Police associations and others successfully demanded the removal of a Denver 10th-grader’s artwork from a public building this week. The drawing shows a police officer in a Ku Klux Klan hood aiming a gun at an unarmed black youth with his hands up.
The artwork was among dozens of student pieces on display in the Webb Building, a city office complex. The student’s assignment at the Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, a public magnet school, was to research a masterwork and reinterpret it in a contemporary context. She chose Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808,” which depicts Spanish civilians resisting the invasion of Napoleon’s troops, but her drawing is also a near-copy of Michael D’Antuono’s 2014 painting “A Tale of Two Hoodies.”
Police became aware of the artwork when two detectives were in the building to file a case with the Denver District Attorney’s office, which is housed there. Outrage soon spread online, with the National Latino Police Officers’ Association calling it “hate art” and Denver Police Protective Association president Nick Rodgers demanding that Mayor Michael Hancock take it down. Former Denver safety manager Butch Montoya said in an email to the Denver Post that the drawing is “a racist message against police officers” and “not freedom of expression but an attempt to peddle hateful and racist trash as art!”
After the furor began, the student herself requested this past Wednesday that her art be taken off display. Nevertheless, she and her parents were still called to meet with Hancock, Police Chief Robert White, and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susan Cordova. That meeting was postponed due to a blizzard, but is now scheduled to take place today. Hancock and White reportedly plan to make separate public statements after the meeting, while “the student doesn’t wish to speak.”
Similar scenarios have been repeated across the country in the past few years. In 2015 the public library in Long Beach, California removed then reinstated a citizen art installation that showed a police officer aiming a gun at a black man laying on the ground. And just last month, a Kentucky school refused to remove a student artwork which also compared police to Klansmen.
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.