A GOP congressman removed a student painting, without warning or permission, from the walls of the U.S. Capitol complex on Friday, Jan. 6, because of its contentious depiction of police officers.
The image ― a response to the 2014 protests of police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri ― shows a policeman with the head of a boar aiming a gun at a protestor with the head of a wolf. In the background, protestors hold signs reading “Stop Kill—,” “History” and “Racism Kills.” On the right, a black man in a graduation cap appears crucified and holding the scales of justice.
The controversial artwork, made by recent high school graduate David Pulphus, was selected by a committee of artists as part of the annual U.S. Congressional Art Competition in May. The piece responded to the civil unrest brewing in Ferguson, where the competition was held, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer.
“The painting portrays a colorful landscape of symbolic characters representing social injustice, the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the lingering elements of inequality in modern American society,” Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who represents Ferguson, wrote in a statement. Until Friday, the piece hung in the Cannon House Office Building tunnel that connects the Capitol with members’ legislative offices.
Not everyone, however, was moved by the piece. According to Fox News, over 27,000 law enforcement officials protested Pulphus’ painting, specifically its depiction of cops as animals, describing the work as “reprehensible, repugnant and repulsive.”
Police unions in New York, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland collected their thoughts in a letter sent last Tuesday to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. “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,” they wrote.
Yet Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) acted alone and unprompted when he, on Friday, simply removed the painting from the tunnel wall and dropped it off in Rep. Clay’s office. Clay was out at the time. “It was an impulsive thing when I walked by,” Hunter said of his decision, in an interview with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It strikes a nerve … You shouldn’t have something in the Capitol that depicts cops as pigs. It’s that simple.”
In response to the many people offended by the work, Clay suggested thinking about the artist’s motivation for the painting, rather than just the piece itself. “The bigger conversation we should be having is, ‘Why does this kid feel that way?’” Clay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Earlier this month, Clay released a statement explaining his refusal to remove the work despite its criticisms because of the First Amendment’s protection of provocative artwork. “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. “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.”
Whether or not Clay will re-hang the work after it has been removed remains to be seen. We have reached out to Clay’s office for comment and will update accordingly.
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