wide collection of young people lost to the widely-acknowledged drug overdose epidemic. I suspect you would permit a driveway memorial by a student about someone who isn’t a student if it was a memorial to someone who was killed by circumstances almost everyone could agree were regrettable — if it wasn’t challenging or uncomfortable. And here again, I think you would permit a memorial to a collection of people lost in similar circumstances.
Assuming my characterization to how you would react to these other, hypothetical memorials is correct, what’s the difference in appropriateness of those circumstances and that of life and death for Black Americans? I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider and sit with that.
Jody Grant is grieving, like so many people in our country are, and you told her that her grief isn’t appropriate. Whether you meant to or not, you asserted that a tradition revolving around personal expression should not, and given your authority, cannot, touch on institutional racism. You said that this place of learning is not a place where it’s safe to discuss the epidemic of police violence in the United States that disproportionally affects Black people. In painting over this mural, Dover High School and Dover itself became less tolerant — less safe — and I hope you can appreciate why I call this a form of violence.
In an email to an alumnae, you wrote:
The general guidance has been as you know is [sic] to celebrate student accomplishments, celebrate next steps in their life, show gratitude to family and friends, and school spirit.
I fear that your framing here is retroactive, but I’ll dabble in accomplishments, celebrations, and gratitude briefly. It is an accomplishment that Jody’s eyes are open to pain. It is worth celebrating that there are young people who feel that their next steps in life are to combat extrajudicial killings of Black people. (This is more than worthy of celebration; we should join and support them.) Mourning the loss of life is a form showing gratitude; the act of mourning says that these lives were and are worth something. And transcending school spirit, Jody’s mural, conviction, and clarity are a form of the human spirt shining bright.
Mike, you have an incredible opportunity to do one of the most important things a leader can do: admit you made a mistake. You could bring some good, and some healing, into this world by telling folks that you’ve listened to their perspectives, really learned from them, and changed your mind. I know that this could make some people in Dover uncomfortable, but given our nation’s history and the moment we’re in right now, some discomfort is warranted.
Please rethink your decision here and let Jody paint her mural.
Class of 2008
I encourage anyone who feels they have standing to reach out and share their feelings with Mike Tierney and the rest of the Dover Schools administration.