Story by Matt Butler and Anna Lamb. Drone photography courtesy of Shira Golding Evergreen

ITHACA, N.Y. — The large Black Lives Matter mural at the intersection of State and Plain Streets in downtown Ithaca was defaced early Sunday morning, with neighborhood surveillance video capturing three people pouring black paint on parts of the mural around 3:30 a.m.

The video, taken from the Nest porch camera of a house on Plain Street, shows three people show up and methodically pouring black paint on the letters and accompanying footnotes in the mural, then spreading out the paint using some sort of shovel, though some of the details are unclear in the video. 

The trio seems unaware that they are on camera, wearing no apparent masks to conceal their identity or to protect themselves from coronavirus transmission. They spend about 10 minutes in relatively full view of the camera, calmly but sloppily spreading black paint over the first few letters of the mural. After blacking out the second letter of “Lives,” the three appear to run out of paint, leaving more than half of the mural unadulterated. 

The resident who distributed the video on social media said they had also provided it to Ithaca police and Mayor Svante Myrick, and that police had told them it would be forwarded to the appropriate people. 

IPD Chief Dennis Nayor said he was not aware of any investigation into the incident, and said that the situation would have to be discussed with the District Attorney’s office to see if anyone “would have the legal standing to file such a complaint.”

The mural is the product of a community event held in August in which people came out to an all-day session designed to be a group public art project and conversation. While done with the city’s blessing, permits were not filed.

The vandalism came just hours after ralliers in support of President Donald Trump marched through Ithaca, vocally clashing with Black Lives Matter proponents on Green Street outside of City Hall. Attendees of the rally included Zach Winn, a local right-wing activist who has gained notoriety recently for being involved in a fight at a racial justice protest, and additionally delivering public comments arguing that the now-defaced BLM mural should be removed entirely from Plain Street.

“Allowing and endorsing the mural on Plain Street is an insult to the countless victims of assault, arson and murder that taking place nightly across this country. In addition, the city cannot and should not be arbiters of private expression,” Winn said at September’s Common Council meeting following the mural’s creation. Winn then went on to demand the city remove the mural or, “private individuals will be forced to act on the city’s behalf and bill the city for their service.”

Winn did not respond to the Ithaca Voice’s request for comment regarding his potential involvement in the vandalism. 

It’s also not the first time a Black Lives Matter mural has been defaced in Ithaca over the last few weeks. A mural with the same message has faced several vandalism attempts, most focused on scribbling over the “Black” portion of the mural, leaving “Lives Matter,” reminiscent of the common right-wing “All lives matter” rebuke to the BLM movement.

In response to the defacement, protesters from the weekly racial justice movements on the Commons made it a point to occupy the Plain St. block and between Martin Luther King Jr. and Seneca Streets and repaint the blacked-out portion.

The plan to restore the mural was made on-the-fly and a group of nearly forty came together to pool resources to purchase paint, brushes and coffee.

“This energy is incredibly powerful to me and an example of how community can be,” local artist Maryam Adib, who was part of restoring the mural said. “It shows the power of the Black Lives Matter movement and how it’s based in community and a collective desire for a better community and a better society.”

Harry Smith, a local organizer in the racial justice movement and leader of Black Hands Universal said that as long as the mural continues to be defaced, the community will return to repaint.

“It comes down to passion,” he said. “Are you passionate enough to keep on messing it up or are we more passionate about the movement and the cause, because if we are then you’ll never be able to mess it up more times then we can fix it. And we don’t have to lurk in the nighttime to do it.”

Adib echoed Smith in his criticism of the vandalism taking place in the middle of the night saying, “the fact that they had to do it under the cover of darkness shows how cowardly they are and how inconsiderate of the movement, but not in a bold enough way to confront us.”

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick also gave his opinion on the vandalism on social media and the covert manner in which it was done.

“Why isn’t this surprising? Because those of us who have had our own signs removed or defaced know that people with racist thoughts and deep insecurities are incredibly triggered by this simple true declaration: black lives matter,” Myrick wrote on Facebook. “What’s also not surprising is that while dozens of Ithacans worked in broad daylight and shared community to create the mural – this vandal snuck around in the dark of night.”

Myrick continued that the act is an attempt to “poke our community in the eye” and solely meant to provoke.

This is the second time the mayor has used this type of language over the past week to denounce an act of vandalism in connection with the local BLM movement. Last Wednesday Myrick released a public statement regarding the destruction of the American flag outside IPD headquarters after a Sunday racial justice rally saying, “it was clearly intended to provoke,” and “as we speak it’s being used by internet trolls and people who would like to see this spark a broader real-world conflagration.”

While not confirmed to be a direct response to the flag burning last week, the destruction of the community mural does appear to be an escalation in the ongoing conflict between BLM supporters and right-wing counter-protesters.