Here’s why the SLC murals of people killed by police likely will have to go

Losing the artwork at the Fleet Block, one relative lamented, “would be like losing our loved ones all over again.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The large murals on the Fleet Block along 300 West and 800 South in Salt Lake City, are pictured on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. The city doesn't think it will be able to preserve the murals that were painted during the protests of 2020 and became a healing space for families affected by police violence.

One by one, their portraits went up. George Floyd, Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, Breonna Taylor, Bobby Ray Duckworth, Zane James and on and on and on.

Now, it appears, those pink-and-red murals will be coming down, not because the social justice cause their creators espoused has been fully achieved but because the block that serves as their canvas is destined for development.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall, whose administration is pursuing the city’s long-held desire to revitalize what it calls the Fleet Block, doubts the wall art can be saved.

The building that’s home to the murals, her office said, simply is not safe.

After Floyd’s murder in 2020 sparked demonstrations nationwide, the faces at 300 West and 800 South became a memorial to the bloody toll of police shootings and police violence in Utah, a rallying spot for protesters and a place for families to grieve the loss of loved ones.

But as it sits, Mendenhall said, the city-owned land that used to serve as a maintenance and storage facility for the city’s fleet doesn’t offer much room to congregate.

“There’s not a gathering space,” she said, “the way that we hope to see real gathering space created in the future Fleet Block development.”

[Read more about whose faces appear in the murals and how they died.]

Because the events of 2020 shifted the significance of the site, transforming it from a blighted cluster of buildings to a symbol for social justice, the mayor’s office is focusing on creating an inclusive and equitable development in the budding Granary District.

Although the city has no immediate plans to raze the buildings, and an official request for redevelopment proposals remains months away, families of those depicted in the murals expressed a blend of hurt, disappointment, dismay and distress over the prospect of losing the memorial as it is.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A vigil marking the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd at the murals, Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

One of those relatives, Black Lives Matter Utah leader Rae Duckworth, said she is disappointed but not surprised that saving the murals is not in the city’s plans.

Getting rid of them, she said, is a choice.

She believes it is possible to preserve the murals, the building and the block. “But I understand that, unfortunately, Salt Lake City does function with profit in mind over people.”

Duckworth, whose cousin Bobby Ray Duckworth was shot and killed by a Wellington police officer in 2019, said the families who responded to the city’s outreach efforts want to save the block. It’s a meeting place in the middle of everything, a healing space where people who have lost loved ones can comfort one another.

“It’s a different bond of connection there,” she said. “It’s very healing, though, because you never want to feel alone when you have something big alter your life.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rae Duckworth, center, the leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, shown in April 2021, is disappointed the Fleet Block's murals may not be saved when redevelopment begins.

The paintings represent not only those who have been killed but also what needs to change for a better future, one family member wrote in a draft letter to city officials.

“Losing the murals, our place of serenity,” the relative lamented, “would be like losing our loved ones all over again.”

City has long desired redevelopment

Mendenhall discussed redeveloping the site before the murals appeared, and the city has expressed interest in revitalizing the area in the decade before that.

The mayor said her administration is taking unprecedented steps to ensure the community is included in conversations about the future of the Fleet Block.

Part of that undertaking started last summer, when her office launched a monthslong outreach effort to families of those depicted in the murals.

“We have never done this depth of work, or even this type of work,” Mendenhall said, “as we’ve done with the Fleet Block.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said her administration is taking unprecedented steps to ensure the community is included in conversations about the future of the Fleet Block.

Ashley Cleveland, the mayor’s deputy director of community outreach, began connecting with family members in August. In October, several relatives of those whose faces appear on the Fleet Block participated in bimonthly meetings that included grief counseling, art healing sessions and talks about the future of the property.

The intent, Cleveland said, was to preserve the story of the murals in some form when the block is finally redeveloped. It culminated in a formal recommendation letter from the families to the mayor, outlining what they would like to see in the new iteration of the Fleet Block.

