GOSHEN — Following Monday’s denial of their request to have a Black Lives Matter street mural painted in downtown Goshen, members of the local activist group 4US aren’t giving up hope. In fact, they’re already in the process of exploring other options for how best to bring their message to Main Street.

The group’s plan to have the large street mural painted at the intersection of Washington and Main streets was voted down Monday by members of the Goshen Board of Public Works and Safety following about an hour of discussion by supporters and detractors alike.

“As a human, honestly, I’m not going to lie, I’m saddened, and I am a little bit flustered,” 4US founder Abraham Medellin said of the board’s decision following Monday’s meeting.

According to Medellin, the 4US street mural proposal was made in response to the recent deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police, with the ultimate goal being to bolster support of marginalized groups both in Goshen and across the nation.

And while their initial plans may have been denied, Medellin was quick to note that the board’s decision Monday to axe the proposal will not be the last the city hears of 4US.

“This is just the beginning. Every new problem is the beginning of a new story, a new chapter,” Medellin said of the group’s future plans for the downtown. “The next step in our next phase is that we’re going to start implementing some murals. We have people that reached out saying that we could paint on their buildings. We had people reach out saying they want us to do something here. So, our next step is to reach out to those people that want something and then start making a movement out of that, because maybe that could in turn lead us back to this. It’s never the end of anything. I will never tuck my tail.”

SETTING A PRECEDENT

While supportive of the group’s overall goals and encouraged by their passion, board members Monday ultimately voted against allowing the mural to proceed, citing in particular concerns expressed by the city’s legal department that allowing such a project would set an unwanted precedent for the city.

“Anytime you allow somebody into the forum like this to express an opinion or create a mural or something like this, the city would open itself up to having to allow other opposing viewpoints to do something similar,” said city attorney Bodie Stegelmann.

Dustin Sailor, director of public works for the city, also noted the city does not have a policy in place for such a street mural, and cautioned the board on moving ahead too quickly on such a project.

“At this point, if this is something that the Board of Public Works would like us to look at, we would be more than happy to look more into this, but we are not as an engineering department prepared to issue a right of way approval for such an installation,” Sailor said of the request.

DIFFERING VIEWPOINTS

Of the 17 audience members who chose to comment on the topic Monday, 10 spoke in favor of the mural, while seven spoke in opposition of the plan.

Among those to speak in favor of the request was Kelsey Norris, a Goshen resident and teacher with Goshen Community Schools.

“I’m in support of the Black Lives Matter movement for my students. They deserve to live in a community that goes above and beyond to show them that they’re loved for all of their cultural difference, and not feared for them. They need to know that they’re not seen as a threat because of the color of their skin,” Norris told the board, her voice cracking with emotion as she fought to hold back tears. “Today, I went on a walk with one of my friends because she told me she was scared to walk her dog alone in her peaceful subdivision. That’s not a feeling that any person of color, or any person in general, in any community, should have, but especially not in Goshen.

“I commend our community for always choosing to embrace diversity. We are leaps and bounds beyond some of the other communities in Indiana, but we’ve still got work to do,” she added. “Choosing to support the painting of this mural in whatever way you see fit could be the first step in removing that anxiety and showing support for so many lives here and now. Please think about the underrepresented citizens in our community, and most importantly, our students, when making your decision today.”

Miah Lynn Thornton, a 4US supporter from Mishawaka, offered a similar sentiment when voicing her support for the mural.

“I just want to say, we know it’s common knowledge that not all cops are bad. We know we have good cops. We also know that not all white people are racist,” Thornton said. “But my issue is this: cops, they can go home to their families, they can take off their badge, they can take off their uniform, they can go walk into a grocery store and be perfectly fine. Nobody even knows they’re a cop. But I walk into a grocery store and you can see that I’m African American. You see that. And I get bad looks just because of the color of my skin. And my question is, why? So, the whole reason for this mural, it’s important, because if all lives matter, why can’t Black lives matter?”

