WASHINGTON — A painting by a black teenager depicting police brutality is hanging again in the US Capitol after being removed by multiple congressmen, but Republicans are promising to take it down for good.
The painting by Missouri teenager David Pulphus depicts pigs as police officers as part of a message about police brutality. Several Republicans have deemed the painting offensive and unacceptable.
The painting is a symbolic depiction of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and inequality in general. It was one of 400 paintings to win a high school art competition and earn a spot in a hallway in the basement of the Capitol. For months it was displayed without controversy.
But its depiction of pigs dressed up as police officers pointing guns at black men recently became a hot topic in some right-wing media circles across the country. And now it has led to a standoff between members of Congress who think the painting is offensive and those who are defending the young artist's free speech.
So far, the painting has been taken down three times by four different congressmen.
Last week Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter took the painting without authorization and returned it to Rep. Lacy Clay's office. (Clay, who represents Ferguson in Congress, picked Pulphus's painting as the winning entry from his district last spring.)
"It was something that had to be done, so I just did it," Hunter told reporters today.
Clay and other members of Congress hung the painting back up Tuesday morning. But a few hours later, a Fox News cameraperson witnessed Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn take it down again, becoming the second congressman in a week to take the painting without authorization. The painting was then returned to Clay's office, again, and rehung for the second time that day.
By mid-afternoon a small group of reporters were staking out the hallway underneath Capitol Hill waiting to see if any other members of Congress would steal the painting.
Sure enough, before long two more Republican congressmen — Reps. Brian Babin of Texas and Dana Rohrabacher of California — took down the painting in front of rolling cameras.
Clay reinstalled it a third time shortly after. "This is dizzying," said Clay. "It's so childish."
Meanwhile, Hunter is promising to have the painting taken down permanently for breaching contest rules banning controversial subjects or depicting modern events, in this case the Ferguson, Missouri, protests.
"It's offensive. It portrays police officers as pigs and it doesn't belong in the US Capitol, it's that simple," said Hunter.
The Congressional Black Caucus has responded that Capitol Hill features several paintings of segregationists and slave owners that black people could find offensive. But Hunter dismissed the notion.
"That's ridiculous. There's no comparison between things that were painted 50 years ago or 100 years ago... it's a false analogy," he said.
Speaker Paul Ryan told Republicans that party leadership also believes the painting breaches contest rules and they will try to take it down, according to Hunter's office. But members of the Congressional Black Caucus are promising to fight to keep the painting up.
"I do not agree or disagree with this painting, but I will fight to defend this young man's right to express himself because his artwork is true for him and he is entitled to that protection under the law," Clay said.
Congressional Republican staff say they are "making it a top priority" to draft a letter to Architect of the Capitol Steven Ayers to ask that he review whether the painting should be taken down.
Clay said that the art piece was inspired by the high-profile killings of black men from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown in the artist's home state.
"His winning entry is a provocative, symbolic representation of the great anger, pain, frustration, and deep deficit in trust for local law enforcement that many young African-Americans feel in their heart," said Clay.
"The larger, much more fundamental question is why does this artist feel this way? And what can we do as leaders of a compassionate and just nation to remedy that?"
BuzzFeed News reached out to Pulphus for comment but did not immediately hear back.
Clay said he has filed a complaint against Hunter for taking down the painting without authorization. Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Cedric Richmond accused Hunter of trying to distract from ethics investigations into his own behavior, including using taxpayer funds to pay for the flight of a family rabbit. Hunter's office has said that those expenses were billed to his office by mistake.
Richmond chalked up the thefts to publicity stunts, but said he hopes Speaker Ryan has other priorities.
“If this is something that Speaker Ryan thinks is one of his priorities in a new Congress, to pick on an 18-year-old art student who only depicts what he sees in his community, then I just think that that’s sad," he said.
This post was updated after the painting was removed a third time today. Rep. Lacy Clay reinstalled it again. "This is dizzying," said Clay. "It's so childish."
Rep. Cedric Richmond chalked up the thefts to publicity stunts, but said he hopes Speaker Ryan has other priorities. “If this is something that Speaker Ryan thinks is one of his priorities in a new Congress, to pick on an 18-year-old art student who only depicts what he sees in his community, then I just think that that’s sad," he said.
Paul McLeod is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Paul McLeod at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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