Painting in Capitol depicting police as pigs becomes a political football, with California politicians among the players

The painting had been hanging in a Capitol hallway for six months, attracting no public complaints.

Then, shortly before the new year, a conservative website published this headline: “Painting of Cops as Pigs Hung Proudly in US Capitol.” The story was picked up by Fox News and rose the ire of several law enforcement associations across the country.

Now it’s the subject of a tug of war between House Republicans and some Democrats. Republican representatives have been pulling it off the wall, a Democrat who put it back tried to involve the police, and the speaker of the House has said he’ll overrule the office in charge of the building in order to get rid of the painting.

The painting depicts a clash between police and protesters on a street. In it, gun-wielding officers have heads that resemble pigs, while one protester appears to be a panther or wolf, and people on the street hold signs that read “History,” “Justice Now” and “Racism Kills.” A black man hangs from a crucifix, the scales of justice in his hands.

The painting was a winner of an annual high school art competition and is among hundreds that line a block-long tunnel used by visitors and members of Congress to travel between the House office buildings and the Capitol.

Frustrated that the painting remained on the wall, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) pulled it down last week after it was discussed in a closed-door Republican meeting. He delivered it to the office of Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), whose constituent painted it.

“The U.S. Capitol, especially in this corridor ... is not a modern art museum,” Hunter’s chief of staff, Joe Kasper, said Tuesday. “It’s not the right place to have anything that calls attention to police officers as swine.”

Clay gathered with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a handful of other members to hang the painting back up Tuesday morning.

“I do not agree or disagree with the painting, but I will fight to protect this young man’s right to express himself,” Clay, whose district includes Ferguson, Mo., told reporters afterward.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) helped hang the painting back up, and said a handful of House members shouldn’t be able to decide willy-nilly what is appropriate art.

“It’s not the road we should be going down, and of all the things we should be dealing with, this is ...” Lowenthal said, trailing off. “For them to decide that they now are the censor of the Congress … is totally inappropriate.”

Clay said he tried to seek theft charges against Hunter for removing the painting, but Capitol Police wouldn’t take the report. 

Kasper dismissed threats of theft charges as “grandstanding.”

“That’s a punk move,” he said.

Hours later, the painting was pulled down twice more, once by a Colorado representative, and a short time later by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) and Brian Babin (R-Texas). Both times it was rehung soon after.

“We support freedom of speech, but you don’t put something attacking policemen, treating them like pigs, here in the Capitol,” Rohrabacher told Roll Call.

While the Missouri painting is being criticized for depicting police as pigs, it’s not the only one in the tunnel dealing with race and police. A student painting from Georgia titled “The Rules” depicts two white officers tearing a black man from his seat at a checkers table and cites a 1930s Alabama law that prohibited black and white people from playing board games together.

As the day wore on, members of the Congressional Black Caucus became frustrated: “We may just have to kick somebody's ass and stop them,” caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) told Politico.

Former sheriff and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) is asking the Architect of the Capitol, the agency responsible for the building and grounds, to remove the painting. Reichert says it violates the competition’s rules, which state that “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed.”

Hunter, who says he remains friends with Clay, will not personally pull the painting down again, Kasper said. Clay said he’s asked Hunter for an apology.

“Sometimes you have to do things like that to draw attention of people and get it taken down,” Kasper said. “Mission accomplished.”

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told Republicans in a closed-door meeting Tuesday that he and Republican leaders will pull down the painting if the architect chooses not to remove it, according to a staff member in the room who asked not to be named because the person is not permitted to release such information. Hunter also confirmed Ryan’s statement to Politico.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

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