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Frontiers of Enterprise The art of protest

A message, a movement, an opportunity to be heard

In Stamford, Conn., a community-supported protest mural maintains an indelible presence.

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More than 2,000 public works of art have been created around the world after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Source: Urban Art Mapping George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art database

BLACK 
LIVES 
MATTER

The words are still there, on one of the busiest intersections in Stamford, Connecticut. They’re still visible, in front of The Ferguson Library.

During the early stages of social-justice protests nationwide, artists and residents gathered peacefully at Broad and Bedford streets to create those three words. Since then, summer heat followed by autumn’s chill, plus pedestrian and vehicle traffic, have dulled their appearance. Yet those words, and their message, remain intact.

When residents of all ethnicities and ages converged on that intersection one steamy day in July of 2020, they were eager to join the collective outcry over police-involved incidents that claimed the lives of Black people in cities large and small. But the seed for Stamford’s event was planted in May, just after George Floyd died while being arrested in Minneapolis. Inspired by the BLM protest art created along major thoroughfares in several large cities, members of Stamford’s arts community began to stir.

“I think we thought, ‘Well, why not us, too?’ ” said Valerie Cooper. That’s when her phone began to ring. And that’s when Cooper and Picture That, the fine art consulting practice she founded and owns in Stamford, became integral players in the city’s BLM art project. 

“After the calls, I felt like I couldn’t sit back and do nothing — especially if there was an opportunity to curate an art project,” Cooper recalled.

A vice president of the city’s Art and Culture Commission, Cooper conducted focus groups consisting of people from the private sector, law enforcement and the government. Many in Stamford’s population of 130,000 people — close to 14% are Black — participated.

“Each step of the way, the response was, ‘What a fabulous idea,’ ” Cooper said. “ ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

So they did. Over two months, a GoFundMe campaign was launched. Multiple Zoom meetings were held. Sixteen artists were chosen to design the letters, and other activities took place. 

On July 19, Stamford’s “Black Lives Matter Street Mural” event went live. Over 11 hours, around 1,000 people — who wore masks and followed social-distancing rules — bought books, listened to storytellers and a poetry slam, among other activities.

The League of Women Voters registered attendees and U.S. Census Bureau representatives helped people fill out forms online. 

But painting the BLM letters (the outlines were stenciled on the street before the festivities started) was the highlight of the event. Participants who had pre-registered were allowed 15 minutes to paint portions of the letters.

Some people came simply to watch, and others wanted “to lay hands on the paint,” Cooper said. “It just turned into a magical day. People felt very included.” They had protested, she added, without carrying a sign.

Although the mural’s colors are not nearly as vibrant now, Cooper said, “It (still) gets a lot of exposure. It’s part of the fabric of the town.”

The project was awarded a 2021 Stamford Arts & Culture (SAC) grant for restoration of the mural — which had deteriorated some during the past year — and to launch programming in connection with it in the coming year. 

Meanwhile, a feeling of accomplishment has prevailed in Stamford since the mural was painted. Today, Cooper said, people still revel in their contribution to the current social justice movement.

Written by Constance Brossa

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Episode The art of protest