Resistance Art on a Fence

I wasn’t planning to go. I was too busy, I thought. But my conscience got the better of me. So there we were, my husband and me with about 100 other people standing on the sidewalk of the Interstate Bridge, some sitting on the “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign, all of us protesting the murder of George Floyd.

People carried signs, most of us wore covid masks. Lots of people in passing cars honked their horns, waved in support, flashed peace hand signs. It was all good and peaceful. Of course, there were a few dissenters like the guy walking about in his in-your-face Trump T-shirt, and a few burly young men in fatigues holding rifles as self-appointed guards at stores downtown. They seemed so out of place, so anachronistic somehow.

Local young folk organized this grassroots event for our small twin cities of Marinette, WI and Menominee, MI. I thank them and wish I could have stayed longer. I’m told that the protest remained peaceful and convivial with a gathering of around 200 people later in the day.

That was on June 3, two days after peaceful protesters were forcefully driven from Lafayette Park so that Donald Trump could walk from the White House to St. John’s Church for a photo-op of himself awkwardly holding a bible. That was one day after a temporary black metal-mesh fence began being erected around Lafayette Park, and several days before the fence became a pop-up art gallery that practically hid the White House from view.

I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have seen the resistance art covering the fence. I wish I could have slowly walked along the perimeter fence to admire the posters and other art showing that resistance to racial injustice and police brutality would not be denied. One visitor to this grassroots art show said, “We finally got a wall and it’s beautiful.” Others saw it as a place of healing and of hope.

Before the Park Service began removing the fence on the evening of June 10, reporters and visitors memorialized the artwork with photographs and videos; volunteers carefully collected some of the art for possible preservation by the Smithsonian and other museums; and other volunteers moved some of it to a nearby construction site fence.

Since then I’ve reflected on this question: What function did the Black Lives Matter fence gallery serve? For one thing, it functioned to blot out the White House; as such, it served as a visual metaphor for what the artists would like to do – make this administration go away, one that has failed to further the interests of black and brown people, let alone recognize the validity of the protesters’ concerns. For another, it turned a “you don’t belong here” symbol into a “hear us roar” expression.

Not only did this DIY art gallery give voice to protesters’ concerns and grief, it also served as a memorial to those lost to police violence – their names and faces graced the fence. Plus, it was a call to keep up the fight against racial injustice; and it was a call for white people like me to reflect, at last, on our own contributions to and privileges afforded by American systemic racism.

I saw a poster on TV yesterday during an Atlanta protest prompted by the killing of Rayshard Brooks. It read: “If all lives mattered, then we wouldn’t be here.” That made me think. I hadn’t given much thought to the All Lives Matter mantra until I read that. The poster is right! If all lives mattered, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and far too many other unarmed black men and women would still be alive – and other daily injustices to black people like those regarding healthcare, housing, education, and employment would be addressed. Black Lives Matter!

Photo credits in order: My photo of the BLM protest on the Interstate Bridge; Stephani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Image found on NPR station WAMU 88.5; “Police-Free Schools” and “Say Their Names” both found in a slide show on NBC NewsCenterMaine (not on that website today); Poster signing photo also found on WAMU 88.5.

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