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Op-Ed: ‘Say Their Names’: How graffiti is cutting to the heart of the protests

A pedestrian reads protest graffiti on 3rd Street in the Fairfax District on May 31.
Graffiti that echoes George Floyd’s last words — “I Can’t Breathe” — makes us bear witness to his murder again and again. The image was taken May 31 in the Fairfax District.
(Los Angeles Times)

During the recent protests, a piece of graffiti in the Fairfax District simply read: “God Said Riot.”

The message could be a testament to the righteousness of the current Black Lives Matter movement or a nod to the importance of spirituality in 1960s civil rights struggles. The graffiti makes clear that, even if the president poses with a Bible to create an image of power, it’s the power of collective action — written here as “God” — that trumps all. Change is coming, it says. We will make sure of it.

Graffiti provides a shorthand, a lens that zeroes in on what people on the ground deem most important and why. Graffiti has been helping to build a new narrative since people took to the streets across Los Angeles and the nation to protest police brutality and systemic racism. The graffiti refutes the argument, embraced by the Trump administration, that outside agitators inflamed the current movement. Instead, the writing on the walls signals the deeply local nature of participation, the development of new alliances and a set of new demands.

Inside the 2nd Street tunnel, downtown Los Angeles, June 8.
(Susan A. Phillips)
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I’ve studied graffiti in Los Angeles for 30 years. During the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, people wrote such phrases as “Black Power,” “Bloods and Crips Together Tonight” and “This Is for Rodney King.” That year gangs were peacemakers while abusive policing and white supremacy were called out in bold strokes on the streets — “LAPD 187,” which invoked the California penal code for murder, and “KKK Killa.” Then as now, owners decorated storefronts for protection and to signal solidarity: “Black Owner. We Are With You.”

Today, graffiti cuts to the heart of protest. People demand “Care, Not Cops,” 16-year-olds spray paint “FDT,” an acronym incorporating the president’s initials. The current social movement around police brutality amplifies a key message: Police need to be held accountable.

Pushing back against lethal policing has led to novel alliances between people from diverse race and class backgrounds and the organizing principle of staging protests in wealthy, commercial neighborhoods. These shifts show up on the walls alongside “Black Lives Matter,” “Raza Unida,” “Asians 4 Black Lives.”

The political graffiti that’s sprung up recently in Los Angeles and across the nation can be divided into two loose categories. The first is anarchist writing, some of which dates to 1970s England and links anti-capitalist ideology to the Black Lives Matter movement. This contains phrases like “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards), “1312” (for the alphabetic order of the letters in ACAB), and anti-capitalist slogans that include the classic “Eat the Rich, Hang Bankers, “F— Capitalism,” and various depictions of pigs.

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Farmers Market, Fairfax District, June 6.
(Susan A. Phillips)

The second relates specifically to Black Lives Matter and focuses on white supremacy and the death of George Floyd and countless others at the hands of police — “RIP George,” “Say Their Names.” Graffiti that echoes George Floyd’s last words — “I Can’t Breathe” — makes us bear witness to his murder again and again. The visual reminder is powerful, as is seeing his name in Los Angeles scrawled next to a painted question, “Am I Next?”

As protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd, Angelenos honored his life with murals and street art, calling out racial injustice.

Protest graffiti is a critical intervention in urban space, especially as municipalities and police attempt to shut down the streets. Even after protests have dispersed, graffiti stands as a testament to the protesters’ collective voice.

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Political graffiti always signals the potential for social change. The graffiti may soon be washed away, but not before it is documented, becoming part of history. Graffiti in times of crisis can also offer hope, echoing on walls across the city and country: “Another World Is Possible.”

Susan A. Phillips is professor of Environmental Analysis and an associate dean at Pitzer College. Her latest book is “The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti.”


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