UPDATE: It was a festive atmosphere Saturday morning as activists prepped for painting a Black Lives Matter mural on the street in front of Austin-East High School.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Organizers plan to move forward with painting a street mural with the words Black Lives Matter in front Austin-East High School on Saturday after failing to win approval for a permit.
In a news release Thursday, the mayor’s office said the idea came at too short of a notice and didn’t meet minimum requirements for a permit. The release specifically mentions the requirement of community support.
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For approval, organizers needed signatures from “each adjacent property owners and at least 80% of the residents on the project street frontage(s) within two city blocks of the proposed project,” something organizers told us Friday they secured.
The release also said, “Every attempt was made to help the organizers realize the project in a safe, community-supported manner.”
Mayor Indya Kincannon wrote, “Although we all tried our best, the minimum requirements have not yet been met, and we were not able to issue a permit. … I hope we can work together to make this project happen, and when we do, I’ll gladly bring a paintbrush and join the effort.”
Denzel Grant said he was told by several city officials the project was a go, prior to the Thursday night announcement that the permit was denied. Though Grant said they’ve received a stand-down order from the Knoxville Police Department, he’s looking forward to Saturday.
“It’s bigger than being combative with our city officials, that’s not what we’re going for,” Grant said. “What we’re saying is this outweighs, the importance of this, outweighs anything else, so we’re going forward with it anyway. That’s what we’re saying.”
Grant said organizers went around the community Wednesday, for two hours, gathering signatures and support, including from the Cold Springs Neighborhood Association and nearby business owners. Before Thursday night, he said, they had no idea there was a second petition against their effort.
“We did those three things, now we’re being denied permission to be able to go into our own community and give our community something that’s empowerment for our people,” Grant said.
Cynthia Finch showed us copy of a petition Friday, with more than 35 signatures, expressing disapproval of the project. Finch said she supports the Black Lives Matter movement, and even the idea of street art displaying the words, but advocates for a different approach and location.
As a property owner of several properties along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Finch said she has many questions about the project, including whether it’s permanent. In the event she ever sold or gifted her property, Finch said, she wants to have “strong, enhanced” surroundings, that encourage more investment in the area.
“It needs to be an opportunity for those neighbors who live east and west of the art,” Finch said. “They need to have an opportunity to sit down with the city officials and be a part of the discussion.”
Another one of the organizers, Constance Every, explained their efforts began following Juneteenth celebrations about two weeks ago. Every said they sought the help of a professional muralist, aerial designer, and other local artists to ensure it was a high-quality project and that the mural also met the requirements of the city.
“We are putting the mural down,” Every said. “We have our allies and our community members who will be more than happy to form a human barricade against you while these children stand out here and paint.”
Finch also said she supports the display in an area more visible, and more visible by different people.
“I’d put it in front of the City-County Building,” she said, and argued this would allow for decision-makers to be touched by the words.
Matthew Park, who is also running in the Democratic primary to serve Tennessee’s 15th House District, said an opposing petition doesn’t negate the support for the mural.
“This is an example of how policies and procedures have been used, especially over the last 50 years, to put down the Black community when they wanted to do something in their own community,” he said.
Organizer Alison Rose called the decision not to approve the art project Saturday “racist behavior.”
“This is not some painting something on something. This is an organized effort. This is a community day.”
Their original plan called for the project to be completed, and open for use, by 6:30 Sunday morning.