By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser did something last year that changed the world. On June 5, she renamed the portion of 16th Street N.W. that leads to the White House, “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” Her efforts in the nation’s capital reverberated around the world, and that is why the AFRO editorial board selected Mayor Bowser as the publication’s inaugural “Person of the Year.”
When Mayor Bowser commissioned the Department of Public Works (DPW) to create this historic canvass, she was sending a message she hoped would reach the walls of the White House. However, the larger than life street-art reached far beyond that, and while some may have been agitated by the Mayor’s action, the mural elevated the fight for Black justice; and then reverberated around the world, raising awareness of the horrors of police brutality and systemic racism in this country. Despite some feeling the Mayor’s action was an appropriation of the Movement and justice organization’s name and phrase, Bowser’s creation of Black Lives Matter Plaza sparked a worldwide call-to-action and similar protest-artworks globally.
“We know what’s going on in our country. There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of distrust of police and the government, there are people craving to be heard and to be seen and to have their humanity recognized. We had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city,” Bowser said in June when the Plaza was unveiled.
Throughout social media, in newspapers, on radio and television stations, people were reposting photos and discussing D.C.’s new artwork and the street’s renaming. Locally there was a sense of pride as those who installed the mural or created the signs took to social media to share the excitement in being part of history.
“In this moment…proud to Black; proud to be a D.C. native; proud to be a part of history. Proud to have been a part of an incredible team to make this happen. Grateful,” wrote artist and executive director of Congress Heights and Culture Center, Keyonna Jones on Instagram, after completing the Plaza.
Following the unveiling, Wayne Bennett Pettus, a young man working for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Field Operations Division’s Fabrication Shop, said on Twitter that he was honored to work on the project and proud of the Mayor for her willingness to participate in this form of protest.
“Yesterday my team and I got a chance to make history when [D.C.’s] Mayor Bowser had us create these [#BlackLivesMatter] signs to be installed in [D.C.]! I [was] so proud of her when they asked me to design it! In fact, we are all so proud of her for making her stance clear,” he tweeted, including a photo of him carrying the sign in one hand and holding up the “Black Power” fist with the other.
However, not everyone was pleased with the Mayor’s stance. As agitators in the struggle generally do, Bowser was speaking directly to the leadership of this country when Black Lives Matter Plaza was installed steps away from the White House; and its occupant was none too pleased.
While he did not directly acknowledge the street art right beyond his front yard at the time of its unveiling, President Donald Trump tweeted soon after, calling Bowser the incompetent of Mayor of Washington, D.C. Later, when news emerged that “Black Lives Matter” would also be painted on Fifth Avenue in New York, outside Trump Tower, the President was more vocal about his disdain for the art-activism and the Movement.
“NYC is cutting Police [money] by ONE BILLION DOLLARS, and yet [New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio] is going to paint a big, expensive, yellow Black Lives Matter sign on Fifth Avenue, denigrating this luxury Avenue. This will further antagonize New York’s Finest,” the Tweeter-in-Chief wrote on July 1.
However, Trump was not the only one agitated by Bowser’s form of protest. Black Lives Matter D.C. quickly took to Twitter to protest the use of the words without fully supporting the Movement. This issue continues to escalate between the city’s leadership and activists, many of whom have felt antagonized for practicing their first amendment right, having been arrested at pro-Trump demonstations in Novemeber and December.
“This is performative and a distraction from her active counter organizing to our demands to decrease the police budget and invest in the community. Black Lives Matter means Defund the police,” Black Lives Matter D.C. tweeted.
Despite criticisms, Committeewoman for the D.C. Democrats Sheika Reid told the AFRO, that the Mayor’s actions elevated the larger cause; the importance of Bowser’s actions was about progress.
“I think Bowser speaks to the fact that you have to be thoughtful about progress and that different people take different lanes, but hers was one that had international impact,” Reid said, before considering the disconnect between the Movement- many of whose representatives hold liberal views and, this year in particular, vote Democrat- and the Bowser administration. “At the same time, I think that this moment speaks to the fact that Democrats speak so critically, while Republicans are so loyal. We’re so quick to cancel within the Democratic party, while Republicans are so quick to get in line. We’re braced to say “Defund the police,” but Republicans can say openly that they want to “Make America Great Again.”
Though Bowser’s additional funds to the Metropolitan Police Department directly goes against a major goal of Black Lives Matter, the organization, in a historic move of arts activism Bowser agitated, elevated and reverberated the justice fight with three words that have been a call-to-action and a rallying cry. Since the Mayor commissioned those artists to complete the historic artwork in front of the White House, murals all over the world, from Annapolis, New York, California, Italy, Kenya to Pakistan, are sending a loud message through public art- Black Lives Matter.