Like millions of people across the country, Damian Artalejo was horrified by the killing of George Floyd, who pleaded for his life while his neck was knelt on for nearly nine minutes by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25.
After participating in a protest against police brutality and systemic racism that brought hundreds of people to the Animas Valley Mall in Farmington on June 1, Artalejo wanted to do something that would show his support for the social justice and civil rights movement sweeping the country. So he drove his grandfather’s trailer to a strip of undeveloped land near the corner of Main Street and 20th Street in Farmington and erected a large sign with the three words that have reverberated around the world: Black Lives Matter.
“The point of the sign is to show that a higher percentage of Black and brown people are killed by police, and if we fix it, it gets better for everybody as a whole,” said Artalejo, founder and former president of the Young Democrats of San Juan County, an organization that helped maintain the sign. “It doesn’t exclude anyone. Once we fix that, it will get better for everyone.”
In the three months since then, the strip of land at the highly visible intersection became something of a free speech zone for sign makers, with dozens of signs expressing support for Black lives, all lives, police lives and signs in support of QAnon – a far-right conspiracy theory. But Wednesday morning, the New Mexico Department of Transportation removed all of the signs, saying they were in a public right of way.
Artalejo said he chose to put up the sign on a strip of undeveloped land close to the intersection of Main and 20th streets because he understood the land as being owned by the state of New Mexico, “so it’s anything goes,” he said, and for the area’s history of being a place where local political candidates put up campaign signs.
Artalejo said a few months ago, a large truck displaying a banner supporting the re-election of President Donald Trump sat parked a few hundred feet from the site where his sign stood.
“It’s up where it is so that it would get the most views when people drive by,” Artalejo said of his Black Lives Matter sign.
For a while the sign stood by itself, undisturbed, until the end of June, when it was vandalized a number of times, usually involving the word “Black” being spray painted or painted over, and the word “All” being etched or painted in its place.
“Then it was just back and forth with people defacing the sign,” Artalejo said, until August, when the vandalism slowed down, and new signs, almost all in opposition or commenting on the Black Lives Matter sign, began to appear. Other signs expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory, one read “Poor Lives Matters” and recently, an elaborate steel-cut sign appeared in the free speech zone that read “All Lives Matter,” with a prominent thin blue line flag flying above it.
“It’s to put up the other side of the story,” said Jimmy Johnson, as he set up his “all lives matter” sign Aug. 24, “It’s my First Amendment rights, just like this one right here,” he said, pointing to the Black Lives Matter sign.
Johnson said he had passed by the Black Lives Matter sign a number of times while driving into Farmington from his home in Aztec. He said he was initially supportive of it, “until I saw their movement get hijacked by Antifa,” referring to a loose movement of anti-facist protesters and activists that have been a frequent target of both Trump and right wing conspiracy theories.
The weekend before, Johnson said he went to a local steel store, and after telling the owner of the store what he planned to carve, the owner gave him the material for free.
“It’s not a political sign, but an American sign about how people feel, at least those that have values,” Johnson said. “Everyone’s lives matter, especially the unborn.”
Ahmad Mughni, a salesperson at Horace Super Center, a car dealership directly northeast of the signs, watched the progression of the signs for several weeks. Mughni, who is Black, said he didn’t feel any particular offense or connection to any of the signs. He described Black Lives Matter as “a little crazy.” But he said he understands the purpose of the movement based on his own experience with racism and discrimination.
“You just learn to live with it,” Mughni said, “but I guess that’s the point. You shouldn’t have to learn to live with it. You should be treated equally. ... We shouldn’t be fighting each other like this. It’s crazy.”
Hinnat was killed while playing outside his home in North Carolina. The suspect in the case was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and held without bond. CNN, The Washington Post and multiple local media outlets in North Carolina reported on the story.
Nicole Brown, community relations liaison and spokeswoman for the Farmington Police Department, said a number of complaints had been filled with the city’s Code Compliance department about one or more of the signs, although she couldn’t say which ones, in the last few months.
The city and the New Mexico Department of Transportation both own portions of the land, and while the city has been receiving complaints about the signs, it has been forwarding them to the Department of Transportation.
“Why now is it an issue?” Artalejo said. “I understand if it is an issue that needs to be cleared up, just as long as everybody gets treated equitably and fairly.”