A simple suburban fence in Minnesota that has become a local attraction and a symbol of the battle for equality – but has also drawn critics – is now at the center of a row with the authorities.
Ryan Weyandt and his husband, Michael Hainlin, keep bumping up against deadlines to obey a city order to paint over the vivid statement adorning their fence declaring that Black Lives Matter.
The message has endured outside their house in West t Paul, with block capital letters about 6ft high, since not long after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed by a white police officer just a few miles away in Minneapolis last May.
The timing of the row is especially sensitive as the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin, charged with murdering Floyd, approaches its conclusion.
The entire Minneapolis-St Paul region was already on edge as a result, and tension was only heightened earlier this week by the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, by a white police officer in Brooklyn Center on the outskirts of Minneapolis.
For months, the couple’s fence has been a magnet for people to drop off flowers, leave balloons or just swing by to take pictures or to thank them, in what has largely been a positive public response, Weyandt, a realtor, said.
“We didn’t want to stir a pot, it wasn’t about angering neighbors or aggravating anyone or trying to get under anyone’s skin,” Weyandt told the Guardian.
“We put this up so we could provoke at least one conversation and help someone get to a different thought level,” he added.
The mural also pays homage to the Black LGBTQ+ population, with the word “lives’’ painted with rainbow colors, especially to represent Black LGBTQ+ people who have been attacked and killed in the US, Weyandt said.
And last fall, Weyandt told the West St Paul Reader: “We feel that it’s our responsibility to lend voice and further legitimacy to our Black and brown brothers and sisters who are literally being murdered in broad daylight, in the middle of the street, in the center of the busiest cities, across America.”
However the authorities of West St Paul had other ideas. After the fence message had been up for almost five months, the city sent Weyandt a letter stating that it violated ordinances, or local laws.
“The ordinance Ryan’s fence violates isn’t one about signs; the ordinance is about fences,” said West St Paul city council member Wendy Berry last week.
The fence ordinance prohibits fences from being more than one color or containing images or letters.
However, communications Weyandt originally received from the authorities in late November stated that he was in violation of different city laws.
These included one known as the non-commercial signs ordinance, which effectively bars public displays of messages that can be interpreted as political, unless it’s within a specified election cycle, and the signs ordinance which bars signs from being attached to fences.
In a mind-boggling train of events, Weyandt explained that he only recently learned that he was also in violation of the fence ordinance.
The city previously told Weyandt that he had to remove the mural by 11 December, but then gave him an extension due to winter weather conditions in Minnesota.
“Because it was November and it was cold, we didn’t expect them to try to repaint that fence in the cold,” Mayor Dave Napier of West St Paul told the Guardian, adding: “We allowed them until April 15 to remove their sign.”
Since 2017, Weyandt said he and Hainlin have put multiple signs on their fence for long periods without penalty, although they had not painted a mural on the fence before.
“At no point in time prior to the Black Lives Matter verbiage had I received anything from the city,” Weyandt said, adding: “It wasn’t until this particular message came up that they decided to take action.”
Discussions swirl within the city council regarding updating or removing the ordinances.
“The apparent consensus has been to stick with the current sign ordinance,” West St Paul city manager Ryan Schroeder said, adding: “I’m told we have received multiple complaints about the sign.”
But Lisa Eng-Sarne, another city council member, spoke in favor of relaxing the relevant ordinances at the last meeting and said she doesn’t want to ban art from signs.
There have been some direct negative reactions.
The couple have been flipped off and threatened and have endured homophobic comments, Weyandt said.
“We actually left the house for five days … and went to my in-laws. We were afraid that the house was going to get set on fire in the middle of the night and we’d die in the house,” he said.
Council member Dick Vitelli emailed Weyandt to suggest the couple have the mural on the inside instead of the outside of the fence, saying: “You will be in compliance with our ordinance and more importantly you won’t be driving a wedge into our West St Paul community. But it seems like you are having more fun breaking the law and causing chaos.”
The city most recently said the mural had to go by 15 April and the couple has been considering painting the fence black when the weather improves. Meantime, they face a penalty and Weyandt said he was “OK paying some form of fine for the right of expression”.
Then in a twist earlier this month, West St Paul’s Republican former mayor, David Meisinger, painted on his fence two blocks away “Blue Lives Matter”, the pro-police slogan that emerged as a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Both ultimately face removal but not before a battle of the murals plays out amid simmering tension.