Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are supposed to be the grownups in the room, but a spat over a high school student’s painting is revealing their childish tendencies—and the episode could have broad implications for race relations under President Donald J. Trump.
Every year high school students across the U.S. compete to get their art hung in the Capitol where it’s on display for the millions of visitors who walk through the complex annually, but this year one young artist’s work has inflamed racial tensions among lawmakers and revived a debate over police tactics.
David Pulphus, an 18-year-old high school student, painted the controversial rendition of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, which portrays officers with guns pulled as pigs and a protester as a black panther, as a black bird and a white one fight overhead.
The painting has become the center of a political tit for tat after Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) first pulled the painting down and left it in the office of Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO) who represents Ferguson and the student.
Clay reported Hunter to the Capitol Police for allegedly stealing the painting, but Capitol Police Chief Matthew R. Verderosa didn’t enjoy being likened to pigs and refused to lift a finger.
On Tuesday morning members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a high profile press conference where they put the painting back where the Architect of the Capitol originally hung it, surrounded by the other 400 some odd winning high school pieces of art.
Within hours of the press conference, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) took the painting down.
Later in the day Rep. Clay and a staffer hung the painting back up.
Then Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Brian Babin (R-TX) joined forces and removed the painting, again placing it in Rep. Clay’s office.
“I’m dizzy, man,” Clay told The Daily Beast. “It’s really reduced to a childish game now, and now it calls into question the decorum and civility of this institution. And I think that’s the real tragedy at this point, because they’ve really turned it into a game.”
Even Speaker Paul Ryan weighed in on the controversy. On Thursday, he called the painting “disgusting” and promised to take steps to get the painting removed from the Capitol’s public space.
“This isn’t a question of First Amendment rights. Of course this young person has the right to do something like this wherever they want to,” Ryan said on the Mike Gallagher Show. “But we do have rules that govern these paintings, so it’s not as if you have a constitutional right to hang whatever you want in the House hallway in the Capitol gallery.”
Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA), a former sheriff, is spearheading GOP efforts to get the painting formally removed, partially because he said it could become a public safety issue.
“I believe that the more that this is ramped up and that both sides make this a political issue it becomes racially charged, and in that case I fear that someone could be influenced by the behavior of members of Congress,” Reichert told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen that happen before, where leaders influence bizarre action by people that could result in somebody being injured or killed.”
Clay said he doesn’t support or oppose the artist’s portrayal of police as pigs, but that’s not the point. For him, it’s a First Amendment issue.
“His winning entry is a provocative, symbolic representation of the great anger and pain, frustration and deep deficit in trust for local law enforcement that many young African Americans feel in their heart,” Clay said. “The pain also reflects generations of struggle, sacrifice, abuse of power and tenuous relationship between minorities and the system of justice.”
Democrats fear the episode with the painting is a harbinger of things to come at the Capitol under unified Republican control for the first time in more than a decade.
In the aftermath of last year’s gun-control protest where Democrats took over the House floor and gained media attention through live streaming apps and a social media storm, Speaker Ryan and GOP leaders passed a new rule in the House at the start of this new Congress that imposes up to a $2,500 fine for lawmakers who take pictures or record videos on the House floor.
The debate over the painting occurred at the same time as attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was being grilled for his past statements and actions seeming to support the KKK and his alleged legal work to suppress the black vote in his home state.
Combined with Trump tapping former Breitbart CEO and friend of the “alt-right” Steve Bannon as his senior counselor, members of the Congressional Black Caucus fear a drastic change in Washington as the nation’s first black president prepares to leave the White House.
“We’re headed for troubled times under this new administration, which has ushered in a climate of polarization and divisiveness, intentionally, simply to get elected,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) told The Daily Beast.
Johnson argued that the GOP fight over a young African American’s painting at the Capitol highlights the broader fight for minorities to be heard in Washington during the next four years.
“It goes against our very fabric of society—our very First Amendment. We see it happening repeatedly day after day, eroding our liberties, and I think it’s something Americans need to pay attention to,” Johnson continued. “Apparently the people up here in Washington, D.C., who make the laws and talk about how judges should be strict constructionists of the Constitution have no idea of what’s in the Constitution and what rights they have.”