Bay Area police unions joined law enforcement groups around the country Thursday calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan to remove a painting from the U.S. Capitol complex.
A letter jointly sent by police unions around the country, including those in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose states:
“Our law enforcement organizations, representing over 27,000 law enforcement professionals, strongly urge you to exercise the extraordinary power you possess as Speaker of the House of Representatives to immediately remove the reprehensible and repugnant ‘art’ on display in our nation’s Capitol that depicts police officers as Pigs intent on gunning down innocent people.”
The work in question, “Untitled #1” by David Pulphus, who was a high school student in St. Louis, Missouri, at the time he made the painting, depicts the unrest in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown in 2014. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer after robbing a convenience store. In the painting, cops with the heads of boars (a type of pig) aim guns at the protesters.
The acrylic painting has been on display for months after it won an annual art contest put on by Missouri Democrat William Lacy Clay last May. A number of members of Congress sponsor art competitions, though they don’t judge the art themselves. Clay was not a judge in this particular contest.
But Paul Kelly of the San José Police Officers Association says the work is “hateful” and “basically paints all law enforcement essentially as racists.”
Kelly says attacks against uniformed law enforcement officers are on the rise and that Pulphus’ artwork could incite more violence. “There could be people out there that continue to be angry, are mentally ill,” Kelly says. “False narratives that continue to be pushed out could push them over the edge.”
Police deaths have not spiked in the last two years, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. But the letter from the police unions calls the painting, “incredibly disrespectful to the families of those killed in the line of duty.”
Pulphus’ father Jonathan Pulphus says his son — now a freshman at St. Louis Community College–Meramec — is taking the controversy in his stride. “He understands that freedom of speech applies to everyone,” Pulphus says. “They are entitled to their own opinion as well. The painting is far more dynamic than just the depiction of cops. The piece speaks volumes covering a variety of themes. Basically, this is just his interpretation of his experiences thus far.”
Congressman Clay has refused to take down the work located in the tunnel that connects the Longworth House Office Building and the Capitol. “The U.S. Capitol is a symbol of freedom, not censorship,” writes Clay in a statement. “The young artist chose his own subject and the painting will not be removed.”
Speaker Ryan has not yet responded to the police unions’ letter.