A Sign That Preserving BLM Matters

Paraphernalia collected from D.C. protests will be exhibited in gallery space

Brooke Ramey Nelson
Mar 2 · 4 min read
A visitor to the temporary fence erected around the White House perimeter last summer views signs, banners and artwork reflecting the strength of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Photo: Author’s archives

They continue to come from the city; the suburbs, and far-flung destinations far from the Nation’s Capital. Tens of thousands have stood in the center of D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Mural since June, on a two-block stretch of what used to be called 16th Street NW. The yellow image painted on the asphalt — indeed larger than life —intersects with Lafayette Square across from the White House. It was designed as a symbol of hope in the wake of last summer’s confrontation with hate.

The mural stops at the expansive green space where the police and military, summoned by the former occupant of the Oval Office, sprayed chemicals at peaceful protesters in order to make room for the Orange Infidel to waddle from his taxpayer-funded hiding place to St. John’s Church, where he stood uncertainly — almost wobbling, really — to hold an upside-down Bible in his right hand.

“Is that your Bible?” a member of the media queried.

“It’s a Bible,” the Orange Oaf replied. He didn’t know why he was there, much less what the Good Book symbolized. His daughter — yeah, that one who worked as a “presidential adviser,” or some such thing — had carried the holy compendium of the Old and the New Testaments across the square in her father’s wake, shielding it in her $1,540 designer tote bag. When the group reached St. John’s — known as the Church of Presidents — they stopped, and the dutiful First Daughter handed her Pops the prop.

After the charade was complete and the posers retreated to their White House bunker, a fence went up around the square, daring any more “militants” to breach the barrier.

Instead, protesters started festooning the fence with their anger, their disgust, and even their hope. It became a stunning tapestry; a testament to the First Amendment: paint and black marker, crayon and cardboard artistry.

“No Justice No Peace.” White letters on a lavender placard.

“You have the POWER to MAKE THINGS BETTER.” A quote from our 44th President, Barack Obama.

Dozens upon dozens, hundreds, thousands upon infinity: signs, banners, sketches, collages and murals stretching wherever the fence wound, with a note of finality affixed toward the center, near the BLM Mural.

“Fuck Your FENCE.”

The first time I visited this sometimes crowded but always calming testament to the Bill of Rights and the American Way of Life, I stood on the corner of 16th Street and Black Lives Matter Plaza for a good long while. I looked at the artwork covering the fence — that fascist’s fence — and wondered what would become of the public outpouring. Then my gaze took in the nearby buildings, most of which were boarded up to “protect” them from wayward tear gas canisters — wielded by the authorities — and BLM protesters who, for the most part, were loud in their angry frustration but nonviolent in their quest to be heard.

Artists had started turning those plywood ramparts into messages, too. And those messages — “Black Lives Matter,” of course, but also the names of the dead and George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe” — a part of the tableau.

“We’re painting history,” one street artist told a local TV station.

Plywood covering parts of buildings near Black Lives Matter Plaza soon became artists’ canvases. The Black Lives Matter Mural is huge, stretching two city blocks toward Lafayette Square. Photo: Author’s archives

My questions — about the eventual outcome of the creations on both the fence and on the buildings near BLM Plaza — were answered last month. A lot of these reflections of the movement, which have been collected and saved for posterity, will find a new home in downtown D.C. A nonprofit group plans to turn empty office space in the city center into a gallery preserving the voices of last summer’s protests of racial reckoning.

Of course, these mementos of massive, peaceful resistance are weathered by sun, wind and rain. They’ve been scribbled on by visitors to the fence and the surrounding area. Despite the fact that most of the pieces are a little worse for wear, they still make a profound statement, which the nonprofit PAINTS Institute wants to emphasize in its BLM protest exhibit.

The Washington Post visited the 16,000-square-foot space and chronicled the effort to preserve our nation’s most-recent turmoil. Some of the artists who created the works on the plywood were there, too.

“Oh man, look at that,” Dez Zambrano said, reflecting on his artistic efforts as well as the work of the crowds that descended on D.C. last summer. “I can almost hear the chanting.”

The vacant storefront will be turned into exhibition, studio and education space, in a collaboration between the PAINTS Institute and Oxford Properties, which owns the square footage and donated it to the community organization’s efforts to “provide education, training and job opportunities to at-risk youths and seniors in D.C.,” according to The Post.

The events of last summer are still fresh in the collective national conscience. And this creative collaboration intends to keep that memory — and the American spirit that spawned the Summer of 2020 — very much alive.

“We the people means ALL THE PEOPLE,” read a sign I saw on the Black Lives Matter Plaza fence last June.

“We will not stay silent,” read another. “We will not go back to normal.”

Well said. Let freedom ring.

The efforts of street artists and just plain citizens will be displayed in a downtown D.C. gallery commemorating the Summer of 2020 — one of racial reckoning and First Amendment freedoms. Photo: Author’s archives.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens.

Brooke Ramey Nelson

Written by

A Native Texan and Mizzou Journalism grad, Nelson has worked in newspapers, politics, PR and as a high school publications adviser and AP English teacher.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

Brooke Ramey Nelson

Written by

A Native Texan and Mizzou Journalism grad, Nelson has worked in newspapers, politics, PR and as a high school publications adviser and AP English teacher.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

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