For Gracie Staser's art project, the sophomore created a mural Monday with a Black Lives Matter theme, only to have it torn down from a main hallway wall at Apex High School less than an hour later.
She tweeted about her frustration on Tuesday, showing a picture of the mural opposite a blank wall marked by a Post-it note that read, "Here Lies Free Speech." By Friday, more than 2 million people had seen the tweet.
In just a few days, Staser's mural and post sparked a viral online forum about art, race, free speech and when educators should step into such racially charged situations.
Staser said she spent a month on the project that had been approved by the school's administration. It takes up a large part of the wall, depicting white police officers on one side, black victims of police violence on the other and the title in large letters, "My Blackness is Not a Weapon."
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Pictures of the slain black men appear in an outline of a large gun while an outline of an equal sign has a slash through it. The work draws particular attention to Stephon Clark, the 22-year-old shot by police in Sacramento, Calif., while unarmed in his grandmother's yard.
"I just really felt strongly about what had happened, and if it should have happened," said Staser in an interview at her home Friday afternoon. She noted that Clark's case especially affected with her.
"People weren't talking about it," said Staser, 15. "People weren't angry about it like I was. He became a Twitter moment, and that was it."
Meanwhile, a video posted online showed a male student in a backpack and baseball cap pulling the mural apart.
On Thursday, Apex High student Mason Stewart, 16, told ABC11 that he was the student who tore down the project because he found it offensive, especially because it displayed a large gun on school grounds. He said the gun is insensitive in a period with frequent school shootings. He said he reported his feelings to teachers.
"Right when I saw the gun go up, that's when I complained," he said, "and it's still up here since Monday so I tore it down. ... It was very offensive and it's pointing fingers to cops, and more likely white officers. And I have a lot of respect for officers because their job is not easy."
The mural was completed as part of the art curriculum that attempts to address social issues through art. Other topics covered in the coursework include abortion, LGBTQ rights and cruelty to animals.
Staser found an outlet in her Black Lives Matter project. For much of the year, Staser said, she has struggled to understand her identity as a black woman in a majority white school, where she plays lacrosse, a traditionally white sport, and is the adopted daughter of white parents.
"The more she researched this," said her mother, Joy Staser, "the more she delved into this, the more she felt compelled to make a statement."
From a sketch, the mural evolved. Staser said she worked on the project for an hour a day, five days a week. She researched each shooting in the mural and asked the school resource officer about the types of guns police officers carry to be sure her art was accurate.
Normally, artwork of this type is painted onto the walls, but Apex High is being housed in Green Level High School while a new building is completed.
Gracie Staser didn't see the mural taken down Monday, but learned about it through phone messages later. She couldn't contain her anger.
She was surprised when her tweet reached 100 views, not being an avid social media user. But a day after she posted it, she learned that student activist Emma Gonzalez had retweeted it. Gonzalez, one of the most prominent voices from the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., has almost 1.6 million Twitter followers.
After the huge response online, Gracie Staser responded with a followup statement on Twitter.
"I'm not against white people or against all police officers," she wrote. "The police (officers) I put up on the wall were all known to have shot unarmed black people. ... When I had this idea, I never thought I would be here now, writing a statement to over 30k people who liked my tweet and supported me even though this student tried to silence me."
The original tweet had more than 11,000 retweets and 34,000 likes by Friday with most people voicing support.
"I'm an artist based in Pittsboro, NC," wrote @painter_woes. "I'm sorry this happened to your work. Art is a powerful vehicle for free speech. I would love to help you find a NEW wall for your mural."
Principal Diann Kearney posted a message on the school's website, addressing how the incident had affected her students.
"We want you to know that defacing school property for any reason is not tolerated at our school," she said, "and appropriate disciplinary action is being taken. In addition, we are working with the (Wake County schools) Equity Affairs team to ensure that students are being heard and counseled in a positive and supportive manner. We will continue to encourage and facilitate dialogue and discussions around preventing such an incident from happening in the future. I am very proud of the students who have expressed their feelings and concerns about this incident."
ABC11 reports that Stewart had been suspended until some time next week.
Stewart, a junior, told ABC11 that he doesn't regret ripping down the mural. But he takes exception that people are jumping to the conclusion that he's racist.
"I'm far from a racist. I respect everyone," he told ABC11, adding that the imagery is "dividing us really bad."
Staser, in her followup statement on Twitter, thanked supporters and quoted Martin Luther King Jr., asking people to use their voices to educate others about racism.
Staser's father, Mark Staser, said he respected how his daughter handled the situation.
"This moment Grace felt so strongly about can be seen by so many people," he said in an interview. "It's exciting to see her when she's passionate like that."
In the interview, she said she had previously spoken with Stewart after he brought a "Don't Tread on Me" flag to a school walkout and voiced opposition to gun control earlier this year, and the two parted on good terms despite their disagreement. But they have not spoken since the mural incident.
"I don't want people to hate on him or people who think like him," she wrote. "I hate to sound so cheesy but, when talking to people who think like this boy does, we need to kill them with kindness. Educate them out of a place of love. Yelling at someone will NEVER change their mind."