Black ExperiencePolitics

High School Artwork Pits Republicans Against CBC on Capitol Hill

“We may just have to kick somebody’s ass,” new Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) told a reporter on January 10, over the repeated removal of a painting that won the annual High School Congressional Art Contest.

The CBC chair likely was exasperated with several Republican members of Congress, who spent part of the day removing a teen’s art from a long hallway with 200 art pieces in the U.S. Capitol complex, because it focused attention on an uncomfortable topic and dared to be critical of law enforcement — a profession that for some is above criticism.

On Jan. 10, against the backdrop of President Obama’s farewell address, a nomination hearing for Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general and a press conference by Donald Trump, members of Congress did battle over a painting by a teenager.

The St. Louis high school student David Pulphus’ painting shows a street scene that includes as it’s main character an animal in a police uniform pointing a gun at a figure dressed in jeans and a red shirt that would appear to be a wolf. But the painting also includes a cop depicted as human calmly leading a person away by the arm.

Three Republicans including Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Brian Babin (R-Texas), removed the painting at some point last Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Republicans moved to make the painting an issue into a call to arms in support of police. They also argued that a picture involving “current controversy” hanging in the Capitol was a violation of the art competition rules.

The artwork had been hanging for over six months, since June 2016, and went unnoticed until a Fox News personality complained in late December.

“Know that the Building Commission already approved all of this artwork on this wall. The African-American community has had a painful, tortured history with law enforcement in this country. So let’s not ignore that fact, that that’s not contemporary. That’s historic,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) on whether the issue of police brutality should be considered a “contemporary” controversial issue.

Rep. Clay told the NNPA Newswire after votes on the House floor on the night January 10, “It’s really been reduced to a childish game now and they have lost all civility for this institution.”

On the morning of January 10, Reps. Clay, Richmond (D-La.), and Reps. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) re-hung the acrylic painting after Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) removed it and carried it to Clay’s office on January 7. The NNPA Newswire asked Hunter on January 10, if the art was protected by the First Amendment and he responded, “No.”

Several CBC members have pointed out that the U.S. Capitol is full of dubious characters depicted in sculpture and on canvas, who are known racists and segregationists. The individuals depicted and honored are on permanent display inside the U.S. Capitol and have been for years, unlike Pulphus’ artwork, which is not in the U.S. Capitol and is temporary.

The late segregationist Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi, whose portrait is permanently displayed on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol above the Senate Chamber, was well known as an opponent of civil rights. A statue of Confederate “president” Jefferson Davis stands in the Statuary Hall, along with several other dubious characters in U.S. history, including Alexander Hamilton Stephens and former President John Calhoun.

The Black Caucus discussed the issues around the painting on Wednesday, January 11 at their weekly meeting.

Lauren Victoria Burke is a political analyst who speaks on politics and African-American leadership. She is also a frequent contributor to the NNPA Newswire and Connect with Lauren by email at and on Twitter @LVBurke.

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