Highland Park Mural defaced and town reacts to a shocking act of intolerance and bigotry

Several faith and service leaders led a vigil on the evening of May 2, 2022 after a newly installed mural, titled “Home is Where We Make It,” was vandalized last week. Discussions are ongoing among community leaders as to when the mural will be restored.

Speakers at the vigil included Josh Pruzansky, president for the Raritan Valley Orthodox Jewish Community Association, Dr. Alex Kharazi, director of Masjid-e-Ali Mosque, Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale, Reformed Church of Highland Park, and Rebecca Cypess, Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition. Members of The Shelter Project, a group of faculty from Rutgers University and the New Brunswick Theological Seminary that commissioned the mural, also attended.

The mural, located near Papa John’s pizzeria parking lot at 75 Raritan Avenue, was designed to facilitate conversations with the local refugee community by being in a prominent place for motorists and pedestrians alike. The murarl project was organized by coLAB Arts, a New Brunswick-based arts group striving to create public art that facilitates liveable, sustainable, social justice oriented environments and conversation within communities.

The mural within 48 hours of completion was vandalized with the words “USA” and two stars-of-David spray-painted across the face of a woman in a hijab, said borough officials.

Artist Amrisa Niranjan was called names and endured “racial harassment” during the creation of the mural, according to a joint statement from Black Community Watchline, Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition and Antiracism in Action.

Borough Councilman Matthew Hersh, who had been closely following and cheering the effort to create the mural, said this desecration is unsettling, and unsurprising, that someone with a can of spray paint can impose racism and bigotry at the town’s gateway while sowing discord at a time when we need to be a united front against racism, bigotry and Muslim and Jewish hate….That doesn’t mean that those things don’t exist here; they do. But it means when they manifest themselves, we need to stand up against it. It also means that as a community we need to know and act on the warning signs that lead up to this.”

Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler issued the following statement:

I strongly condemn anti-Black racism, anti-Muslim hate, anti-Semitic hate, xenophobic and racial harassment in all of its forms. Those sentiments are abhorrent to our community of Highland Park.

I had the distinct pleasure of talking with the artist, Amrisa Niranjan as she installed her artwork on the side of the building in town. When she told me of a terrible verbal confrontation she endured, I immediately called the Police Chief who instructed the officers to increase their patrols in the area as she worked. I want to personally apologize to Amrisa, for not being able make her feel completely safe by providing onsite personal protection, as I had hoped. 

I’m joining you this evening speaking on behalf of myself, and behalf of my office. I don’t know what antiracism in the 21st Century looks like, but I want to advocate for it and be a part of the vision for change.

Highland Park isn’t a perfect community. It’s not even enough that it’s a nice community. That certainly was made clear by the defacing of this mural. As mayor, I want to work to seeing our community aspire to the ideal that this mural so effortlessly projects. We must be a community that practices extreme hospitality. Highland Park must not only talk about antiracist policies, but practice it, throughout its government agencies and social life.

The defacement of the mural is a tragedy, in so many ways. The potential for hate on the streets of Highland Park is still present. 

Work needs to be done that we aren’t equipped to facilitate alone. We’re committing to a public and transparent process for protecting our Black and racially minoritized residents who are subject to racial violence. 

Highland Park strongly opposes anti-Black racism, anti-Muslim hate, anti-Semitic hate, anti-LGBTQ hate, racial and xenophobic harassment. I’m calling on you all now to keep me and my administration accountable; to make Highland Park the community we’d all like to be proud of.

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