At least 200 people came together Saturday morning on State Street in Montpelier to help paint “Black Lives Matter” in massive yellow letters in front of the Statehouse.
The project had been in the works for just under a week and was a collaboration between Noel Riby-Williams, a Montpelier resident, and City Councilor Conor Casey. Riby-Williams last week helped to organize a 5,000-person protest against police brutality in Montpelier.
In a short speech to a crowd of volunteers and community members, Riby-Williams said Saturday’s painting was an important statement.
“Today is the day our state says ‘black lives matter,’” she said.
In the days leading up to the community event, Casey and Riby-Willams worked together to gather community support and clear hurdles with both the city and the state, Riby-Williams said.
“It’s just pure joy,” she said as she watched a crowd of volunteers take turns painting. “My family is here with me and this is a community event. As a community putting out this statement — I’m just so thankful and grateful.”
The mural, which replicates a painting in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., was broadly supported in Montpelier and had the backing of Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
“I don't want this to be just a moment in time,” Scott said Friday. “I want this to be a time when there's transition to real action, and we have to be reminded of that. And I think this is an expression of sentiment.”
Although much of the crowd gathered Saturday were there to help paint and stand in solidarity, a few passersby stopped to give their two cents.
One man walking down the sidewalk yelled to volunteers who were working on outlining the letters, asking if a white man’s death at the hands of the police mattered at all. Another man approached a police officer that was watching over the work and asked if the officer could make the painters stop.
“Doesn’t Governor Scott know this is my street, too?” the man said as he walked away from the scene.
Casey said he had not heard any specific pushback from citizens within his district but had seen some messages on social media and received a few negative emails. Most were from people outside the Montpelier community, he said.
Casey said the event was an important step, and going forward the City Council will consider what can be done to improve the Montpelier Police Department as their new chief, Brian Peete, gets his footing.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see it on the street when it’s painted,” Casey said. “I think it’s the start of a long and difficult conversation, but I’m glad we can start it in a way where we’re coming together.”
The painting took about three hours, between stenciling the letters and filling them in, one stroke at a time. But with more than 200 pairs of hands, the task went quickly.
Once the painting was finished, volunteers and community members stood together on the road, facing the Statehouse in a moment of silence.
For Riby-Willams, the work continues far beyond the symbolic gesture of painting three words down State Street.
“My next step is making Juneteenth a state holiday in Vermont, and hopefully we can celebrate next Friday,” Riby-Williams said. “It won’t be a big thing, it’ll probably be a small cookout.”
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