Middletown mural to support Black Lives Matter on business plywood

When John Hutton, a downtown Middletown business owner, heard Black Lives Matter protests were going to be held near his building and protesters could turn violent, he put plywood over his storefront windows.

But the protests were peaceful, and now those pieces of wood serve as canvases for portraits of Black people who have been killed by police.

At first, the sheets of plywood were covered with “I Can’t Breathe” sheets of paper in memory of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who died on Memorial Day while in Minneapolis police custody. Sue Wittman, owner of Artique inside the Pendleton Art Center, had BLM protesters write messages on the papers, then stapled them to the wood.

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But Hutton, owner of Tritech Light and Sound, wanted a more powerful message, Wittman said.

While attending a protest that was organized by Middletown High School students, Wittman was introduced to Ashli Szymanski, 35, a 2003 Middletown High School and Butler Tech graduate. Szymanski had lived in Orlando, Fla. for 10 years and owned and operated a make-up company.

Szymanski, who moved back to Middletown last year, told Wittman she was interested in working on the Black Lives Matter mural project. For the last several weeks, Szymanski has sat on a folding chair and painted portraits of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain and Floyd, and on Monday night, outlined two more of Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland.

Szymanski hopes the paintings provide “a place for people to feel connected” to the subjects.

“Instead of just hearing their names all the time, this is a visual representation all the time,” she said.

Above the portraits are the phrases “Middletown Black Lives Matter,” “Unity Loves Equality,” “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” and “8:46,” representing the time a police officer allegedly placed his knee on Floyd’s neck.

Wittman thought she was educated about racial injustice, but after Floyd’s death, she read books and watched movies on the subject, she said.

Since her business is located across the street from the mural it’s a daily reminder, she said.

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“It gives me hope that the more people know, the more enraged they will be and more things will change,” Wittman said.

Besides painting the portraits, Szymanski has joined others in holding twice-a-week events to “bridge the divide in our community,” she said. The Middletown Black Lives Matter group, led by Darren Davis Jr. and Szymanski, has hosted pizza parties, barbecues and a cookout is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at Douglas Park. Vigils and skating parties also are planned.

Her goal is simple, she said.

“I want Black people to be able to exist and not be in fear,” she said Monday night while painting a portrait of McClain. “If they’re stopped by police, they should not be afraid of an altercation.”

Growing up, Szymanski said “the talk” with her parents was about “the birds and the bees.” But for young Black people, she said, “the talk” is about the dangers associated with police brutality and racial injustices.

“That’s just really sad to me,” she said.

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