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Mural in downtown Eau Claire highlights Black Lives Matter

With the adept hand a of painter, Brittany Tainter carefully adds the facial features of Emmett Till to a mural on a prominent downtown Eau Claire building.

Perched on scaffolding on the sidewalk along East Grand Avenue, Tainter draws the mouth, eyes and nose of the Black teenager who was lynched in 1955 in Mississippi onto the painted garage door at The Lismore Hotel.

Till is one of the 18 faces in the mural, which has “Black Lives Matter” in large letters alongside three raised fists with different skin colors.

People who died in violence or other circumstances linked to their race or minority status are shown alongside their children or parents.

“What we wanted to do was speak to the fact that all of these people who lost their lives have loved ones who are now without them,” Tainter said.

Bold waves of color — pink, green, blue and yellow — weave around the faces, but the portraits themselves are drawn only in black and white to symbolize lives taken from the world.

The mural is the work of a local BIPOC group — Black, indigenous and other people of color — that formed in Eau Claire following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We’re just community members who needed each other,” said Brooke Jeein Newmaster, a Korean-American who helped get the group started.

Artistic vision

The loosely organized group met a few times in outdoor settings, through online gatherings and one-on-one conversations. One of the activities Newmaster, herself an artist, arranged was setting up canvases for group members to paint on.

This allowed them to artistically express their thoughts or reflect on Floyd’s death and underlying issues of discrimination it brought to the forefront of a national discussion on race.

“It’s also an opportunity for people to have conversations,” Newmaster said of creating art.

The group talked about a bigger piece of artwork — a mural — they could create to continue in their healing process. Members didn’t have a large building wall available to them, but then owners of The Lismore Hotel learned about the project.

“Pablo Group heard that a collective of BIPOC folks from our community had a vision for a Black Lives Matter mural, and we were eager to offer a site for a mural that could also give them a relatively quick turnaround time,” said Molly Wilson, communications administrator for the business group that revamped the downtown hotel several years ago.

Among the Pablo Group’s core values is fighting for equity and equality, Wilson stated, and it seeks opportunities to elevate the voices of underrepresented people on our community.

The business attached no strings to its offer of using the garage door large enough for a delivery truck through as a canvas.

“There were no conditions,” Newmaster said.

Pablo Group did not require its approval of the mural’s design or give input into it.

“We wanted this to represent the BIPOC community’s vision, not ours,” Wilson said.


The business even helped get the necessary permits to temporarily close the sidewalk and arranged a mural consultant to give advice on the best materials to use for the large painting.

That expert wisdom came in handy for Tainter, a local artist and graphic designer who had not previously painted a mural. The garage door’s texture posed challenges as painter’s tape wouldn’t stick to it, requiring all of the clean lines between colors to be carefully done by hand.

Tainter has led the mural work, but also took input from others in the BIPOC group for its design, which took about two weeks to finalize.

Navontay Wilson, owner of Premium Blendz Barber Lounge on Eau Claire’s south side, offered his thoughts during the mural’s conception.

“I was just focused on the message,” he said. “The entire piece is just about unity.”

That was an extension of the feeling he got from the BIPOC group, which gave him support from people of other races in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“It definitely means a lot,” Wilson said.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Wilson had previously been to the store that Floyd shopped at before police arrested him and an officer knelt on his neck while others stood by. A couple of weeks after Floyd’s death, Wilson and his girlfriend went to that street, which has been restricted to vehicle traffic so people could grieve, reflect and view the memorials that have popped up there.

The words that came to Wilson’s mind when reflecting on his visit to that site: intensity and community.

“You could definitely feel the intensity of emotion in the air,” Wilson said.

But in addition to that, he recalls an amazing sense of community among the people who had also gathered there to reflect on Floyd’s impact on Minneapolis.

Memorable faces

Floyd and his daughter are among the faces in the mural that now appears in downtown Eau Claire. Others who died in police incidents — Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor — are also pictured alongside loved ones in the mural.

Others in the mural had deaths that were not linked to policing.

Till is a historical example of a lynching, but a much more recent case of civilian violence against a Black man is also represented. Ahmaud Arbery died earlier this year when a group of white men shot him while he was jogging on Feb. 23 in rural Georgia.

Two other people in the mural are Black, but also represent struggles for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The death of transgender woman Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells was ruled a homicide after her body was pulled from the Schuylkill River during early June in Philadelphia. Gay rights activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson died in 1992 in what was originally ruled as a suicide, but later changed to undetermined causes and the case remains open.

“I just want folks to remember that people are dying,” Tainter said. “These are sons, daughters and family members.”

Painting experiences

Work on the mural began the night of July 15 when a projector was used to shine the image the design onto the bare garage door so it could be traced onto the surface.

Since then Tainter and others volunteering their time and talent have spent weekdays painting the mural. Work on it finished this week with details of the faces being the final touches. The group is now seeking donations to recoup the costs of materials it used to make the mural, as well as contributions to help pay for future art projects.

