There is a dumpster in Bethel that is generating a lot of conversation. Right next to city hall is a dumpster with “Black Lives Matter” painted boldly on the front. Last week, someone took a can of spray paint and crossed out those words.
Bethel’s dumpsters are usually painted by children in summer art camps. This year, because of COVID-19, those camps were canceled. Margaret Hannah, an art teacher at the high school, decided to open up the project to anyone in the community, and she provided few rules on what could go on the dumpsters.
“This is my first community art project,” Hannah said. “I did say no profanity, but I didn't say no politics."
When the city’s landfill manager saw the finished dumpsters, he sent an email to the city manager that read, “All of them are pretty positive, however one of them is real political and I need your advice as to whether it should be painted over or left as is?” He was referring to the Black Lives Matter dumpster.
Then-city manager Vincenzo “Vinny” Corazza acknowledged that it was a sticky situation that could attract protest no matter what the city decided to do. In the end, he directed the landfill manager to treat the Black Lives Matter dumpster the same as any other. It ended up right next to the police station, where police chief Richard Simmons watched it get unloaded.
“And we started laughing because we're like, 'oh, they didn't mean to put that here,'” Simmons said.
It didn’t stay there for long. Corazza said that he had conversations with Simmons about the dumpster, after which he decided to move it.
“They did not ask it to be removed, but I got the sense that it needed to be removed,” Corazza said.
Simmons said that neither he nor the police department opposed the Black Lives Matter message on the
dumpster. He said that his concern was more that, because the police station is isolated away from the rest of town, no one would see it.
“It wasn't going to stay here when I saw it, because it's not the place where it should be,” Simmons said. “It needs to be out where it’s seen.”
When asked whether he supports the Black Lives Matter movement, Simmons said that it wasn’t his place to take a public position.
“Our official policy in the police department is neutrality, and fairness, and trying to be just for everybody,” Simmons said.
Taking the police chief’s advice to display the artwork more prominently, Corazza decided to move the dumpster right next to city hall.
“Usually city halls and council chambers are your public forum where people can redress government,” Corazza said. “And so this will be sitting right at city hall. I thought it was very appropriate to have it here, an exercise of free speech.”
Not everyone liked the new location. Several community members wrote to the city manager asking for it to be painted over. One email read “I am offended that such a dumpster exists... The nature of that dumpster promotes negativity and hate.”
Then, last week, someone crossed out the words Black Lives Matter with spray paint. The city got in touch with Madelene Reichard, one of the community artists who had decorated the dumpster. She went and repainted it.
“Are we disappointed? Sure. But we will repaint it 1,000 times if we have to, because it's a message that we believe in,” Reichard said. “I think that we can all agree that we shouldn't be just killing people, especially not based off of skin color.”
Pictures of the vandalism and the restoration were posted to Facebook, where they quickly garnered hundreds of comments from community members.
Initially, the art teacher said that she regretted not setting stricter rules for what should decorate the dumpsters, but now she’s changed her mind.
“I do not regret it. I am glad that this dumpster was painted, and I’m glad that these conversations are happening,” Hannah said. “I think that the more conversations that we have, the better chance we have of dealing with the racism that still exists.”
As of now, the dumpster is back next to the city offices. Black Lives Matter remains the message.