Black Lives Matter murals defaced in Riverside

A mural with spray paint on it
Black Lives Matter murals in Riverside were sprayed with black paint on Monday.

Several Black Lives Matter murals in downtown Riverside were defaced Monday, increasing concerns of political tensions on an already tense election day.

The murals appeared to have been marked with large lines of black spray paint, according to footage obtained by OnScene TV. One mural portrayed Black civil rights icons such as Harriet Tubman, Marsha P. Johnson and James Baldwin, while another showed a Black woman posing as Rosie the Riveter.

A separate tribute to John Lewis, who died in July, also appeared marred by the paint, as did likenesses of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and a colorful depiction of protesters under the words “Black Lives Matter.”

The defacement occurred as many Riverside businesses were boarding up windows in anticipation of potential unrest spurred by what has been deemed one of the most consequential elections in American history.


“It’s just unfortunate that people do things like this, especially at a time like this” said Cosme Cordova, one of the artists who helped organize the painting of the murals over the summer.

Cordova said he and several of the artists were preparing to go downtown Tuesday to paint over the vandalism and fix the murals.

“They’re upset but not surprised,” he said of the artists.

George Floyd, whose death in custody of Minneapolis police officers in May ignited months of protests and peaceful marches across the nation, was also depicted in one of the defaced murals.

But Riverside police spokesman Ryan Railsback said he wasn’t sure if the defacement was racially or even politically motivated.

“I don’t think this was targeted at any particular group that the murals represented,” Railsback said. “Of course we won’t know until we talk to the person who did it, but it just looks like somebody was being stupid and decided they just wanted to vandalize anything — like they were walking or riding down the sidewalk, held out their arm and spray painted.”

Others weren’t so sure. In an impassioned post on Facebook, Riverside resident Michael J. Elderman — who is working on a book about the murals — called the graffiti an act of “stupidity and racism.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, Elderman pointed out that the defaced murals are only a block away from the site of the planned Civil Rights Institute.

“It’s such a powerful piece of visual and textual information,” he said of the art, but “the climate is just so crappy, and so much of this kind of stuff has been enabled by what’s going on politically.”

Darren Villegas, one of the murals’ most prominent artists, said he thought the act was a hate crime. He said he not only saw “Hitler mustaches” sprayed onto John Lewis’ face, but that when he followed the line of black paint to its end, he uncovered a swastika sprayed on an electrical box next to the empty spray can.

He contacted the police and filed an official report, he said.

But Railsback said that he had not received information about swastikas, and that any hate symbols would have to be proven to have been done at the same time as the black line to classify the incident as a hate crime.

“The people who did the art may think so, and we’re not saying they can’t think that way, but we have to go by what the law says,” he said.

A property crimes detective is looking into the matter and will search for any surveillance footage that may help identify the perpetrator, Railsback said. If caught, the charge could be either felony or misdemeanor vandalism, depending on the extent of the damage. If hate symbols are proven to be associated with the act, its classification could be changed.

Hate crime or not, Riverside residents said they found the vandalism disquieting.

“The fact that the kind of person who would deface this type of mural is lurking around is a bit concerning to me,” said college student Jack Cotterill. “However, I’ve lived here my entire life, and I know that Riverside is no home to those who foster hatred and bigotry.”

But Villegas and Elderman said that several of the artists were harassed and yelled at while painting the murals, and that they used it as motivation to press on.

“It was oddly kind of similar to what we were painting about,” Villegas said. “We were painting about the Freedom Riders and the story of the Civil Rights Movement, and how despite any opposition they had, they just continued forward with their mission.”

Now, he and several of the other artists are working on a way to turn the “negative into a positive.”

“We’re going to use this as fuel to launch an anti-racism moment here in Riverside,” Villegas said, “and just show that it’s not going to stop us, and every time it happens, we’re going to redo it, and gain more and more support each time.”