Dem plans to file criminal complaint against fellow lawmaker over painting

Greg Nash

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) on Monday said he plans to file a complaint with the Capitol Police against a Republican colleague for removing from the Capitol complex a constituent painting showing black protesters in confrontation with police officers depicted as animals. 

The painting had been displayed since June in a tunnel connecting the Capitol and two House office buildings. But after the painting attracted attention from right-wing news outlets in recent weeks, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) personally took it down on Friday and returned it to Clay’s office.

Clay, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was incensed while speaking about the incident with reporters outside the House chamber on Monday night. He plans to hold an event to put the painting back on the wall on Tuesday morning with fellow Black Caucus members.

{mosads}Clay said he hasn’t spoken with Hunter about the painting yet. But he told reporters he plans to file a complaint with the Capitol Police accusing Hunter of theft.

“How dare he!” a fired-up Clay said. “He was way out of bounds. He broke the law. It’s called theft. And I don’t think anyone up here is qualified to be an art critic.”

The exception, Clay quickly added, would be fellow Black Caucus member Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), a former art history professor.

The St. Louis-area Democrat was on his way back to his district Friday morning when he received a phone call from a staffer informing him that Hunter had taken down the piece of art. 

The painting, by student David Pulphus, won a first place award in an annual high school art competition between House members’ offices. It shows a street filled with black protesters holding signs that say “History” and “Racism Kills.” At the center of the painting is a confrontation between a protester, depicted as a black panther, and two police officers bearing resemblance to feral pigs.

Off to the side, a black police officer clearly depicted as a human appears to be escorting a protester away from the scene.

Law enforcement organizations offended by the artwork had urged Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) last week to remove the painting. Adding to the furor is the fact that the painting had been displayed near a Capitol Police security checkpoint.

But Clay, who represents the town of Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager in 2014, defended the artwork’s message. He cited examples of police mistreatment of African-Americans in Ferguson, as well as the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police later that year in New York City.

“Those are his impressions. Those are his feelings. That’s how he formed his opinion,” Clay said of his constituent. “And he expressed it in his art, because those were animalistic traits of people dressed in blue.”

Clay countered that there’s plenty of artwork in the Capitol he personally finds offensive, such as the statues of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.

“Two traitors who cost Americans 600,000 lives. And they’re treasonous. They should be out of here,” he said.

“I can imagine how the first African-Americans who served in this body felt when they got here in the 1870s. First they were denied their seats based on trickery by people here, and then they see all of these pictures of the people that had enslaved them? How do you think they felt?” Clay asked.

The bottom line, Clay argued, is that there are bigger issues lawmakers should be debating.

“Any black parent will tell you that they have to have this conversation with their children about police and how to act around them. And 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 this attitude and improve the relationship between police and the black community?” Clay said.

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