Of those speaking out against the proposal Monday, Goshen entrepreneur Dave Pottinger noted that while he supports 4US’s goal of bolstering support for marginalized groups in Goshen, he does not feel a large street mural in the middle of the city’s historic district is the best way to go about achieving that change.

“I’ve spent the last 35 years of my life with my heart in the little historic district of downtown (Goshen). And I’m not here to talk about the issue at all. I’m here to talk about all the effort that so many of us have put together to try and develop the historic district into something where all people feel comfortable and at home. And I think it’s working,” Pottinger told the board. “I have been one who is vehemently against murals, because once you start putting murals on buildings, the environment changes completely. I’m not against what you want to do. I’m just against where it is. It will have a dramatic change for a lot of us of what we’ve been working for. So, I’m here to say that I support the group, but I will be very disappointed if we allow that kind of mural to be in the historic district when we have a lot of other areas where it could go.”

Scott Woldruff, longtime owner of Woldruff’s Footwear & Apparel in downtown Goshen, also shared his concerns about the mural and the potentially negative impact it could have on downtown Goshen businesses.

“I’m not here to speak pro or con against the Black Lives Matter content mural. I’m here speaking about the physical part of downtown. We’ve been in business 28 years downtown, a lot of blood, sweat and tears in it, and our life savings in it. And there are a lot of merchants that have been around a lot longer than we have, and who have had that kind of commitment,” Woldruff said. “Downtown Goshen has changed a lot in 28 years. When we first came, there was talk about streetscaping downtown. That had been talked about for some time before I arrived. Fortunately, it has happened. We’ve got beautiful streetscaping downtown. And for me, I would prefer not to see anything on the street.

“I don’t care what the subject matter is,” he added of the mural. “I don’t think that’s part of what we’re doing downtown. There’s more work to be done, and hasn’t been done yet downtown. And from my standpoint, I feel like I would appreciate if it was not allowed in the downtown. We’ve got a beautiful blacktop street that was quite expensive. So, that’s where I’m at I guess.”

FURTHER CONVERSATIONS

Prior to his vote against the proposal Monday, Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, who also holds a seat on the board, made a point of expressing his heartfelt support for the work of 4US and its members.

“Coming in to the room today, I didn’t really know exactly how I was going to vote. But no matter how this turns out, I want to keep working with you and your team. I want to find something that we can do that speaks volumes to our community,” Stutsman said. “I want to make sure that our community is always, always taking the step forward, always fighting for those who don’t have a voice yet, and making sure we give them a voice. We’ve got to change hearts, and we’ve got to change minds. That’s essential. And I think that we can do that through our further conversations. I commit to keep that conversation going.

“However this vote goes, there is no statement from this board of for or against Black Lives Matter. We’re looking at the procedure. We’re looking at the street, the safety, we’re looking at what would we do with any group that comes forward, and that’s what we have to vote on,” Stutsman added. “I want to say publicly that I do support Black Lives Matter. I think it is an important movement. I think there are people in that movement that are making poor choices, but I think you have to look at what the movement is about. It’s about making sure that we see everybody in our communities.”

Fellow board member Mary Nichols offered a similar sentiment prior to her vote in opposition to the request.

“Like Jeremy said, no matter what the outcome is, I fully support racial equality,” Nichols said. “You came up with so much passion, so thank you for all the time you put into everything. Thank you.”

In the end, both Stutsman and Nichols voted against the proposal. The board’s third member, Michael Landis, was absent.

In an attempt at compromise, board members did end up unanimously approving a request by Stutsman for permission to pursue a contract working with community artists for the design and installation of a different mural, the content and location of which will be decided at a later date.

“The purpose of the mural is to help create conversation around what it means to be inclusive, to celebrate our diversity and to continue coming together as a community to live with respect and understanding,” Stutsman said of the request. “It will have a message that we are all equal and we all deserve a seat at the table.”

John Kline can be reached at john.kline@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240315. Follow John on Twitter @jkline_TGN.

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