For some students at Oxon Hill High School, the art display that sat in the rotunda for much of last month was cathartic, an embodiment of the angst and anger they felt when police violence made national headlines.
“Young black males: the new endangered species,” read a placard near the display, which sat atop the school seal set in the rotunda’s floor. Next to it was a cutout painted to look like a police officer with white skin reading a newspaper with obituaries of black men killed by law enforcement officers. There was another silhouette, this one painted black, of a person with hands raised wearing a T-shirt with holes in it. Red streaked from the holes, forming the stripes of an upside-down American flag.
On social media, the display was criticized as “reverse racism,” “horrible,” “propaganda,” and even a reason to call for principals, teachers and administrators to be fired.
Last week, about a day after a photo of the artwork surfaced on Facebook, where it was pilloried by commenters, officials decided to dismantle the display ahead of schedule, heeding critics’ calls to take it down.
Keesha Bullock, spokeswoman for Prince George’s County Public Schools, said the decision was made to protect students, not to censor them.
“There were a number of disparaging comments that started to come up,” Bullock said. “The last thing that we wanted was for them to be in the middle of a media firestorm.”
But the move stirred outrage among students, who installed a new display: Two coffins, surrounded by a sprinkling of flower petals, with headstones that read, “HERE LIES OUR FREEDOM OF SPEECH” and “HERE LIES OUR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION.”
They tweeted with the hashtag #donttakeitdown and collected nearly 1,500 signatures on a petition demanding a statement of solidarity from the school board.
The coffins were soon dismantled, too, Bullock said, because they were not authorized.
The conflict raises questions about how schools should handle sensitive topics, particularly surrounding issues such as police use of force. Some of the police shootings and arrests grabbing national headlines have involved young, unarmed black men not much older than the students who walk the hallways of Oxon Hill High, where the majority of the student body is black.
Police violence is a topic that has come up in the school’s classrooms and hallways. Myles Loftin, a rising senior and the photo editor at the school newspaper, said the journalism class hosted forums on controversial topics, including police brutality, rape culture and feminism.
Kiana Harris, a 17-year-old who graduated in May, said the display reflected a frightening reality that students face in their daily lives.
“It’s simply stating facts, and the same stuff could be found on the news,” Kiana said. “It really just made me think about all of the deaths that are happening, and the police are killing people who are unarmed.”
Jules Gomes said the display resonated with him because he had an unnerving encounter last summer with a Metro Transit Police officer who he says appeared to size him up and asked him when he had gotten out of jail. It made him more cautious around law enforcement.
“I connected to [the display]. I really liked it,” said Jules, 17, who is black. “I was actually proud, like, hey, we’re not just known for football . . . we’re doing something that impacts society.”
Some law enforcement officials criticized the display, saying it could stoke hatred of police.
“To say the display was distasteful would be an understatement,” Dean Jones, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement posted on the union’s Facebook page. “In a time when relationships between law enforcement and certain communities are strained, this display does nothing to repair relationships.”
If the goal of the removal was to avoid media scrutiny, it was already too late. Conservative news sites the Daily Caller and Breitbart ran stories. The latter declared the art display “#blacklivesmatters indoctrination.” Fox 5 broke the story early last week with news that the display had been taken down.
Board of Education member Edward Burroughs III, who represents the Oxon Hill area, said he was deeply disappointed with the decision to remove the artwork. If officials did it to protect students from scrutiny, he said, they are underestimating the teenagers.
“Mind you, this turned into the media blitz that the administration feared, and the students persevered,” Burroughs said.
At a board meeting last week, after a handful of students spoke out against the decision to take down the display, Burroughs made a motion for a “statement in solidarity” of the student’s art and their freedom of expression. It passed unanimously.
“This art piece was simply an expression of the way they see the world,” said Burroughs, who has faced calls to resign over his support of the students on the issue. “I think suppressing that free speech is not the solution.”