‘More than just paint on the ground’: Community shows support for muralists at BLM mural restitution hearing

Muralist Abi Mustapha talks to Assistant District Attorney Michael Mahan before testifying
Muralist Abi Mustapha talks to Assistant District Attorney Michael Mahan before testifying Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The downtown Santa Cruz BLM mural vandalism case continues, with nearly 30 community members showing up to court Thursday to support muralist Abi Mustapha as she testified. With a restitution amount still not agreed, the case moves into summer for a possible trial date.

Nearly a year after the vandalism of downtown Santa Cruz’s Black Lives Matter mural, the case against two defendants returned to court on Thursday. The defendants, Brandon Bochat and Hagan Warner, are accused of running vehicle burnouts over the mural, defacing the mural and damaging the street, outside Santa Cruz City Hall in July 2021.

Sig graphic for BLM mural update

The stated purpose of the hearing before Superior Court Judge Syda Cogliati had been to set a restitution amount that would help bring a resolution to the case. While the pair were expected to bring forward a revised restitution agreement Thursday, neither defendant spoke during the proceedings — with Bochat absent, though represented by his attorney — and the hearing focused on muralist Abi Mustapha’s testimony.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to the felony vandalism charges with a hate crime enhancement earlier this year. In December, Cogliati determined there was enough evidence to send the men to trial.

Thursday’s hearing consisted solely of nearly an hour of testimony by Mustapha, first under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Michael Mahan. Mustapha explained to Mahan and the courtroom her involvement in the ideation of the mural in June 2020, and what transpired from that point to the vandalism in July 2021.

Mustapha originally brought the idea of the mural to then-mayor Justin Cummings, and worked with other local muralists including Taylor Reinhold and members of Made Fresh Crew to create it. After fundraising efforts and planning with city departments, the group painted the mural on Center Street in September 2020, in a daylong community event. It was repainted by Made Fresh Crew in June 2021.

“This was meant to create a safe space for the community,” Mustapha told the court. “it wasn’t just paint on the ground, this was a social statement.”

Mustapha also noted that Santa Cruz was only the third city in the United States to receive complete city council approval for a Black Lives Matter mural.

The preliminary hearing for the two alleged vandals of the downtown Black Lives Matter mural is slated for Oct. 7, and...

Nearly 30 supporters packed the courtroom, showing support for justice for the damage done. Well-represented was the SC Equity Collab, an initiative dedicated to raising awareness surrounding community inequities and which has been involved in supporting the mural from the beginning.

In her testimony, Mustapha said a mural of this size — measuring 125 by 22 feet — would typically cost $30-40 per square foot, but the muralists contributed the mural as an in-kind donation. That’s how the plaintiffs determined the estimate of $114,000 in restitution — accounting for labor, permitting and the physical materials for the mural’s creation — in an amount first proposed in September 2021.

Outside the courtroom ahead of Thursday's hearing in the BLM mural vandalism proceedings
Outside the courtroom ahead of Thursday’s hearing in the BLM mural vandalism proceedings.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Defense attorney Micha Rinkus, representing Bochat, objected multiple times to Mustapha’s assessment of the mural’s value and cost, and challenged Mahan’s assertion that Mustapha was an expert witness in the subject matter. Cogliati overruled each objection. During cross-examination, Rinkus showed a mural to Mustapha, which Rinkus believed to be fellow muralist Reinhold’s, questioning the price estimate for the BLM mural. The mural, however, was the work of another Santa Cruz muralist, Jimbo Phillips. Some gallery members audibly laughed when Cogliati overruled Rinkus’ motion, based on its irrelevance to the case at hand.

Thus far, the case has come before Cogliati 13 times, with Thursday’s proceedings the second scheduled restitution hearing. At the previous hearing on March 17, the defense objected to the $114,000 restitution amount.

Both parties will return to court on July 25 for the judge’s decision on whether to set a restitution amount and if so, how much, and to schedule a jury trial.