SAN JOSE LEADERS unveiled 13 new “Black Lives Matter” banners around City Hall on Thursday, demonstrating the city’s commitment to addressing and dismantling systemic racism locally and supporting its Black community.

“This is the beginning of a very important process,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said. “To find a way to prominently celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement, to acknowledge the importance of our work ahead and to manifest our collective commitment to embrace that work.”

To Liccardo, that means not just celebrating the city’s diversity, but rather “reckoning with our history of racial injustice,” and taking tangible steps to undo the damage.

So, he reached out to community leader and YouthHype founder Latoya Fernandez following the George Floyd protests in late May and June, to create a project that would explore how to visually reflect these civic declarations in public spaces.

Bringing the vision to life

“We knew we needed some artistic representation at a central location,” Fernandez said.

To find the central location, Fernandez surveyed Black residents and youth in San Jose and asked where the most impactful location would be for the city to represent its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Everyone unanimously pretty much said City Hall is the place,” she said.

Then, Fernandez and Liccardo brought on Cherise Orange, a local Black entrepreneur to design the banner.

“This is a beacon not only for our local residents … but in particular for our youth.”

Kerry Adams Hapner, San Jose cultural affairs director

The banners list 575 names of Black Americans who lost their lives to “personal, systemic and institutional racism,” in the shape of the letters B,L,M, Orange said. Phrases, “Black Lives Matter” and “Voices, Dreams, Futures” were also featured underneath the letters in the colors of the Pan-African flag.

“They no longer have their lives, they are not able to dream of possibilities or have futures in a world that would one day not see their skin color as a threat,” Orange said. “So we must be the voice for them and triumph against racism.”

Most of the names were of Black Americans who lost their lives to police violence from 2000 to 2020 but also mentioned are prominent historical names like Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr. and Edgar Evans.

“They were real people with families, hopes and dreams taken away because we love black culture but we don’t love black people,” Orange said.

A closeup of one of the Black Lives Matter banners reveals the names of individuals used to form the shapes of the letters B, L and M.

‘Symbols have meaning’

Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Director of Cultural Affairs, Kerry Adams Hapner were also part of the initiative and spoke about the significance of these banners.

“Symbols and statements have meaning and they express to the world where our values are as a city,” Jones said. “But symbols and words aren’t enough … the U.S. has spent the last 400 years creating and perfecting the most sophisticated caste system the world has ever seen. … If we are going to make meaningful change it is going to take time, talent and money.”

Hapner, whose Office of Cultural Affairs funded the initiative, said the banners were a continuation of San Jose’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, after the city adopted a statement in solidarity on June 28.

“Through the arts we can really promote cross-cultural understanding and foster a sense of empathy,” Hapner said. “This is a beacon not only for our local residents … but in particular for our youth.”

Ten-year-old San Jose student Lyric Bryant, who is also Fernandez’s daughter, said seeing Black people killed impacted her ability to feel safe and succeed.

“I want to travel the world and make a lot of money doing what I love to do. I can’t do any of that if I feel like my life is in danger all the time,” Bryant said. “Coming together as a community shows we are all impacted by this and we are all going to fight against these injustices together.”

The time is right

Fernandez, along with Liccardo and Jones, said the unveiling of the banners couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It is at a perfect time with everything happening with SVO (Silicon Valley Organization) because it’s almost like, without making it intentional, this is the city’s response to that,” Fernandez said. “We are saying yeah they messed up, but as a city, Black lives do matter.”

Over the last week, one of the largest Silicon Valley business organizations, SVO, was criticized for political attacks against District 6 challenger Jake Tonkel that were described as “implicitly racist” by San Jose leaders.

On its website, it showed an image of Black men from South Africa protesting, claiming this would be San Jose’s future if Tonkel was elected to the City Council — a move that forced its CEO Matt Mahood to resign on Thursday, eight different nonprofit partners to cut ties and recipient of financial contributions, Councilmember Dev Davis, to donate the money.

“The SVO incident shows that there is a lot of work to be done,” Fernandez said. “These banners are a part of that work and one of the steps forward into that work … this is a beautiful creative project, but it is also the city taking a stand with Black Lives Matter and the Black residents.”