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Chalk it up to love: help transform hate on Metra wall at Madison and Custer

Soon after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May, congregants at Reba Place Church painted "Black Lives Matter" on a large piece of fabric and hung it outside the church. On Wednesday, Reba Place Church office manager Courtney Coates and others arrived at their building to see "BLM is terrorism" painted in large white graffiti on the wall of the Metra viaduct right next to the church, which stands at 620 Madison Street.

Coates said she simply couldn't leave the message there.

"I'm the office manager," she told me. "I had to do something."

So she grabbed a piece of chalk and "edited" the graffiti, cleverly changing 'terrorism' to 'terrific.'

In the meantime, many Evanston residents were calling the church and 9th ward Alderwoman Cicely Fleming, in whose ward the church is located, offering to paint over the message of hate. Church staff also reported the graffiti to the City, which would have painted over it in short order.

But Fleming had another idea: use the graffiti as a reminder that's it's not that easy to deal with racism. After discussing it with Reba Place Church Pastor Charlotte Lehman, they decided the graffiti should stay up but that Church members and residents should be encouraged to turn the message of hate into one of inclusion.

Black folks, Fleming said, can’t just ‘remove’ the racist actions they encounter daily. "So why should we make non-Black people more comfortable by removing this graffiti?"

It’s easy, Fleming told me, to ignore the racism that exists in our city, to cite the diversity stats from our schools, say 'hello' to Black neighbors, and stick a sign in your yard.

"What's hard," she said, "is to examine the role you play in the role oppression, to think about the ways your benefit from diverse spaces while other are being suffocated."

Soon, Fleming and Pastor Lehman posted on Facebook and sent emails out to neighbors and constituents encouraging them to stop by the Metra wall to "help take something ugly and make it into something beautiful," by chalking messages and artwork of love, equity, and unity. They asked the City for a week or so before painting over the graffiti. That would give neighbors a chance, Lehman said in a Facebook post, to "acknowledge the pollution of racism affecting us all, and to transform it with our community chalk art." 

Lehman requested that no-one take it upon themselves to paint over the message, but, she asked, "Please pray for the transformation of whoever wrote these awful statements, and for the ongoing work of justice in our neighborhood and nation."

Many residents came out to beautify the wall, but with the recent rain, much of the chalk has washed away, leaving the original message of hate. So Lehmann and Fleming ask that Evanstonians stop by today and over the next few days to re-chalk positive messages on the wall. Chalk is available at the site and residents are encouraged to bring their own supplies as well (as long as they're temporary).

There's talk, Courtney Coates told me, of getting approval from Metra to paint a permanent mural on the wall, but that process will take months.

In the meantime, head down to the corner of Madison and Custer and add your artwork to the wall.

"This is just a symbolic action," Fleming acknowledges, "but hopefully it’s another small step towards building the city we often claim we already have.”

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