A California congressman removed a Missouri student’s painting from the walls of the U.S. Capitol complex Friday, days after groups representing law enforcement officers called for its removal due to its perceived negative portrayal of police.
The painting by David Pulphus, a recent high school graduate from North St. Louis, depicts his interpretation of the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo. In the foreground of the painting, a police officer depicted as a horned beast tangles with a protester depicted as a wolf.
It was chosen to hang in a tunnel between the U.S. Capitol and the Cannon House Office Building — alongside hundreds of other student works of art — as a part of the yearly Congressional Art Competition. A panel of artists from Missouri’s 1st Congressional District chose it from among the entries.
But the painting’s subject matter generated protests from several law enforcement groups, who called the painting “reprehensible and repugnant” and representative of growing anti-police sentiment. More attention was drawn to the painting after a Fox News personality called for its removal Friday.
“This latest indignation, sponsored by an elected official intent on pandering to professional protesters, unfortunately adds credence to a demonstrably false narrative about law enforcement that undermines the safety of law enforcement officers and those we protect,” said a letter sent Tuesday to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. “This false narrative portrays law enforcement professionals as posing a danger to the very communities we serve. That is untrue and this ‘art’ reinforces this false narrative and is disrespectful on so many levels.”
The letter was signed by the presidents of police unions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, Calif.
Enter Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who attended a private meeting of House Republicans Friday morning where several members registered their displeasure with the painting, including Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a former county sheriff.
On his way back to his office, Hunter — without consulting with Ryan or the Capitol authorities who run the competition — removed the painting and took it to the office of Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who represents the 1st District.
“He unscrewed it himself and brought it back to Lacy Clay’s office,” said Joe Kasper, Hunter’s chief of staff. “He returned it. Clay can put it back up if he wants to.”
Asked whether it was appropriate for an individual lawmaker to remove an artwork from the competition, Kasper said, “Just as easy as it came down, it can go back up. We wanted to make a statement that it is important to support law enforcement.”
Kasper said several Capitol Police officers had visited Hunter’s office Friday to thank him for his action.
As for whether the painting will go back up, Clay’s office declined to say. A spokesman, Steve Engelhardt, said Clay was not available for comment Friday.
Clay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week that he had no plans to remove the painting.
“I had no role in selecting the winner of this student art competition and I would never attempt to approve or disapprove artistic expression,” he said in a statement. “The U.S. Capitol is a symbol of freedom, not censorship. The young artist chose his own subject and the painting will not be removed.”
Ryan declined to comment on the painting Thursday, saying that he was not familiar with the controversy. A Ryan spokeswoman did not respond immediately Friday to a request for comment on Hunter’s action.