Burlington City Council OKs 'Black Lives Matter' Street Mural | Off Message

Burlington City Council OKs 'Black Lives Matter' Street Mural


Volunteers painting "Black Lives Matter" in Montpelier last month - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Volunteers painting "Black Lives Matter" in Montpelier last month
Volunteers can help paint a "Black Lives Matter" mural on Burlington's Main Street this Sunday, July 19, after the city council voted unanimously on Monday to allow the project to go forward.

Introduced by Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), the resolution says the artwork will likely be painted on Main Street between South Winooski Avenue and Church Street. Volunteers and the city's Department of Public Works will maintain the mural through October 2023, "at which point the City Council will determine next steps," according to the resolution.

The painting event, which is open to all, is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Paul said the project will show that Burlingtonians "are no longer bystanders in a crisis that we can actually solve." Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) and Tyeastia Green, the city's racial equity director, both helped write the resolution, Paul said.

Similar Black Lives Matter murals have appeared across the country in the wake of George Floyd's late May death in Minneapolis police custody. The street art movement started on June 5 in Washington, D.C., where volunteers painted the slogan in 50-foot-tall yellow letters on a street leading to the White House. Copycats have cropped up on streets in New York City, Seattle, Hollywood and, locally, Montpelier.

The capital city's mural was defaced shortly after it was painted in front of the Statehouse on June 13. Other street paintings in Jericho and Underhill were also vandalized in recent days.
Paul acknowledged that some people might think Burlington's mural project is performative activism, but she said the city has taken substantive steps toward racial justice by allocating $1 million to various anti-racist initiatives. Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) agreed.

"I think it's OK and important for us, as the elected leaders in this community, to take both symbolic and substantive measures to show that we're trying to turn a corner on 400 years of racist history," he said.

Also during Monday's meeting, a council majority agreed to put a measure on the November ballot that, if approved, would introduce ranked-choice voting in elections for mayor, city council and school board. The switch would require changing the city charter.

The resolution passed 6-5, with Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) joining council Progressives in favor; all five Democrats voted no. Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) was absent from the meeting.

Also known as instant runoff, ranked-choice voting asks voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If their first choice were eliminated, their vote would be reassigned to their second choice. The process continues until one candidate earns 50 percent or more of the vote; the current voting system only requires a 40 percent majority to win.

Burlington previously used ranked-choice, but voters repealed the system in 2010. Council Progs resurrected the concept late last year. Proponents say the system levels the playing field for independent and non-major party candidates and lets voters choose the candidate who they favor most instead of who is most likely to win.

Progs originally tried to get the proposal on the March 2020 ballot, but Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) adjourned a key meeting of a council subcommittee before members could debate it. The item then missed the mid-December deadline to appear on the Town Meeting Day ballot.
On Monday, councilors debated whether or not it was appropriate to put the question on the November ballot, which will see a much higher turnout due to the presidential election. The city will have to spend about $45,000 to print up and mail separate ballots, city clerk Amy Bovee said.

All of the elections that would use ranked-choice voting take place on Town Meeting Day, a distinction some councilors sought to make during the debate Monday.

"We have a lot of people who show up at a presidential election who don't vote in March," Shannon said. "If we put this on the November ballot, we have the potential of getting the majority of votes from people who don't represent the majority of those who will actually be using it in March."

Councilor Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) suggested postponing the council's vote on the matter to give her time to discuss ranked-choice voting with her constituents. Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said that putting the question to a vote "is your chance to hear from the highest number of constituents that you can possibly hear from and ... let them make the decision for themselves."

Councilor Franklin Paulino (D-North District) called ranked-choice voting "a solution in search of a problem." He said the council should instead be discussing methods to increase voter turnout through online voting or expanded voting hours, or by making election days state holidays.

"This isn't a mutually exclusive debate," Hightower countered. "We can do all of these things."

The Vermont legislature and the governor must sign off on all charter changes before they can become law. City attorney Eileen Blackwood said that would be unlikely to happen before next Town Meeting Day, even if the measure passed in November.