Passersby paused on Tuesday, doing double takes at the pavement, apparently confused by the sudden disappearance of a blocks-long mural that had come to define the city streets that sit just beyond the White House — a space that has become a community gathering place for protests and vigils, where people come to witness history and make their voices heard.
The Black Lives Matter mural won’t be gone for long and will be reinstated later this week, said D.C. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio.
The Pepco project, which began in mid-April, was expected to last for as many as six weeks, officials said. But the work, which involved installing new underground electrical conduit and a new manhole that will allow the company to connect and fortify two substations, wrapped up last week, well ahead of schedule.
On Tuesday, crews of workers repainted the double yellow lane dividers along 16th Street NW and the crosswalk markings at the intersections of 16th and I Street and 16th and H Street, according to Pepco spokesman Ben Armstrong.
Once the road markings are finished, Armstrong said, the District is clear to begin repainting the “Black Lives Matter” mural down the center of 16th Street.
The District Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works will oversee the effort to restore the mural, officials said.
Critics of the mayor who have long accused her of supporting the idea of racial justice efforts without following through with policy pointed to the erasure of the mural as evidence that the words were always empty.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s “BLM performance has come to a close,” tweeted Black Lives Matter D.C. “We now return to her regularly scheduled performances.”
In the midst of protests last year, Black Lives Matter D.C. called the mural “a performative distraction from real policy changes,” adding that the mayor has consistently been on the wrong side of “BLMDC” history.
Bowser (D) has throughout her term supported increasing police funding and championed development that racial justice organizers have said hurts poor and working-class Black residents.
Black Lives Matter D.C. did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
The area where the mural sits, just beyond the White House, became the heart of the District’s protest scene following the police murder of George Floyd last year. In the time since, it has gone through several transformations.
Bowser initially renamed the stretch in honor of the movement days after the Trump administration oversaw the forceful clearing of peaceful racial justice demonstrators with an onslaught of rubber bullets, chemical irritants and officers on horseback. That law enforcement action is the subject of a congressional investigation.
The renaming of the plaza was the climax in a power struggle over the District’s streets and who had the right to police them in the midst of daily demonstrations last summer.
Bowser, who deployed city workers and volunteer artists to paint “Black Lives Matter” in traffic-sign yellow along two blocks leading straight to the White House, was lauded by celebrities, pundits and other adversaries of President Donald Trump for sending a message so big it could be seen from the sky.
But in the District’s homegrown activist community, organizers dismissed the move as a cheap publicity stunt and lip service.
The day after the mural first appeared, Black Lives Matter activists took the emblem of the D.C. flag and remade it into an equal sign that was followed by the words “Defund the Police.” The District eventually painted over the addition.
In the months that followed, the words acted as a beacon, drawing demonstrators and tourists to the plaza, which became a gathering space for activists and a home for artists, who constructed life-size murals of civil rights leaders and slogans calling for equality over doorways and boarded-up windows. Hundreds of protest posters were hung along a no-climb fence that still encircles Lafayette Square.
In January, workers took down stacks of plywood that shielded businesses’ windows and glass facades in what District officials lauded as the first step toward reopening the downtown business district after a year of rolling closures due to the ongoing pandemic and civil unrest.
In March, D.C. officials opened two lanes to vehicular traffic — one northbound, one southbound — and allowed cars to roll down the street in a welcome return to normalcy for businesses that line the plaza. Hotel workers praised the decision, grateful they would no longer have to direct patrons to alleyways and back doors to unload their luggage.
On Monday, the fence that still surrounds Lafayette Square was opened, allowing tourists and D.C. residents to wander the winding paths of the park for the first time in 11 months.
Should more large-scale protests descend on the area in the future, Falcicchio has said, the city is prepared to shut down the plaza, as needed, to accommodate public gatherings and events.