The wooden sign isn’t yet finished, but once it is, the words will speak for themselves: “Black Fights Back.”
The phrase will be painted on a piece of plywood that belongs to Franklin High School senior Jaylin, who’s planning to beautify it as part of the school’s newest art installation. The project, a collection of hand-painted signs, is a concept developed by the high school’s Art of Resistance & Resilience club, an art-and-activism group that creates projects uniting the community in its fight against local racism and anti-Blackness.
Some students are using their signs to describe what changes they’d like to see in Seattle in 2021. Others are sticking with images. Once they’re finished, they’ll bring their individual pieces back to Franklin to hang on its athletic field fence — right next to the club’s first public art project, a mural inspired by Seattle’s Black Panther Party chapter.
“I’m tired of laying around, waiting for something to happen,” said 17-year-old Jaylin, who asked his last name be omitted to avoid harassment. “It feels good to get out there and do something you believe in.”
He and his classmates, who have followed the city’s racial justice protests this summer, are filled with energy and motivation to finish the project, he said, but they’re also angry.
Earlier this year, someone vandalized the club’s Black Panther mural, which students finished in 2018 for the party’s 50th anniversary celebration.
The students had collaborated on the project with former members of Seattle’s Black Panther Party, including Elmer and Aaron Dixon, Leonard Dawson, Mike Tagawa, Garry Owens, Rosita Thomas and Vanetta Molson. Community members recently noticed prominent holes had been smashed through 13 of the Panthers’ portraits.
A Black Lives Matter banner put up next to the mural was also gone, replaced by a new sign that read, “Make Truth Great Again.”
“On some of the faces, the holes are so deep (that) they look like bullet holes,” said Lauren Holloway, who started the club in 2017 and is now one of its co-advisers.
“It’s very deliberate, very calculated,” she said. “And with the amount of physical and mental force involved — that’s hateful.”
It’s not the first time one of their murals has been defaced, she said.
Over the summer, the club also painted a wall on the corner of Seventh Avenue and South Jackson Street in Seattle’s Chinatown International District. It’s a flowery, yellow mural featuring portraits of Marsha P. Johnson, a key figure in the Stonewall uprising, and Adé A. Cônnére, a local performing artist and activist. About a week before the students finished it in June, someone took blue and red markers and scrawled all over the portraits, Holloway said.
“Two murals in a span of six months being defaced like this is just really upsetting to the youth,” Holloway said. “But I think it’s a pretty unanimous statement that no one is surprised or shocked by this.”
Miles Grant, a sophomore at Western Washington University who graduated from Franklin, worked on the Black Panther mural and said when he heard the news of the vandalism, he was crushed.
“I was just very upset with the fact that there are people in the city and just in general that would be so filled with contempt for something that doesn’t promote hatred of any kind,” Grant said. “It’s just an uplifting mural. It conveys history, it conveys a message.”
He has fond memories of the club’s “painting parties,” when they would meet up in Franklin’s cafeteria after school and spend hours painting the Black Panther mural’s panels.
“It was something that artistically and personally and even spiritually was a moment of growth for everyone who participated,” Grant said. “It culminated in something everyone could be proud of.”
Early on, Grant said he felt a responsibility to learn more about the Panthers’ history and started working his way through the party’s suggested reading list, a collection of more than 25 books written by prominent Black leaders including Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Kwame Nkrumah and Marcus Garvey.
While the Black Panther Party was criticized for aggressive and militant methods of fighting against racist institutions, Elmer Dixon, who co-founded the Seattle chapter in 1968, has said police, government officials and the media often negatively distorted the party’s image. The FBI, for example, launched a full counterintelligence operation, secretly attempting to drive divisions between members and spread false rumors about the party, The New York Times reported in 1976.
Despite her disappointment in the vandalism, Holloway said she was proud to see her students respond in a positive, productive way: with art.
“Art, especially during this time, can be a very therapeutic force and because they’re hurting, we feel the appropriate response is to create art about it,” Holloway said.
Tina Nguyen, a sophomore at the University of Washington and a Franklin graduate, also worked on the Black Panther mural and said joining the club marked a significant turning point in her life.
Nguyen said the club “really broke barriers” for her by showcasing the work of young artists in the community.
“I was like, ‘Wow, these people are really making a difference.’ And we could do that, too,” she said. “It was more than an art class. It was self-empowerment.”
Because the students decided to display their upcoming installation — the collection of signs — at Franklin next to their Black Panther mural, Holloway said she sees it as a “reclaiming of a space.”
She still worries, however, about potential future vandalism, especially because she said she feels the state’s hate crime laws are “inadequate.”
“There’s not enough strong consequences to hold people accountable for these kinds of acts,” she said.
When Holloway spoke to the Seattle Police Department in July about the vandalism, she said, she was told that while she should report any property damage or harassment she or her students experienced, a direct threat needed to be present for prosecutors to charge offenders with a hate crime.
The issue grows more pressing every day, she said. While this year’s protests inspired a wave of new art affirming Black lives, a lot more vandalism seemed to come with it, she said.
In September, someone slashed through several colorful murals in Federal Way that celebrate Pacific Islander, Black and Asian communities in South King County.
And in October, 49-year-old Brandon Whiteside was charged with assault and malicious mischief after allegedly pointing a gun at an artist hired to paint a mural in Renton and later defacing the mural with red spray paint. He was also accused of yelling, “All lives matter” at the artist at least twice while driving by, prosecutors said.
Similar incidents involving vandalism have popped up along the West Coast and across the country, including in July, when two people from Northern California were charged with a hate crime after they allegedly covered a Black Lives Matter mural with black paint.
Several times this summer, people drove through the International District while students were painting and yelled racial or homophobic slurs at them, Holloway said.
In response, the Franklin students are working with a new King County group, Coalition Against Hate and Bias, which was launched in March to attempt to track every hate or bias incident in the county.
The goal, said Sung Cho, one of the group’s program managers, is to map the data and use it to inform how future policies are created and resources are allocated. In about 10 months, the coalition has received more than 200 reports.
“We originally intended to scoop up what law enforcement was not able to see or get, but we’ve opened up this new thing about community healing,” Cho said.
While the group purposely does not officially partner with any law enforcement agencies nor collect perpetrator information — both decisions made in order to focus on strengthening trust with the community — Cho said the group does hope to have an open dialogue with police.
Lydia Faitalia, a community organizer with the coalition, is tasked with documenting the vandalism of the Franklin murals. She said her heart broke when she first spoke with Holloway.
“COVID only highlighted the inequities and disparities that our communities of color, down to our children, are experiencing,” Faitalia said. “And while people may say, ‘Oh, it’s just art, it’s just a mural’ — no, no, no. That’s a way for our babies, our future, to convey their thoughts and their feelings.”
Despite their concerns about future vandalism and hate, Franklin’s students aren’t about to back down — and they’ve already repaired their Black Panther mural.
“It doesn’t matter how much (art) you destroy,” Jaylin said. “We’ll always make more. And you can’t stop us.”