‘Power to the People’: Detroit Students Preserve This Moment in Paint

DETROIT — Rochelle Riley knows her city probably won’t look the same after this moment of uprising — and she wants to make sure of it.

“This is permanent, it’s not just for a holiday or an action this week,” Ms. Riley, the director of Detroit’s art and culture department, said Wednesday morning as she looked up Woodward Avenue while a crew of more than 30 artists and students maneuvered paint rollers over pavement. They were creating a huge mural on the street, a white-and-black message that read “Power to the People,” with the center of the “o” in the word “Power” represented by a raised fist. “And we’re looking to do more around the city,” Ms. Riley added.

As people nationwide come together to protest police brutality and racial injustice, their counterparts in Detroit wanted to say, in a big and bold way, that this period of civil unrest was different.

In Washington, “Black Lives Matter” has been painted in huge yellow letters on 16th Street near the White House. Other cities have added their own versions: “End Racism Now” in Raleigh, N.C.; “Black Austin Matters” in Austin, Texas. In Flint, Mich., activists, students and artists from the Flint Public Art Project helped the city become the first in the state to invest in street art, using funding from the city’s Community Foundation to paint “Black Lives Matter” in big white letters on a block of Martin Luther King Avenue leading into town.

“The message for us was just unity,” said Joe Schipani, the executive director of the Flint Art Project. “The community always comes together to support everybody. That’s just what Flint does.”

In Detroit, officials sponsored a contest, soliciting artists to come up with a mural suited to the city’s population and history. Thirty-five artists submitted proposals, and a group of students from Detroit schools voted on their favorite. The students then showed up to help paint the mural on Woodward, the main thoroughfare that starts at the Detroit River and runs through the city and its northern suburbs.

Jaanaki Radhakrishnan, 15, works at the Detroit Institute of Arts during the summer and was one of the 30 high school students who picked up paint rollers and gingerly filled in the letters marked out in blue painter’s tape. She said she thought the political climate demanded that the government take action.

“A lot of the times, it really doesn’t feel like the government or the police are there to serve us,” she said. “And this is an important message to remind us and our government that we, as the people, hold all the power.”

The mural — whose $10,000 to $12,000 cost was picked up by a coalition of nonprofit groups and local businesses — seemed to her almost a promise to the people of Detroit.

Hubert Massey, the winner of the mural contest and an acclaimed artist who has public art installations across the city, agreed, saying the mural represented a pledge by Detroiters to keep up the fight for social justice and equality.

“This is Detroit, and to me it represents the city wholeheartedly,” he said. “We went through the ’67 riots and this resonates for the people here.”

In those 1967 clashes, incited by the police’s treatment of black people, 43 people died and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed. “We’re still internalizing Black Lives Matter,” Mr. Massey said, “but it’s power to the people that is giving people strength and hope and inspiring change.”

Mr. Massey, a lifelong Detroiter who was 9 when the riots roiled the city, said there was never a question that this would be the message he would submit. It came to him quickly: Artists had only a couple of days to submit their plans, and he recalled the John Lennon song, recorded in the years after the riots as an anthem of empowerment and protest.

It fits in well with the rest of his murals, frescos, mosaics and sculptures in the city, which represent the diversity, culture and history of Detroit.

Sirrita Darby, 28, the executive director of the youth activist group Detroit Heals Detroit, brought 10 teenagers to help with the project. She wanted them to contribute to a lasting piece of art.

“We’ve been to so many protests, and this is just a different form of protest,” she said. “We thought that Detroit is one of the blackest cities in America, so we should be next” to get a street mural, Ms. Darby added. “I asked the city how long this would be here, and they said it could be years. This reminds people of what they need to do to be a part of the movement.”

Public art has been growing in the city since Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat, transitioned from aggressively ticketing, and even arresting, some graffiti artists to encouraging them to create murals on buildings.

“It’s been a very positive initiative and a great expression of our community,” Mr. Duggan said of the murals that continue to sprout up around the city.

This moment of unrest and reckoning is changing the Detroit landscape in more ways than the Woodward Avenue mural. Ms. Riley, the city art and culture director, wants to paint more of them. And on Monday, Mr. Duggan ordered a bust of Christopher Columbus, which has been outside City Hall for 110 years, removed and put into storage.

“I’ve been bothered for a while that the statue has occupied such a place of prominence,” the mayor said. “We should have a conversation as a community as to what is the appropriate place for such a statue.”