Vandals and volunteers restore the Black Lives Matter mural in Santa Cruz
On the sunny Saturday morning of June 24, more than three hundred people gathered in front of Santa Cruz City Hall. Upbeat music played through speakers as volunteers of all ages pushed paint rollers across Center Street and got on their hands and knees to carefully outline large construction-yellow letters that spelled out three words: Black Lives Matter.
At first glance, the event looked like a simple, joyful celebration of community. But emotions were more complex for many of the participants, who have spent over a year dealing with the aftermath of a public hate crime.
The Black Lives Matter mural was originally conceptualized by artist Abi Mustapha in 2020. She and co-founders at the Santa Cruz Equity Collaboration worked with the city to secure permits before organizing more than 500 volunteers to paint in September of 2020.
In July of 2021, less than a year after the mural’s creation, Brandon Bochat and Hagan Warner filmed themselves burning black tire marks over the letters while laughing and making racist comments.
A new path to justice
The two men, 20 and 19 years old respectively at the time of the vandalism, were ordered to pay more than $19,000 in restitution and sentenced to two years probation and 144 hours of community service. Bochat and Warner were given the opportunity to participate in a restorative justice process, which includes dialogue sessions with the community and helping restore the mural.
The men could have faced jail time for the hate crime, but artist Abi Mustapha says locking people away feels like a waste.
“It doesn’t help anybody. It costs a lot of money. It costs a lot of anger and time, and the idea of just putting somebody out of sight doesn’t change what actually happens,” she said during a panel of community members at the event.
“It’s a very organic system that comes out of the voice of the people who’ve been impacted and harmed,” said Restorative Justice Program Director Alaya Vautier during the panel.
Warner was the first to attend a dialogue session. Before the conversation, the CRC held a community meeting for people to share what they wanted the two men to know. They collected those comments in a 22-page document that would later be delivered to Warner, and read some of the comments aloud during the dialogue.
The mural’s defacement triggered deep wounds around a sense of belonging many in the Black community, explained panel members. And while the community considered restorative justice better than jail in the long run, the process took an emotional toll.
“I definitely understand the idea of restorative justice, and throughout this process, the hurt made it hard for me to accept going through that,” said Chris Davis, the co-founder of Santa Cruz Black and a local business owner, during the panel. “The community dialogue we had — I didn’t know if I wanted to be there.”
Although Davis did not initially want to meet Warner or Bochat, he said he eventually felt Warner’s genuine remorse.
A few of the panel members spoke directly to Warner, who sat in a small row of chairs before them, and Bochat, who stood towards the back of the crowd.
Making eye contact with Warner, NAACP Santa Cruz County Branch President Elaine Johnson said, “I will tell you again: I forgive you, because if I don’t forgive you, it ain’t keeping you up at night; it’s keeping me up at night.”
Johnson told the crowd she had invited Warner to come to Juneteenth to learn about the culture, and he had shown up. When the panel later dispersed, she gave him a hug.
As the community members left their seats, Warner and Bochat walked up to the microphone and read public apologies.
“I regret my actions. I will do everything I can to make things right,” read part of Warner’s statement. He thanked the people who attended the dialogue on June 4.
“I want to deeply apologize for vandalizing the mural and apologize for the way I may have made you feel unsafe or in danger in your own community,” read part of Bochat’s statement.
Third District Supervisor and former Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings was moderating the panel, and said he had not known the two men planned to speak. Before the event, he’d felt excited but nervous and unsure what to expect.
Johnson expressed similar feelings.
“We heard a truck rev up [during the panel], and myself and my friend I was sitting next to, we both kind of got jerky because I know not everybody is in alignment with where we are today,” she said. “But I’m just incredibly grateful that we got to come together, everybody’s voices got to be heard and that we’re moving forward.”
The artists and volunteers could have tried to repaint right after the vandalism, but panel members said it would’ve been performative.
“This is a place to gather. It’s a place where people are supposed to feel safe and seen and heard,” said Abi Mustapha. “So, we didn’t want to repaint it until we felt like our community and our city had stepped up to acknowledge what had actually happened and what needed to be restored.”
The community also wanted Bochat and Warner to participate in the cleanup, and the sluggish pace of the criminal justice system delayed the process.
The repaint will become an annual tradition, and as part of the event, City Council Member Sonja Brunner and Supervisor Justin Cummings declared June 24 “Abi Mustapha Day.” A few of the organizers expressed that the day had followed the best-case scenario, but that the work isn’t done.
“I feel really good,” said Mustapha following the panel, after most of the painting was complete. “The changes that we’ve seen have been really, really impactful.” She added that she hopes the process will be an example for other communities and for Santa Cruz in the future.
“It can’t just be today that we talk about these issues,” said local audio engineer Isaac Collins. “The moms, the pops, y’all got to start teaching your kids about Blackness and brownness too, so they can understand it.”
Emma Ledvina, a member of SC Equity Collab, recommended starting with anti-racist books and getting involved with a local chapter of Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).
“The main thing I would tell most white people is don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable,” she said. “Don’t let that stop you from showing up.” Discomfort, she said, “is not going to kill you. Racism is going to kill Black people. So get in here. We want you.”