Three people are facing felony charges in connection with a mural painted in Wilkinsburg in July. The mural depicted the face of Romir Talley, a 24-year-old man who was shot and killed by Wilkinsburg police in December.
*This story was updated on Friday, Aug. 28 at 3:10 p.m. to include a statement from Wilkinsburg's mayor.
According to the criminal complaint, the officer who initially reported muralists painting the side of a building in the 700-block of Penn Avenue in July was Robert Gowans, the officer who killed Talley. Gowans' identity was not known to the public until Wilkinsburg Borough Council released the information earlier this month, eight months after Talley's death.
“It just shows the level of indecency and depravity that this family is having to endure just to get answers about the final moments of their son’s life,” Miracle Jones, director of policy and advocacy at 1Hood Media said.
“That the officer who shot someone can be the same officer who is the catalyst to getting the mural taken down and getting people charged with felonies for trying to uphold the memory of a son that was stolen from us. The community is outraged.”
Conor Clarke, a 29-year-old North Side resident, is one of the three facing charges in connection with the Talley mural. Clarke has created several Black Lives Matter murals in the Pittsburgh region. He said the Talley mural was designed to bring attention to the case and to call out officials who he felt were not being transparent with the death investigation.
“So you have to remember his face and you have to say his name and you have to like, address that every time you drive by it," Clarke said.
The mural was covered up earlier this month. The former property owner told WTAE-TV that it was painted over as a condition of a closing agreement when the building was sold in July.
“People woke up and they saw that the mural was gone. There wasn’t a notice put out to community members,” said Jones.
The shooting remains under investigation. Police said Talley fired a gun at officers before they returned fire. Talley’s family claims the death was a case of mistaken identity and are calling on Officer Gowans to resign and for the district attorney to bring criminal homicide charges against Gowans.
Talley’s family also called for the Wilkinsburg Police Department to outfit their officers with body cameras at a protest on Saturday.
“The Romir Talley mural was physically done to show his family that he wasn’t forgotten,” Jones said. “It was building community.”
Murals serving as memorials are nothing new. Other Black Lives Matter murals in and around Pittsburgh have received praise from officials. One Downtown, to which Clarke also contributed, features large portraits of Black people killed by police, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and East Pittsburgh teenager Antwon Rose II. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto instructed the city’s Department of Public Works not to remove the mural.
“It was done in Pittsburgh proper. It was done on PennDOT property,” Clarke said. “They came down there and said ‘We’re going to put lights on this,’ and they didn’t have to do their own city-sanctioned Black Lives Matter [mural].”
The difference is in the specificity of the messaging, according to Jones. “The difference is Black Lives Matter murals allow for people to have a performative notion that they are supporting Black people.”
“But when you’re lifting up a specific individual who has a current open case, it requires that love and support you claim that you have for Black people to actually materialize,” she said.
According to Jones, the charges don’t fit the crime.
“They’re thinking about putting people in jail for over a year for literally painting a building that -- up until the powers that be expressed an issue -- no one had a problem with,” Jones said.
Clarke said he was informed of a warrant out for his arrest during a recent traffic stop. He was then taken in by police and informed of the charges of criminal mischief and criminal conspiracy.
“I don’t have any regrets in anything that I’ve done. This is for people that have been oppressed,” Clarke said. He plans to continue looking for opportunities to make murals.
1Hood Media has offered to financially support a replacement mural for the Talley family. CEO Jasiri X said at a protest in Wilkinsburg Saturday that 1Hood Media would help an artist create a new mural.
Clarke said he’s already been in touch with 1Hood regarding a replacement. Neither party confirmed a new location or further details of a new mural.
In an emailed statement, Wilkinsburg Mayor Maria Garrett wrote:
"Altering private property requires the owner’s permission; However, the criminal charges brought against the muralist seem harsh, especially since there was no ill-intent."
The Wilkinsburg Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Borough Council President Pamela Macklin and Vice President Paige E. Trice.