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‘Opening Up a Can of Worms’: New Jersey Mural with Raised Fist Painted Over After Local Official and Residents Argue It’s Too Political, Want Something That ‘Promotes Happiness’ Instead

A New Jersey mural featuring a Black raised fist was partially painted over after a local official objected to the symbolism.

The “Raise Your Voice” mural was painted on the Garden State Parkway underpass in Passaic County last week by a group of 15 young people who had obtained permission from city officials before painting. The mural features several hands forming the shape of hearts, and was intended to feature several fists in different skin tones as well. But after a dark-skinned fist was painted on the mural, City Manager Dominick Villano expressed reservations.

“When we start making political statements, we’re opening up a can of worms,” Villano told NJ Advance Media on Tuesday. “This is public property. We have to tread lightly.”

The group was told to repaint the section of the underpass, and a white rectangle painted by the city now covers the fist. News 12 reported that a passerby saw the mural and complained to city hall that it was too political.

“Instead of a fist I thought it was better (to see) something that promotes peace, happiness or love,” Villano explained.

Villano said the space where the rectangle is will be filled in with something else, but 19-year-old May Yuasa, who led the project, said she hasn’t been contacted about repainting it. News 12 reported this week that the city manager said Yuasa agreed to change the fist to a more neutral symbol like a peace sign, but when she left a fist remaining, city covered the fist with a rectangle

“It’s beautiful work,” said Villano of the mural. “Anything inappropriate or politically related just doesn’t belong there.”

Yuasa, a graduate of Clifton High School and sophomore at Cornell University explained, “I think art inspires people and it inspires me too. So I wanted to paint something nice for the community during my summer break.”

After the fist was added, members of the group say they were subjected to harassment. “We received a lot of verbal harassment — some aggressive pushback,” said volunteer Andrea Dubbels. “People were treating us very disrespectfully and in a demeaning manner and acting like we were ignorant.”

Villano initially told that the mural is staying up as of now, although the fist remains covered by the rectangle, adding, “The state owns the bridge. They can do what they want.”

But he later told the South Passaic Daily Voice, “This issue is now moot because I’ve just been instructed by the NJ Turnpike/GS Parkway Authority to remove all murals off all of their properties.”

According to Yuasa, “The fist that I painted represents all of us regardless of race or ethnicity, it’s to show strength and unity and empowerment.”

On social media, dozens of community members have expressed their support for the mural and for the artists who painted it.

“I’m really sorry to hear that there have been ignorant adults actually harassing you over this gorgeous mural. You did a beautiful job,” wrote Tova A. Felder, administrator of the Clifton News and Community group chat on Facebook.

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