COLUMBUS, Ohio — The billboard is blunt by design.
“Black Lives SHOULD Matter, Especially to BLACK PEOPLE. STOP THE VIOLENCE. We don’t want your business That bad.”
The bearer of this message is Marlan J. Gary, and his business is funerals.
Columbus is coming off a year of horrendous homicidal violence. There were 143 killings in 2017, a total unlike anything the city had seen in decades. The old record of 139 homicides occurred in 1991.
That was the year Gary came to Columbus. He was in his early 20s, and the surging homicide rate was not something a young man in a new town thought much about.
“I just wasn’t community-minded, even to have an opinion,” he said.
Now he is a 48-year-old father of two, a community-minded businessman and, as the billboard makes clear, a holder of opinions.
This latest advertisement for Marlan J. Gary Funeral Home went up about two weeks ago on two billboards: one at East Main Street and Nelson Road on the Near East Side and another at East 5th and Woodland avenues.
Gary has advertised on billboards for years, and occasionally he alters the messages to reflect holidays or celebrate Black History Month.
The start of a new year, coming hard on the heels of such a violent one, seemed to him a good time to make a point.
In 2017, 111 of the city’s homicide victims were black, and all but of 10 of them were males. The median age was 29. Fewer than half of the killings have been solved, but Gary intuits that most of these young black male victims were killed by other young black men. He’s handled the arrangements for more homicide victims than he can count, and he knows this as surely as the police do.
So far, the response to his message has been positive. He said he doesn’t know if he’ll receive any push-back for co-opting the language of the Black Lives Matter movement that began in 2013 in response to police killings of black people.
These issues matter to Gary, who is black and has a son about to turn 18 years old. In 2015, Gary irked the Columbus Division of Police with billboards that directly addressed the BLM movement by offering advice to young black men (cooperate, don’t commit crimes, don’t run) and to officers (“You can stop me without killing me” and “I deserve a day in court, not in a casket”).
The Police Division released a statement in response that it was “disappointed” by the message, given officers’ community-policing efforts.
“I’m all in support of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Gary said on Jan. 26. “At the same time, I realize that it has to matter to us before it matters to anybody else.
“The bottom line is that I don’t bury a whole lot of people who were killed by police,” he said. “Right now, I’m burying a lot of black people who are killed at the hands of black people.”
Pictured beside Gary on the latest billboards is Fralisia Jefferson, one of his funeral directors. Jefferson, 25, lost her 27-year-old godbrother, DeShawn L. Marable, to gun violence last year. He was shot to death on the South Side in August, and his killing remains unsolved.
Jefferson said young people “feel invincible, untouchable, until it touches you and gets closer … and then it touches your immediate family, and then it’s too late.”
Retaliation perpetuates the violence, she said.
“When you fight fire with fire, all you get is a bigger fire,” she said. ” “We’re getting to a dangerous point.”
Nine people have been killed in Columbus this year; eight were black. Gary hopes the billboards add to a community conversation that makes 2018 a record low year for homicides and the heartbreak that follows.
“I just thought it would be great if we could try to beat that record,” he said. “It would be nice if we could just move back toward the record low.”