This isn’t the first time Tainter, a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, has done artwork that speaks to racial issues, but it has been the most public. With the prominent, outdoor venue and strong feelings over the Black Lives Matter movement, Tainter said, this is the most pressure she’s felt when working on a piece of art.

As she worked on the mural, there were often friends and fellow BIPOC members with her to address passers-by so she could continue painting.

The mural garnered compliments and criticism from people who have walked or driven by, Newmaster said.

“That message is offensive,” proclaimed a man as he rode by on a bicycle while Newmaster explained the mural’s origins to the Leader-Telegram.

Newmaster said responses to the artwork’s message have included racist remarks, but also others who stopped by to have a friendly conversation with the mural’s creators.

She and others in the BIPOC group want to see the Black Lives Matter message go beyond a protest, mural or conversations and turn into action to spread antiracism.

“This is just the symbol,” Newmaster said while standing next to the mural. “It’s making those changes at the institutional and structural levels that will make lasting change.”

AP centerpiece
John Lewis mourned as 'founding father' of better America

ATLANTA — Hailed as a “founding father” of a fairer, better United States, John Lewis was eulogized Thursday by three former presidents and others who urged Americans to continue the work of the civil rights icon in fighting injustice during a moment of racial reckoning.

The longtime member of Congress even issued his own call to action — in an essay written in his final days that he asked be published in The New York Times on the day of his funeral. In it, he challenged the next generation to lay “down the heavy burdens of hate at last.”

After nearly a week of observances that took Lewis’ body from his birthplace in Alabama to the nation’s capital to his final resting place in Atlanta, mourners in face masks to guard against the coronavirus spread out across pews Thursday at the city’s landmark Ebenezer Baptist Church, once pastored by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Former President Barack Obama called Lewis “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance” during a fiery eulogy that was both deeply personal and political. The nation’s first Black president used the moment to issue a stark warning that the voting rights and equal opportunity Lewis championed were threatened by those “doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting” and to call for a renewal of the Voting Rights Act.

His words came as the country has been roiled by weeks of protests demanding a reckoning with institutionalized racism — and hours after President Donald Trump suggested delaying the November election, something he doesn’t have the authority to do.

“He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals,” Obama said of Lewis. “And some day when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union, whether it’s years from now or decades or even if it takes another two centuries, John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”

Former President George W. Bush said Lewis, who died July 17 at the age of 80, preached the gospel and lived its ideals, “insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope.”

Former President Jimmy Carter sent written condolences, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled how the sky was filled with ribbons of color in Washington earlier this week while Lewis’ body was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol.

“There was this double rainbow over the casket,” she said. “He was telling us, ‘I’m home in heaven, I’m home in heaven.’ We always knew he worked on the side of angels, and now he is with them.”

Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, led by King. He was best known for leading protesters in the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he was beaten by Alabama state troopers.

During the service, the arc of Lewis’ activism was once again tied to King, whose sermons Lewis discovered while scanning the radio dial as a 15-year-old boy growing up in then-segregated Alabama.

King continued to inspire Lewis’ civil rights work for the next 65 years as he fought segregation during marches, “Freedom Rides” across the South, and later during his long tenure in the U.S. Congress.

“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America,” Lewis said of his run-ins with the law. The phrase was repeated several times during the funeral.

“We will continue to get into good trouble as long as you grant us the breath to do so,” one of King’s daughters, the Rev. Bernice King, said as she led the congregation in prayer. She later paused and laid her hand atop Lewis’ flag-draped casket at the front of the church.

Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, called Lewis “a true American patriot who risked his life for the hope and promise of democracy.”

Outside the church, with temperatures in the upper 80s, hundreds gathered to watch the service on a large screen; some sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Pharrell Williams’ joyous tune “Happy” played as a closing song while a military honor guard loaded Lewis’ flag-draped coffin into a hearse; many congregation members clapped along.

The service ended days of remembrance for Lewis, who spent more than three decades in Congress representing most of his adopted home of Atlanta. In addition to the U.S. Capitol, his body lay in the Georgia and Alabama Capitol buildings, and events also were held in the Alabama cities of Troy, Lewis’ hometown, and Selma.

To the many tributes Thursday, Lewis managed to add his own words. His essay in The New York Times recalled the teachings of King:

“He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice,” Lewis wrote. “He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.”

“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way,” he wrote. “Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

Former President Bill Clinton referenced the essay during his remarks: “It is so fitting on the day of his service, he leaves us his marching orders: Keep moving.”

Statewide mask order spurs relief, disappointment

A Wisconsin-wide mask mandate issued by Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday prompted support from Eau Claire health and government officials and drew mixed reactions from local legislators.

The statewide order, which comes amid a spike in coronavirus cases, is reassuring to health department and city leaders, who said Thursday that they welcomed a statewide mandate rather than considering piecing together local mask policies.

