A young Missouri student’s painting of civil unrest has sparked a proxy battle among lawmakers in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, between black Democrats concerned about what they call a legacy of unjust policing and several white Republicans who are defending law enforcement.
The tiff spiraled out of control Tuesday, with House Republicans acting on two separate occasions to pull the artwork down from a tunnel in the Capitol complex, after it was rehung by Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), whose young constituent painted it.
The painting, by recent high school graduate David Pulphus, depicts a scene inspired by the 2014 events in Ferguson, 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.
Clay appeared in the tunnel with fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Tuesday morning to rehang the painting after it had first been removed Friday by Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) — who took it down, in a spokesman’s words, to “make a statement” about his support for law enforcement and delivered it to Clay’s office.
For more than two years, the national debate about the policing in African American communities has largely bypassed Capitol Hill, which has been under the control of Republican lawmakers wary of wading into the controversy. Rather, it took an 18-year-old’s painting to unleash lawmakers’ passions.
Clay and others defended Pulphus’s right to free expression, and to have his views represented on the walls of the U.S. Capitol — a building, they pointed out, that contains numerous statues of Confederate leaders and other racist historical figures.
Clay said he was “not anti-police” and said his family included many law enforcement members. But he said that Pulphus had a right to express his impression of the struggles black Americans have experienced with police.
The painting hung in the Capitol for several months without incident before a conservative website, Independent Journal Review, wrote about it, and a Fox News personality highlighted it on air in late December.
Several law enforcement groups have called for the painting’s removal, and they have gotten backing from several Republican lawmakers. Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a former county sheriff, called it “disheartening to see this depiction of law enforcement hanging in the hallway of our nation’s Capitol” and has taken a leading role in urging House leaders to take the painting down. But it was Hunter’s decision to take matters into his own hands that has turned matters into a full-blown media spectacle.
After Clay rehung the painting Tuesday, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) took it down and, like Hunter, returned it to Clay’s office. Clay once again rehung the painting, but later in the afternoon, Reps. Brian Babin (R-Texas) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) again removed it.
Silent through all of this has been House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who said at a news conference last week that he was not familiar with the painting. A spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on whether Ryan considered it appropriate for members to personally remove works of art from the Capitol walls.
Reichert is planning to move through official channels to have the painting removed, petitioning the Architect of the Capitol in a forthcoming letter that cites rules of the yearly Congressional Art Competition. They stipulate that “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed.”
Clay said Pulphus’s painting, in his view, comported with those rules: “The African American community has had a painful, tortured history with law enforcement in this country,” he said. “That’s not contemporary, that’s historic.”
Notably, another winner of the competition — by a Georgia teen — depicts two white police officers of another era harassing a black person playing checkers. Another piece, by an Arizona teen, has an undeniably contemporary subject: It’s a portrait of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Clay said he was open to an independent review but not to individual members taking matters into their own hands: “If there’s a process to remove this painting, well, let’s start the process and let’s discuss it. But you just don’t walk up here and remove a painting because you are offended by it.”