WASHINGTON ― After Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) removed a controversial painting hanging in a Capitol tunnel on Friday, the member who had selected the art, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), held a press event on Tuesday to put the painting back up. A couple of hours later, another Republican took the painting down again. Then Clay put the painting back up again. Then two more GOP representatives took the painting down. Then Clay put it back up once more.
Now Republican leadership is getting involved.
The painting imbroglio is the latest battle in a larger culture and political war over protests, police conduct and black people who have experienced injustice at the hands of law enforcement, the courts and prisons. Republicans who keep removing the painting know they’re shoring up support in their conservative districts, just as Clay and his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus who have joined him in putting the painting back are winning support among their constituencies.
The Republicans who have taken the painting down now ― Hunter, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) ― have all bragged to the press and on social media that they took matters into their own hands.
Police told The Huffington Post that taking the painting down technically meets the legal definition of theft (even though Republicans have simply returned the painting to Clay after removing it). But the representatives don’t seem worried about flouting the law, and the Capitol police appear intent on turning a blind eye.
It’s not that Capitol police necessarily like the painting. “I wouldn’t hang it in my house,” one officer told HuffPost on Tuesday. But the Capitol police force isn’t going to get involved in a political fight by arresting members for taking down a painting.
Since June, the artwork has been hanging in a tunnel that connects the Capitol to a nearby congressional office building. It’s a winner of the most recent Congressional Art Competition ― a yearly contest for high school students in every member’s district. The untitled painting from then-senior David Pulphus, who went to high school about 10 miles from Ferguson, Missouri, depicts cops as boars or pigs holding someone at gunpoint as protesters stand in the background. There is also a black man being crucified while holding the scales of justice, among many other images.
Hardly anyone seems interested in discussing why a high school student might have this view of police, growing up in an area where people who couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets were thrown in squalid jail cells and held hostage until their frightened family members could come up with enough money to purchase their freedom.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told members on Tuesday that they were looking into the rules of the Congressional Art Competition, citing “suitability guidelines” from the competition that may be grounds for removing the painting. Ryan has directed Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a former sheriff who helped track down the Green River Killer, to be the point man on the effort to banish the art from the tunnel.
The guidelines for the competition note that it is not their “intent to censor any artwork,” but say it’s necessary that all artwork be reviewed by a panel chaired by the Architect of the Capitol, a federal agency. Any submission not in accordance with rules set by the House Office Building Commission may be omitted from the exhibit, the rules say.
It’s unclear whether the Architect of the Capitol reviewed the painting when it was initially hung. The agency did not respond to a request for comment. But the guidelines would suggest that the painting had to pass inspection before its installation in the tunnel.
Regardless, Ryan told Republicans they would look to remove the painting through those official mechanisms. And if they needed to vote to remove the painting, they would do so.
Ryan’s office did not respond to a question about whether he thinks it’s appropriate for members to be taking down the painting themselves.
But either way, it’s a perfect opportunity for members on both sides of the aisle to score points at home. Republicans get to make a show of standing up for police. Democrats can look like they’re standing up for oppressed people of color and freedom of speech. And no one has to do anything of real substance on any of those issues.
Ryan J. Reilly contributed to this report.