A city’s supposed attempt to make faces on a mural not “specifically identifiable” ended up depicting a black firefighter as white, and now she’s suing for defamation and negligence.
As The Daily Beast reported, Latosha Clemons became Boynton Beach, Florida’s first black female firefighter in 1996. She rose through the ranks, becoming the city’s first black deputy chief 20 years later.
In 2019, the city’s public arts commission decided to paint a mural in part based on a photo of Clemons and two white female firefighters. When the mural was revealed on June 3, 2020, however, all three firefighters appeared white. Not only that, but Clemons’ face was so distorted she barely looked human compared to the other portraits. The mural also depicted former Boynton Fire Chief Glenn Joseph as white, when he is also black.
“Faced with local outrage, city officials removed the mural the next day. In the aftermath, [Boynton Beach City Manager Lor] LaVerriere fired Debby Coles-Dobay, Boynton Beach’s public arts manager. In a statement posted to Facebook, LaVerriere said she and Fire Chief Matthew Petty ‘agreed that it is in the best interest of the City of Boynton Beach that we mutually separate employment.’ It is not clear exactly what role Petty played in the mural’s development,” the Beast reported.
“Both parties agree that this decision will allow the City of Boynton Beach to move forward,” the Facebook post said.
The statement from LaVerriere also addressed the mural, who said the decision was made after concluding “a preliminary investigation regarding the inappropriate decisions made by City employees.”
“The decision made to alter the artwork that was approved by the Public Arts Commission was wrong and disrespectful to our community. Every employee in the City of Boynton Beach works for its community. As a leader, I have been very clear that I will not tolerate any employee to be disrespectful, in any shape or form, to any members of our community,” LaVerriere wrote.
In another press release at the time, LaVerriere said that changes “were made to the approved artwork that were inappropriate… I sincerely apologize this occurred and will take every measure necessary to ensure this never happens again.”
She explained that the mural was supposed to be painted in a way that to ensure “the individuals would not be specifically identifiable,” but that the end result “went way too far.”
“Please understand that this unfortunate incident is not indicative of our values,” she added.
Clemons is now suing the city over the mural, claiming defamation and negligence.
“Being depicted as white was not only a false presentation of Clemons, it was also a depiction which completely disrespected all that Clemons, the first female Black firefighter for the City, had accomplished, her determination, focus and hard work,” her lawsuit says. She also accuses the city of depicting her as white because that’s “a race the city presumably felt better fit the image it was trying to project.”
Clemons approved the original photograph to be used as a basis for her inclusion in the mural, and writes in her lawsuit that Boynton “had a duty to ensure that the mural accurately depicted the picture Clemons had approved for use, that it depicted Clemons for who she is and for which she takes pride; a Black female.”
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