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Teaneck Black Lives Matter activists get their mural, but some feel slighted by town

The Record, Bergen County logo The Record, Bergen County 11/8/2020 Isaiah McCall and Monsy Alvarado, NorthJersey.com

After the death of George Floyd, several Teaneck residents hoped to paint a mural to memorialize his death and those of other Black people who died at the hands of police officers. 

The initial idea was to paint the words "Black Lives Matter" on a street, similar to other murals that have popped up around the country, to bring awareness to the nationwide movement and demonstrate the township's commitment to racial justice and equality. 

The organizers, who approached the mayor and Township Council in July, also wanted to include the names of individuals who they said were victims of police brutality, including Phillip Pannell, a 16-year-old Black boy shot and killed by a Teaneck police officer in 1990. 

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But they received a resounding "No," even when they pulled back and asked if they could include only Pannell's name.

"It feels like we're being put in the back of the bus," said Scott Pleasants, one of the lead organizers of the mural. 

Organizers conceded and painted a mural on a parking lot adjacent to the township community center late last month — not the location they'd hoped for.

"Although the name may not be visible on the mural, you can't tell the story of Black Lives Matter without Phillip Pannell, and that's why I thought it was important to move forward and have the symbol in place,'' Pleasants said. 

Mayor James Dunleavy said he was in support of a mural but wanted to "respect the fact that we have a diverse town," saying some residents opposed the display because they thought it would create more divisiveness. He hoped to find a way, he said, that would be responsive to not only the "Black community but the town as a whole."

Pannell's death sparked days of unrest in Teaneck. Gary Spath, the officer who shot him in the back, said he acted in self-defense as the teen reached for a gun. He was eventually acquitted by an all-white jury. 

"We wanted an image, a symbol, that looked forward, and it didn't mean that we were forgetting the history of what has happened," Dunleavy said. 

He said the town wanted to support its residents in their desire for change, "and to support any efforts in the future to combat racial injustice, systemic racism, economic racism, health care racism. And we wanted to show our support for that, and that's where we wanted the focus to be." 

a man standing in a parking lot: Teaneck residents, Scott Pleasants and Shae Lewis repainting the BLM mural on November 6, after black tar was spilled on it. © Isaiah McCall Teaneck residents, Scott Pleasants and Shae Lewis repainting the BLM mural on November 6, after black tar was spilled on it.

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The mural, which stretches more than 50 yards and features the green, black and red colors of the Afro American flag as well as the colors of the LGBTQ flag, is not permanent. It will be displayed for 90 days, and then the Township Council will vote on whether to extend that.

Dunleavy said he did not want the mural on a public street because of current litigation in other cities. In California, for example, the city of Redwood was forced to remove its Black Lives Matter street mural after receiving a request from an attorney to add the "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan on another street.   

a person standing in a parking lot: Teaneck residents, Scott Pleasants and Shae Lewis repainting the BLM mural on November 6, after black tar was spilled on it. © Isaiah McCall Teaneck residents, Scott Pleasants and Shae Lewis repainting the BLM mural on November 6, after black tar was spilled on it.

"We didn't want to be put in a position of having to either be sued or have to then take down the mural in order to protect the township,'' he said. "By putting it on township property, we were effective in being able to be in a position to say no to other messaging we don't feel is appropriate. And we didn't produce or create a public forum out of our street, and it puts us in a position to be able to protect the mural from vandalism." 

The mural is the first of its kind in Bergen County. Others have been painted on streets in Jersey City and Orange.

Reopening old wounds

a person wearing a costume: Tree of Healing Memorial ceremony in honor of Phillip Pannell at Tryon Park in Teaneck on what would have been Pannell's 47th birthday on Saturday October 3, 2020. On April 10, 1990, Phillip Pannell was shot and killed by police officer in Teaneck. Pannel's sister Natacha Pannelltakes the ribbon off the tree dedicated to Pannnell. © Anne-Marie Caruso, Anne-Marie Caruso/NorthJersey - USA TODAY NETWORK Tree of Healing Memorial ceremony in honor of Phillip Pannell at Tryon Park in Teaneck on what would have been Pannell's 47th birthday on Saturday October 3, 2020. On April 10, 1990, Phillip Pannell was shot and killed by police officer in Teaneck. Pannel's sister Natacha Pannelltakes the ribbon off the tree dedicated to Pannnell.

The shooting of Pannell and ensuing unrest presaged the strife that has followed the killings of other Black people by police in recent years.

Pannell's sister, Natacha, who was 13 when her brother died, said Teaneck's decision not to include his name in the mural has opened old wounds. 

"Some of the things the town council was saying ... it made me feel like my brother was back on trial after 30 years," said Pannell, who is active in the Black Lives Matter movement. "They didn't want to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter had anything to do with my brother." 

"There were many nights when I cried over this. I feel like I was being taken back to when I was a little girl — I felt like I was being silenced and my brother was being silenced," she said. 

A place to gather

Odein Karibi-Whyte, 18, a Teaneck High School graduate now studying at Morehouse College, was among the first residents to get involved in bringing the mural to his hometown. He said he, too, was disappointed that the group was not successful in adding Pannell's name. 

"His life mattered, and he was killed in this town,'' Karibi-Whyte said. 

He said he was also surprised that it took several months and involved so many negotiations, but he is glad it's finished. 

"The main motivation behind the mural was to keep the movement going, and at the end of the day the mural is a powerful symbol," he said, "but it isn't the changes in policy and practices that we want to see in the long run.'' 

Teaneck resident Shae Lewis, another member of the mural committee, foresees the area becoming a community gathering place. 

"This mural is a small part of a bigger fight," Lewis said. "We already had several religious leaders come in and bless this space as sacred ground. When it gets warmer out, we want the community — Black, white, brown — here, with us."

Email: mccallI@northjersey.com

Twitter: @AfroReporter

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Teaneck Black Lives Matter activists get their mural, but some feel slighted by town

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