All is not peaceful at the Bonfire Lounge in Portland, Oregon. There’s a bit of proposed redecorating on tap and it’s not going to go over well with everyone. The front of the building looks like many other smallish bar and grill type establishments, but around the other side of the structure there is a massive mural commemorating deceased strongarm robbery suspect Michael Brown of Ferguson fame. It’s been there for quite a while now, but the owner would like to paint over it and replace it with advertising for a variety of businesses on the property. This has led the creator of the mural to become rather upset, as well as some of his supporters. (Willamette Weekly, warning for NSFW language in quotes)
A mural memorializing slain African-American teen Michael Brown—a shooting by police that set off waves of riots in Ferguson, Mo., and helped birth the Black Lives Matter movement—will be painted over and replaced with logos for Bonfire Lounge, Babydoll Pizza and the other businesses in the Stark Street building, if Bonfire and Babydoll owner Travis Miranda has his way.
“Pretty shocked when I went to talk with the new owner of Bonfire Lounge today,” the muralist, Ashley Montague, wrote on his Facebook on May 4. “I was met by him with anger and aggression telling me that ‘he fucking hated it also…and the neighborhood fucking hated it.'”
That’s a misquote, says Miranda.
“I said I did not like the painting and that others around here did not,” he says.
The story behind the mural – told in more detail at the linked site – is curious in and of itself. It was already partially painted over shortly after it went up because the original showed multiple police in SWAT gear shooting Brown in the back. The cops were later painted over by Montague at the request of the previous owner. But now the new owner wants it covered entirely.
That must make him a racist, right? Another typical, white business man with no empathy for the minority community. We hear about it all the time. Except…
It’s not a question of racism, Miranda says. “I am a Puerto Rican,” he says, “so I have been racially profiled in my life.”
There are sufficient cases in the books where artists fight free speech battles after putting up murals on public property. Not all of them end badly, and in some cities we’ve seen talented mural artists covering the roadways and overpasses with colorful, creative displays having gotten the full blessing of the municipal government. But there are several things different with this story. First and foremost, this is privately owned commercial property. Nobody has the right to come in and redecorate it without the express permission of the owner. Frankly, it’s amazing they’ve left it up for this long.
But even more to the point, that story came to a very different end than the peaceful, angelic scene being depicted. (Brown is shown releasing a dove heavenward as the cops brutally gun him down.) When the grand jury finished their work and all of the evidence was gathered, we learned that Brown attacked a police officer in his squad car and was not shot in the back, but from the front as he charged the cop. Perhaps the conflicting versions of history make the mural a bit of an embarrassment for the management. Or perhaps they just want to save some money on advertising revenue.
Sadly, this will almost undoubtedly turn into “a thing” in the media and the owner will be in a no win situation. But then again, we’re talking about Portland here so all bets are off.