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Art and Activism During the Time of Civil Unrest

Culture Staff Writer: Matthew Cox

On June 5th, two city streets facing the White House were transformed into a walkable plaza with the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted in yellow and renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. This happened as the nation struggled to handle an unprecedented lockdown and many American’s began witnessing the racial, social, and economic inequalities that have plagued our nation since its inception. Mounting political tension and the death of George Floyd sparked one of the largest movements in United States History.

With more spare time due to the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a surge in Black Lives Matter inspired street art, turning the quiet streets of locked-down cities into living art galleries. These “galleries” highlight and showcase the work of a community that has long been underrepresented in the art world. Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. is a great example of the intersection between art, activism, and politics.

Black Lives Matter Plaza was commissioned by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser as a response to the growing BLM movement. The plaza sits perpendicular to the White House, sending a clear message to the President. The areas surrounding the Plaza are decorated with signs and art demanding change. Phrases like “Justice for Breanna Taylor” and “Defund The Police” line the walls of buildings, showing a collection of support for the movement.

Photos of Black Lives Matter Plaza went viral the day it was painted and not soon after, similar road murals emerged across the country. While many praise the murals emerging on streets across the country, some activists are concerned that the city commissioned murals are an act of performative activism. Activists believe city officials commission these murals because they garner news attention and make the city look progressive - even though much deeper systemic issues exist. While a mural in the street sends a message and garners media attention, reforming legislation that disproportionately affects Black Americans is a more effective way to make progress. While D.C. remains one of the most liberal cities in the country, the systemic racism embedded in D.C. laws and political institutions continues to harm its Black citizens. D.C.’s Stop-And-Frisk policy, for example, gives police officers the power to stop and search individuals if they have “reasonable suspicion” that they are involved in a crime. The Metropolitan Police Department released new Data in March showing the racial disparity between those affected by Stop-And-Frisk. Between July and December 2019, 72% of police stops were of Black individuals, while only 14% of the stops were of white people. This disparity shows why activists view Mayor Bowser's “BLACK LIVES MATTER” mural as a performance.

In situations like this, it is important to separate the art from the spectacle. Art is fundamental in times of struggle, it serves as a vessel to carry a message across mediums while the spectacle of Mayor Bowser’s BLM road mural brings (welcomed) attention to this issue, it distracts from actions she could be taking to create lasting change. The art that surrounds Black Lives Matter Plaza was created by passionate individuals who poured their time, talent, and energy into creating work that pushes a movement forward. Albert Williams, a Black artist and activist in DC spoke with us about his involvement in the BLM movement saying, “The spirit of skill, has afforded me the opportunity to create. I desire to inspire the world with this gift, according to the grace given to me. I create art for the purpose of pushing the movement of equality and justice for all, forward.” Williams, like many other creatives, creates for change.

The street art and murals created by Black artists are a welcome addition to the streets of D.C., they create a vibrant and inclusive feel in areas spaces that once felt more empty. They have a life and passion to them that is unmistakable. But when the art is commissioned by a city government that could be doing so much more for the Black community, it feels like a distraction from the deeper issues. In looking to the future, the D.C. city council, as well as Mayor Bowser’s office, should invest more time and money into looking at the issues that disproportionately affect the Black communities around Washington.


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