If someone can paint “Black Lives Matter” on a city street, why not “Back the Blue”?
That’s what Bob Jack and a few of his Republican friends would like to know. Jack, chairman of the Tulsa County Republican Party, recently sent a letter to City Councilor Ben Kimbro and the Mayor’s Office seeking information on the application process for painting a sign on the street.
“A group has approached me with a plan to paint on a city street in large letters “BACK THE BLUE” and “BABY LIVES MATTER,” Jack wrote. “As you are aware, the city did not intervene in the painting of “BLACK LIVE(S) MATTER” on Greenwood, just north of Archer, and the group is requesting the same right to voice their opinion.”
Jack said Tuesday that his hope is to have a rally and “have some people there that back our police officers, and while we are there, we’re going to bring some paint, and we’re going to put on the street ‘Back the Blue.’”
Jack mentioned Denver Avenue and Fifth Street as possible locations for the street painting but said no decision has been made on that.
Not coincidentally, city councilors are scheduled to discuss street signs Wednesday at their 10:30 a.m. committee meeting. The discussion is expected to focus on the city’s procedures for permitting street signs and the legal ramifications and legal liabilities of allowing a public right of way to be used for political messaging.
Cities across the nation have been grappling with the issue since “Black Lives Matter” signs began popping up painted on streets in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis.
Complicating the issue in Tulsa is the fact that the “Black Lives Matter” sign on Greenwood Avenue was never permitted by the city.
“Never heard from the city. Never for permission, and never for after the fact, nothing,” said Ryan Rhoades, the artist and activist who organized the overnight paint job.
Rhoades said he decided to paint the 250-foot-long yellow sign after seeing other cities across the country with “Black Lives Matter” signs painted on streets. He did not consult the city beforehand.
“I was like, with us having Black Wall Street here and Juneteenth and Trump coming to town, we just seem like the most likely city to do this next,” Rhoades said.
He said he worked with dozens of volunteers contacted through social media to “subversively” get the sign painted on the eve of Juneteenth. The effort, he acknowledged, included not always being forthright with a police officer who stopped by to ask what was going on.
“He thought we were just doing chalk and told us we were fine, and we didn’t see any more cops the rest of the night,” Rhoades said. “He just saw the chalk; we had the paint hidden.”
Rhoades described the paint as a “water-based latex acrylic” that was intended to be “somewhat temporary.”
“But temporary is a relative word,” he said. “It hasn’t really faded much at all.”
Generally speaking, individuals or organizations wishing to mark a street apply for a special events permit that must be approved by the director of the Streets and Stormwater Department and the City Council. The permit allows for the street to be blocked off so the sign can be placed on the right of way, and it limits signage to hand-held chalk or tape. Applicants can apply to mark the street with other temporary materials.
The City Council’s work on street signs is not likely to end Wednesday. Another local artist, Tony Williams, said Tuesday that he would like to place street signs or murals on 40 blocks of the historic Greenwood District, site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
“We see all the attention that the mural down there now was getting,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘This would be cooler if people were actually down here for the history instead of just this Black Lives Matter mural.’
“We don’t want people to get away from the history of what happened here.”