A Missouri congressman is demanding criminal charges against a fellow lawmaker who yanked a student’s controversial painting off the U.S. Capitol walls Friday.
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said his staff met Monday with members of the Capitol Police to press theft charges against Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who removed the painting Friday and delivered it to Clay’s office as he left a Republican conference meeting where the artwork was discussed.
“He had no right to take that picture down,” Clay said Monday just off the House floor. “It’s thievery.”
The painting, by a recent high school graduate from Clay’s district, depicts a scene of civil unrest inspired by the 2014 events in Ferguson, Mo., and other recent protests against police led by African Americans. Several figures are depicted as animals, and some pro-police activists have said the rendering evokes derogatory images of police as pigs.
It is part of a national art competition, one of 435 artworks chosen by local panels of artists to hang in the underground tunnel between the Capitol and the Cannon House Office Building.
Some Republican lawmakers have called for the painting to be taken down in recent weeks, but Hunter took matters into his own hands Friday.
Clay is planning to rehang the painting Tuesday morning, joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other sympathetic lawmakers. He emotionally defended the right of the young artist, David Pulphus, to hang his art in the Capitol to reporters Monday.
Pulphus’s family, Clay said, is “full of police officers, so they have respect for police officers. He just doesn’t have respect for police who use the cover of a blue uniform to do animalistic things to people.”
“These are his impressions. Those are his feelings. That’s how he formed his opinion, and he expressed it in his art. So what’s wrong with that?” Clay continued. “Any black parent would tell you that they have to have this conversation with their children about police and how to act around them, so that’s the conversation we need to be having here. Not about taking some kid’s picture off the wall — it should be about, how do we change these attitudes and improve the relationships between police and the black community?”
Hunter’s top aide brushed off Clay’s threats of prosecution Monday.
“Hunter has high regard from Congressman Clay, and this is nothing personal,” said Joe Kasper, his chief of staff. “But we’re less than zero percent worried about this whatsoever.”
A Capitol Police spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment Monday on whether the matter remains under investigation. Clay said the police who met with his staff were “befuddled” and gave no clear indication of how they would proceed: “They are trying to figure out what they’re going to do.”
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said lawmakers had a simple request for Hunter’s treatment: “We want him to get whatever charge a private citizen would get if they walked into the Capitol and took down a painting.”
Kasper said that “that’s misrepresenting the issue significantly,” and compared the Capitol with the “Wild West.” He referred to a 2006 incident in which then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney was accused of striking a police officer who did not recognize her as a member of Congress and stopped her after she talked past a security checkpoint.
“You understand the latitude members are given around the U.S. Capitol complex,” Kasper said. “He’s trying to make a point that this was a form of expression, and rightfully so, but so is taking it down.”
Clay suggested it was a particular affront that a lawmaker would pull down Pulphus’s painting while statues of Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee occupy prominent places in the Capitol. “Two traitors who cost America 600,000 lives,” he said. “They’re treasonous; they should be out of here.”
Richmond also suggested that Hunter has an ulterior motive: distracting from recent reports about alleged misuses of his campaign account for personal expenses.
“I’d hang it on Duncan’s door if it was up to me,” Richmond said. “But what I don’t want to do is deflect from the fact that all this is a diversion so people talk about Duncan Hunter removing a painting and picking on an 18-year-old and being a bully as opposed to talking about the fact that he continuously takes things that don’t belong to him. … You can’t be a lawmaker and purposely lawbreak at the same time.”
Kasper said Hunter had swiftly addressed the questionable spending and said Richmond’s accusation was “neither here nor there.”