‘They need to clean it up’: To BLM mural artist Abi Mustapha, restorative justice is the answer

Abi Mustapha stands over the art she helped fundraise for and orchestrate.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The preliminary hearing for the two alleged vandals of the downtown Black Lives Matter mural is slated for Oct. 7, and artist Abi Mustapha feels strongly that the hate crime allegations applied by the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s office make this a perfect opportunity to put restorative justice practices to use.

When two men took turns filming each other burning tire tracks across the Black Lives Matter mural in front of Santa Cruz City Hall on a July evening, Abi Mustapha, who spearheaded the project, took it as a message.

“It is a reminder of where I am — where my place is in this community,” she said. “It’s another reminder that you get to do what you want, and I just have to take it.”

It is a reminder of where I am — where my place is in this community,

There are plenty of resources and community members primed to repaint the mural, but Mustapha is holding the offers of help at bay for now. She wants to find a way to make the alleged vandals repair the damage themselves, either as part of the outcome of the court case or through an independent mediator.

She sees an opportunity to employ restorative justice, a theory that brings offenders together with victims to educate and make amends in a direct way.

Abi Mustapha wants those who did the damage to repair it.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s obviously going to be there until it gets fixed, but there’s that fight within me that’s like, ‘No, I don’t want to f-----g fix this for somebody,’” said Mustapha. “‘I’m going to be resilient in my own way, but you can go and fix your mess.’”

I’m going to be resilient in my own way, but you can go and fix your mess.

The Santa Cruz County District Attorney has filed felony vandalism charges with a special hate crime allegation against Brandon Bochat and Hagan Warner. The preliminary hearing, which has been postponed multiple times, is currently scheduled for Oct. 7.

Mustapha launched the mural project as a call to action for Santa Cruz to work toward deconstructing systemic racism as a community. The city was the first in America to approve a Black Lives Matter mural.

She, along with organizers Sean McGowen, Taylor Reinhold and Shandara Gill, took the project from idea to completion in just two months. T-shirt sales and donations of $5-10 made up the bulk of their initial funding of around $15,000, and more than 500 volunteers showed up to paint the mural.

The process for getting the project approved wasn’t simple — Mustapha and her team jumped through bureaucratic hoops to obtain permits from the city and listened to both supporting and dissenting opinions from the public before garnering unanimous approval from Santa Cruz City Council.

“That’s what’s frustrating about this,” said Mustapha. “The privilege that someone feels about not having to go through the process of what I had to do. It’s like, ‘Nope, we’re just going to go and destroy it because we disagree with it. And then we’ll get a slap on the wrist and we still accomplish our goal of terrorizing a community.’”

It’s like, nope, we’re just going to go and destroy it because we disagree with it.

Abi Mustapha
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A joint statement issued by local Black organizations including the NAACP and the Santa Cruz County Black Coalition for Justice and Racial Equity called the mural’s defacement a “provocation of fear and hatred,” and asked the district attorney’s office to charge the alleged vandals with the hate crime in addition to vandalism, which Mustapha supports.

She also wants to move beyond the justice system, which focuses on punishment while doing nothing to address the psychological harm caused to the Black community by the vandalism. That’s where restorative justice comes in.

The ideal outcome for Mustapha would be that Bochat and Warner repair the mural, provide compensation to repair it, or both. She wants to challenge an old narrative — that a resilient Black community will paint over the crimes of white privilege over and over, without the other side engaging in any kind of thoughtful restitution.

Aerial view of vandalized mural.
(Via SCPD)

It’s more important that they clean it up and that the community sees them clean it up, to me at least. That’s more healing in all of this than just repainting letters.

But offering an olive branch to perpetrators of racially motivated crimes is contentious. “I think there’s hurt in that,” said Mustapha, “The idea that young Black men — Black boys — have been lynched at the mere accusation of lesser things.”

Still, she thinks it’s worth it to try something different. “It’s more important that they clean it up,” she said, “and that the community sees them clean it up, to me at least. That’s more healing in all of this than just repainting letters.”

Mustapha and her team are responsible for mural maintenance, and no one is quite sure whether a fine could be part of sentencing, which would help cover costs. Until then, the mural will stay as it is.

For Mustapha, activism and art go hand in hand. “You need art for a movement,” she said, citing the iconic art of the 1960s that continues to resonate today. In her own studio, she paints faces she doesn’t see in mainstream art — Black people, older women, people of color — because she believes representation makes a difference in realizing that the world is bigger than yourself.

Activism is a family trait. Mustapha’s parents are retired teachers who now spend half the year in Indiana and half the year in Sierra Leone, in the village where her dad grew up. They built a school there, and are now building a hospital. “I think they drilled into me this sense of integrity,” said Mustapha. “There’s also a sense of duty to do things.” Her parents taught her that to do nothing to stop injustice is to become part of the problem.

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Mustapha studied political science at Indiana University but drifted West, plugging into the Oakland arts scene before settling in Santa Cruz in 2014. And she’s found that activism has become a natural part of her life.

“You don’t start and finish a project like this,” she said. “It’s a process and it’s a movement. I’m an activist because I want to live my life in a certain way.”

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