Cleveland — who, as a Black woman, also has found healing from the murals — said family members want their loved ones’ faces and stories to continue in whatever the new space is. And, she said, they don’t want those images displayed on a commercial building.

“If you lost a loved one, and it was a very traumatic experience for you,” Cleveland said, “would you like their face to be placed on some trendy taco restaurant? Or would that be offensive to you?”

Continuing the call for social change

According to a draft of the recommendation letter, the family members who participated suggested the city consider creating a resource center that includes the murals; “say their name” days of remembrance; streetlight banners that depict the faces; a community garden named in their honor; memorial art or statues; a memorial plaza; lighting; and plaques.

“Most importantly,” the group wrote, “we are looking for a space or means for our family members to grieve and for their memories to live on and to further social justice issues in our community.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tiffany James kisses daughter Ruby, 7, as they visit the portrait of their son and brother Zane James who was killed by Cottonwood Heights police in 2018 in August 2021. James, who works in development, said there are options for preserving the murals, including relocation possibilities.

Among those whose names appear on the letter was Tiffany James. Her son, Zane, was killed in 2018 by a Cottonwood Heights police officer.

James, who works in development for a living, said there are options for preserving the murals, including relocation possibilities.

She said she felt the redevelopment of the block was already predetermined when the outreach efforts began and that her family members never got the impression their input would be taken seriously.

“For us, it was about the issue that the murals represented and getting a voice to that,” she said. “That’s what the city should have been doing.”

And what they represent, she said, is a cry for change in the way lethal force is used in Utah.

Mendenhall’s office noted the mayor issued reforms in the wake of the 2020 protests, which the administration says have reduced the instances when force has been necessary in the city.

Police now face new requirements such as needing to use de-escalation techniques before making an arrest; having to submit to two levels of internal review when force is used; a ban on lethal force if trying to prevent people from hurting themselves; discipline for intentional or negligent failure to activate a body camera; new rules for obtaining consent to conduct searches without a warrant; and new responsibilities to intervene if they see another officer use excessive force.

After Floyd’s death, the City Council and Mendenhall formed the Commission on Racial Equity in Policing. Last year, emergency responders received additional training to learn how to better interact with those who have sensory needs.

In the upcoming fiscal year, the administration wants to create a new civilian response team for the police and hire an outreach and recruitment coordinator who will focus on underrepresented communities.

Why the property is unsafe

The issue of preserving the murals and memorializing the victims, Cleveland said, is not about a lack of desire. It’s about the condition of the building, riddled with asbestos, and the contamination beneath it. Cleanup of the land, the city has said, could cost as much as $2 million.

From the families’ perspective, Cleveland said, if the city replicates the memorial with better materials, it would last longer.

“We shouldn’t hand over a memorial made out of material that won’t stand the test of time because that’s not what we want,” Cleveland said. “We don’t want this conversation to fade. They don’t want their family members to deteriorate.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The city is pursuing a redevelopment process that emphasizes inclusion and community feedback on what the new space will become.

Though Ruby Mercado, whose brother, Jovany, was killed by Ogden police in 2019, isn’t convinced that the city would like to keep the murals, she nonetheless lauded the outreach, even if therapy isn’t enough to overcome the grief.

The Fleet Block, she said, is beautiful as it is, but she acknowledges the safety issues may force the city’s hand on tearing down the walls that hold the artwork up.

Mercado said she wants to see the faces painted again, just as visible as they are today.

“Then,” she said, " it’s like we never lost anything.”

In January, the 8.75 acres of city-owned property was valued at $37.5 million, assuming the parcel is cleaned.

The city is pursuing a redevelopment process that emphasizes inclusion and community feedback on what the space will become.

This month, Mendenhall requested putting an $80 million bond on Salt Lake City ballots in November to help cover the cost of a long-range public lands plan that includes $5 million for open-space upgrades at the Fleet Block.