On March 17, Governor Roy Cooper ordered restaurants and bars in North Carolina to close as a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak. A few restaurants, like St. Roch, remained open for takeout only, but otherwise the city has been a vacant ghost town. May 22 marked the beginning of Phase 2, where restaurants dusted off tables in dining rooms to reopen with capacity restrictions. Three days later, on May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Protests began nationwide as a cry out for police accountability and justice. Groups began protesting downtown Raleigh on May 30 to demand change but quickly escalated with the police deploying tear gas later in the evening. Many businesses, including restaurants that had just reopened, were vandalized, ransacked, and set afire.
Within 48 hours of downtown Raleigh’s first protest, murals, and artwork began popping up everywhere. The Raleigh Murals Project, along with chef Jeffrey Seizer of Royale and VAE Raleigh, a non-profit arts organization, wanted to create a platform to raise awareness in regards to the issues that led to protesting by way of art. “Saturday into Sunday we got pretty crushed,” Seizer says. “What happened to our restaurant is fine — I’m not sad; I’m not angry,” he adds. “We need to focus on art — Raleigh is a blank canvas for people to express their opinions,” he says. By June 3, over $4,000 had been raised with funds going towards art supplies and commissioning artists, for any downtown businesses interested.
Garland’s mural was planned on June 1 and brought to life on June 2, internally by employees, with the help of lead artist, Julio Sanchez, a bartender at Neptunes, who planned the layout and execution of the more nuanced parts. “We were all in a different headspace than now, almost a week later,” says Cheetie Kumar, current James Beard finalist for Best Chef: Southeast and owner of Garland. “I think our immediate thought was to act out of a place of love and solidarity,” adds Kumar. “We wanted to get our people together and give them the opportunity — if they wanted to — to just have a forum to reflect in a non-verbal way.”
Kumar notes that the team spending time together — painting colorful images of protest, a few feet apart — for the first time since shutting down in March during COVID-19, was a positive experience. “Even when we do produce and food pickups, we encouraged people to not linger — just pick up and go,” she says. “This was a good, silent group, relatively safe activity.”
At A Place at the Table, Raleigh’s pay-what-you-can restaurant, owner Maggie Kane immediately decided to turn to art to ensure her customers knew she was up and running. “Thanks to our volunteers, we painted the boards white in order to pop and used bright color spray paint to pop the crucial words, ‘All are welcome, Black Lives Matter, and pay-what-you-can,’” Kane says. “We want everyone to know that although we have boards up and folks can’t come in, they still have a place at our table.”
Boarding up was a given, especially for businesses with already broken windows, but as Kumar notes, it quickly became “symbolic” and “allegorical.” The community, not knowing how to feel or what to say, came together to speak out through political art. “We knew it was a week to stop everything — to take the focus away from business, commerce, self-promotion, etc.,” says Kumar. “All the boards put up downtown started to reflect a new beginning, where we all kind of had the same starting place — a literal blank slate (note: not a clean slate) and opportunity to do better from here on out.”
State of Beer’s boards were painted by employees, coordinated by Sorena, one of the longest term team members. “We wanted to show our support for the movement and as a business rooted downtown, we felt it was our duty to help amplify the message,” says State of Beer’s co-owner, Chris Powers. At Centro, a cantina style spot with Mexican fare and craft cocktail, staff gathered safely to paint a tribute to George Floyd and a message to his daughter, Gianna — with original artwork by Palestinian American artist Shirien Damra.
While broken glass can be repaired, the real work lies ahead. “This movement isn’t just about small changes, as important as those are,” says Kumar. “It’s really time for some major shifts in our country,” she adds. “That starts with acknowledgement of the importance of investing in public health, community building, local food-systems, abolishing food apartheid and investment in underserved neighborhoods,” she says, stressing the importance of taking a close look at local budgets and see where our tax dollars go.
“Political art is a great first step — it’s a commentary of the current climate, intentions, etc., but it’s interesting to me that these boards are temporary” she says. “We stated our intentions but it’s time to take the boards down and get to work and put our money where our paintbrush is!”
• At One Raleigh Restaurant, Owner Remains the Only Employee Left Standing [ECAR]
• The Raleigh Murals Project [Official]
• Royale [Instagram]
• VAE Raleigh [Official]
• Garland [Official]
• Neptunes [Official]
• A Place at the Table [Official]
• State of Beer [Official]
• Centro [Official]