‘Black Lives Matter’ painting sparks controversy

By Mark Chiarelli

(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)
(Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

By Mark Chiarelli and Anthony Rentsch

A prominent artistic display of support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement is generating significant controversy across the University of Massachusetts campus.

The message, painted over a wall which has traditionally been used for graffiti art, first appeared Saturday in the Central Residential Area. However, it was discovered the next day that the words “Black lives matter” had been painted over with “All lives matter.” Supporters of the movement say this is disrespectful and highlighted the importance of the campus having “black spaces.” 

“They erased all those spots,” said Zareb Noel, a freshman engineering major and general body member of the Black Student Union who stressed he was speaking from personal beliefs and not on behalf of the group. 

“(It) was very disrespectful to black space,” he continued. “It’s something we’ve claimed as our own and it’s something you can’t come to say ‘Hey, no, we’re not going to do that.’” 

Noel said there are limited areas of black space on campus. 

“There are only a few spaces for black people to say ‘Hey, this is who we are. This is what we do,’” he said. “To feel comfortable and be around. And that’s being defaced and changed.”

According to Noel,  students from BSU, Student Bridges and other groups came together to repaint the wall Monday. BSU posted to its Facebook page following the repainting saying it had “reclaimed” black space.

When contacted by the Massachusetts Daily Collegian Tuesday, the group said it did not wish to offer further comment and instead deferred to the postings on its Facebook page. 

According to Noel, people have signed up to take one to two hour shifts to watch the wall to ensure nobody returns to spray paint over it before the end of the year. However, BSU posted on its Facebook page that the wall is still open to campus art and expression.

“…we ask that our art may be respected and not tampered with,” the organization wrote. 

Tuesday, a number of students walking by the artwork stopped to read messages on the wall and take photographs — and their reactions to the work varied. 

“I think rewriting the word ‘all’ was disrespectful,” said Ellen Howes, an english major. “I congratulate the community coming together to reclaim the “Black Lives Matter.” 

“I’m not surprised that they wrote ‘all’ over it,” said Sasha Romanoff, who is currently undeclared. 

“When I first saw it, the way I interpreted it was ‘If they are saying that black lives matter, why aren’t they saying that any other lives matter?’ The fact that someone did it, I was like, ‘Okay, I guess i’m not the only that saw it in that way.’ I guess it’s kind of expected that it went back and forth.” 

Students also expressed their opinions on social media platforms such as Fade and YikYak, as well as Facebook. Many questioned whether or not the space around the wall can be claimed by one group.

“I know some people now were even calling it a black space and I feel like that’s very exclusive to everyone else,” said Jessica Picard, a journalism major. “This was kind of like a meeting place for everyone to express themselves.”

BSU responded in a Facebook post Tuesday afternoon.

“To clarify, that wall is dedicated to art of the UMass population, not just BSU,” it wrote. 

“For years there has been style writing, pictures, and other artistic expressions written on the wall … The paint is just a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement and it was a fun and empowering experience coming together with allies and other organizations to display such beautiful artwork.”

The group wrote that it expects UMass to repaint the wall in advance of next semester. 

When asked about the criticisms against the art, specifically over social media, Noel said he believes many users don’t fully understand the intended message of changing “All lives matter” back to “Black Lives Matter,” as well as why the space exists.  

“I don’t like it when they’re trying to say ‘Hey, our lives matter too,’” he said. “Because it’s not like we’re trying to say we’re the only lives that matter. We’re trying to say our lives matter as well as everyone else’s. And everybody says ‘Oh, well, all lives matter though.’ And it’s like, well, not really. Because our lives don’t matter now. This is a reminder, a constant reminder every time you look at the wall to say ‘Hey, Black Lives Matter.’” 

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli. Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch.