His fence says ‘Black Lives Matter.’ His city says paint over it.
By Giulia McDonell Nieto Del Rio
The colorful mural adorned with hearts, a portrait of a local activist and the words “Black Lives Matter” stands out at a busy intersection in West St. Paul, Minnesota, a community nestled against the Twin Cities. It is a cherished symbol for many Black residents, a site of reflection and pride.
But the city says it must go.
“I am totally saddened,” said Kimetha Johnson, the activist depicted on the 75-foot fence, who last year became the city’s first Black mayoral candidate. “It’s an awesome piece of art. The message is needed here.”
West St. Paul, where about 5% of the 20,000 residents are Black, says that the mural violates two sections of city code — about fences and prohibited signs — and that its specific content has nothing to do with the violations.
The commotion over the mural comes at a pivotal moment in the Twin Cities area, which is anxiously awaiting a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer who is charged in the death of George Floyd, who was Black.
Thousands of residents spilled into the streets of Minneapolis, St. Paul and West St. Paul after Floyd’s death, demanding justice night after night in protests that reverberated around the country. About 200 National Guard members are stationed in the area while Chauvin’s trial unfolds; witnesses will return to the stand Monday, the start of the third week of testimony.
Ryan Weyandt, who owns the contested fence and the house it borders, received a notice from West St. Paul officials in November informing him that he was violating the city’s sign ordinance.
He reached an agreement to keep the mural, which was created with spray paints and acrylics last summer, in place until April 15. But the city denied an extension beyond Thursday and told reporters Weyandt could face fines of up to $2,000 for every 10 additional days the mural remains.
Weyandt, who is white, said he had asked local museums if they might want to preserve the entire fence in their collections. If none accept, he will probably end up painting over the mural, an outcome he considers highly disappointing.
“We don’t want to take it down before the trial is over,” he said. “We want that message to stay.”
Dan Nowicki, a spokesperson for the city, said in an email that officials had received multiple complaints about the “noncompliant fence,” which breaches a part of city code that says fences must be one uniform color and feature no pictures or lettering. In its original notice to Weyandt, the city cited a code that bans signs “painted, attached or in any other manner affixed to fences, roofs, trees, rocks or other similar natural surfaces.”
“While the city understands the message on this particular fence is very important to the homeowner and many members of our community,” Nowicki said, “the city cannot and does not take content or message into account when dealing with infractions of city code.”
The notice Weyandt received also explained that during general election years, noncommercial signs are allowed “in any size, in any number, in any location, except the public right of way” — starting 46 days before the state primary election through 10 days after the general election in November.
Such exceptions are common in Minnesota city ordinances and allow people to display almost anything they want, said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “But once that time has passed, then the city or the town or whoever it is has a lot of discretion to establish restrictions,” she said.
Johnson, who goes by Kae Jae and received about 35% of the vote in last year’s mayoral election, said it was especially bad timing that the city was demanding that the mural be painted over in the middle of Chauvin’s trial.
She said she liked to bring her 7-year-old granddaughter to the fence because of its powerful signal to Black girls.
“She literally loves to read out loud, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Johnson said. “For her, it’s seeing that the city has some type of pride about her.”
On Saturday morning, Guillermo Maldonado Pérez, an assistant principal at a St. Paul school, and his 7-year-old daughter were admiring the mural. A petition in support of the painted message was circulating on Facebook, he said, but the request had seemed mostly to engage people from outside of the area.
“Hopefully, West St. Paul will change the way they allow people to express their values and their opinions,” he said, noting the demonstrations on nearby streets after Floyd was killed in May.
Weyandt, the fence’s owner, said he and his husband were simply hoping to project the “Black Lives Matter” message as best they could. They offered their fence as a canvas, hiring two artists who had worked on murals in the Twin Cities area.
“If one car stopped at the stop sign, looked at the fence and took that thought home, then our mission was accomplished,” he said.
Weyandt said that they had put messages and flags on the same fence several times before but that this was the first time the city had ever served them with a violation notice. One of the flags, which was hung up before 2020, proclaimed “Coexist.”