A statewide policy, rather than cities and counties making individual decisions, “makes it less confusing for all of us as citizens of this state,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

“I see that use of cloth face masks in public, indoor settings is an important strategy … by definition I don’t believe a local response for something like this is really the best way to go, if we have this issue across the state, which we do,” Giese said at a Thursday news conference.

Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters also expressed support for the new order: “We’re pleased that there is state leadership and direction on this important technique for combating the spread of COVID-19.”

City of Eau Claire leaders were slated to discuss a policy in August about the use of face masks in public. Peters said Thursday that, for now, the city will analyze the statewide order: “We’re going to be reviewing the next steps for implementing it at a local level.”

The new mandate “will help protect the capacity of our health care system and our health departments to adequately respond to people that contract the disease,” Peters added.

Evers, a Democrat, declared a new public health emergency, after his initial one expired in May, and ordered the wearing of masks for anyone age 5 and up starting on Saturday for all enclosed spaces except a person’s home. The new order also applies to outdoor bars and restaurants, except when people are eating or drinking.

Anyone who violates the order would be subject to a $200 fine. It is slated to run until Sept. 28.

The statewide mandate sets up a conflict with Republican legislative leaders who oppose such a requirement and successfully sued earlier to kill Evers’ safer-at-home order.

Eau Claire County added 14 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, with 407 of the county’s 462 total cases recovered.

Though the county’s new cases each day “have plateaued a bit,” the county is still considered at a high level of COVID-19 activity, Giese said, noting that the county has seen a 112% increase in cases between June 1 and July 29, and an 87% increase between July 1 and July 29.

The mask mandate will lower state residents’ risk of contracting COVID-19, and “increases the likelihood we won’t be in a situation where we have to further limit what we do as a population,” Giese said.

Giese did not specify if the Eau Claire City-County Health Department will be involved in enforcing the statewide order, but noted that the department’s goal is “education first.”

“We will be working closely with law enforcement partners like we’ve done all along throughout the pandemic … we’re confident they will work together,” Giese said.

At least one northern Wisconsin law enforcement agency has said it won’t enforce the mandate. The Washburn County Sheriff’s Office Thursday afternoon announced in a Facebook post that it wouldn’t enforce Evers’ order, calling the order a violation of the first and eighth amendments.

Order comes as virus cases spike

The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court in May tossed out an order from Evers’ health secretary closing most nonessential businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Evers has repeatedly cited that ruling as a reason for his reluctance to join 32 other states that have mask mandates. However, the May ruling determined that the state health secretary overstepped her authority with the safer-at-home order; the court did not address the governor’s power to issue public health emergencies.

The state’s high court was controlled 5-2 by conservatives when it struck down the earlier order on a split 4-3 decision. But on Saturday when the mask order takes effect, Justice-elect Jill Karofsky joins the court, narrowing the conservative majority to 4-3 and increasing the odds of the order surviving a legal challenge.

Republican legislative leaders brought the earlier lawsuit. While they oppose a mask mandate, they have stopped short of saying whether they would sue if Evers enacted one.

Two Chippewa Valley legislators disagreed on the mandate’s effectiveness.

State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said Thursday she disagreed with Evers’ statewide mandate, saying she supported state residents’ “constitutional right” to decide whether or not to wear a mask.

“For this directive to come down from the governor at this moment in time makes all of us scratch our heads,” Bernier said Thursday.

State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said a statewide mask order is “what we need now to reverse the alarming recent trends in cases and deaths.”

“Thanks to Governor Evers’ leadership, our current patchwork of various local policies will be replaced by a uniform statewide standard based on the best available science,” Emerson said in a statement Thursday.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement he expects citizen groups to challenge the order, condemning a “one-size-fits-all mandate” and questioning the legality of Evers’ move.

Absent a statewide mask order, cities and counties across the state have been taking action on their own. Milwaukee and Dane counties, with Wisconsin’s largest cities of Milwaukee and Madison, were the first to make masks mandatory. Numerous other cities, including Green Bay, Racine, Superior and Whitewater, have followed suit. Appleton this week recommended people to wear masks but did not mandate it.

Evers’ order doesn’t pre-empt local governments from enacting even stricter ordinances.

Evers had been under pressure from local governments, and even some Democrats, to issue a statewide order. State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, started a petition for a statewide mandate.

Marshfield Clinic Health System also praised the policy, saying in a statement Thursday that face coverings and social distancing are “proven steps to decrease exposure.”

Wisconsin has had more than 51,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus and 911 deaths as of Wednesday. That death count is the 28th-highest in the country overall and the 35th highest per capita at nearly 16 deaths per 100,000 people. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has gone up by 90, an increase of more than 11%.

The virus, although still heavily concentrated in urban areas, also is spreading to more rural counties that had largely been immune from the coronavirus pandemic.