Opinion: The great work of art that followed George Floyd’s death
In the year since George Floyd was murdered, we have seen uproar, protest, conflict and change. And we have seen the creation of one surpassingly great work of public art: Black Lives Matter Plaza, a brilliant and searing exercise in speaking truth to power.
Art cannot change the world on its own. But masterworks can bear witness to atrocities. Think of Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808,” which depicts French soldiers executing Spanish independence fighters, or Pablo Picasso’s wrenching “Guernica,” which captures the agonies caused by the 1937 Axis bombing of the Spanish town of that same name. And art can serve as a galvanizing focus to rally those fighting for justice.
I remember waking up June 5 to see the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” unfurling in 35-foot-tall, bright-yellow letters on what had been the southernmost two blocks of 16th Street NW, directly across Lafayette Square from the front windows of the White House. It was, for me, an electrifying moment.
Four days earlier, then-President Donald Trump had used U.S. Park Police, National Guard troops, low-flying helicopters and clouds of tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters from the park and surrounding streets. He had then marched across this battlefield to pose for a photo op outside St. John’s Church, awkwardly holding up a Bible as if he were hawking some gawdy Trump-branded product on a late-night infomercial.
This disgraceful spectacle had taken place during a week when massive daily demonstrations were raging in cities across the country. Trump was declaring, in essence, that the streets were his to control.
With her stirring and audacious counterattack, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser showed him how wrong he was.
She had city workers block off the street and asked artists to begin painting the slogan around 3 a.m. Once protesters realized what was happening, they joined in as willing assistants.
“The moment I decided to create Black Lives Matter Plaza was when I came face to face with a line of federal police blocking a street in my legal jurisdiction,” Bowser wrote in an op-ed in The Post later that month. “Here we were in my hometown, in the capital of the United States of America, with people all around us protesting for change, demanding reforms to the racist and broken systems that killed George Floyd and so many Black Americans before him. But instead of bringing the country together, the federal government was blocking the streets. It was clear the president was doing everything he could to tear us apart.”
The plaza’s importance owes not just to what it says and how boldly it expresses that sentiment, but where it is. With its complex symmetries laid out by Pierre L’Enfant, and with its monuments and memorials placed along majestic lines of sight, Washington can be thought of as a vast open-air museum of public art. While 16th Street does not mark the geographic center of the city, it is the key north-south axis in the geography of power, leading from the city’s northern apex down through the White House, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.
From one side of his residence, the president looks out on massive tributes in stone to great men who owned Black men and women as slaves. From the other, the president now cannot avoid being reminded of the truth that Washington and Jefferson willfully ignored: Black lives do, in fact, have just as much value and meaning as White ones.
The fight for justice has produced many unforgettable images over the past year — former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck; multiracial throngs of protesters filling the streets of cities around the world; Floyd’s face projected on the graffiti-marred statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond; Chauvin being led away in handcuffs after being convicted of murder.
For me, though, the most truly indelible was of Rep. John Lewis, a great hero of the civil rights movement who was dying of pancreatic cancer, standing on Black Lives Matter Plaza and looking down at the giant letters, seemingly lost in thought.
“You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story,” he wrote to the protesters in an essay published posthumously in the New York Times. “That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day.”
Cities across the country admirably emulated Bowser and established their own Black Lives Matter plazas, including on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in front of Trump Tower. But none equaled the scale, scope, slyness or perfection of the original. It is good that Bowser now has plans to make the lettering more permanent, because it needs to endure as long as does the nation it instructs."