A woman stands on the freshly repainted stars in the "Black Lives Matter" mural on 16th Street on June 7. Activists covered them over last night, so the message read "Black Lives Matter = Defund the Police."
This story was updated at 1:25 p.m. on June 8.
When Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled a massive mural of the words Black Lives Matter, composed in bright yellow block letters that span a two-block stretch of road leading to the White House on Friday, she wanted to send a message to the world, and to the president.
On Saturday, in the center of D.C.'s largest day of protests in the wake of George Floyd's killing, local activists pulled out buckets and paint poles, and they used the exact same forum to paint their own statement: "Defund the police." They also covered over the stars in the D.C. flag, and used the same kind of typography as the original lettering, so the full message seamlessly read "Black Lives Matter = Defund the Police."
On Sunday morning, workers with the city's Department of Public Works, which helped arrange the original work, were spotted refreshing the paint—and restoring the stars. But they left the words.
Bowser did not respond to a request for comment about the decision, or how she planned to proceed with the unsanctioned addition.
During an appearance on ABC's This Week on Sunday morning, she was evasive when asked if she would remove the message.
"Well, it's not a part of the mural and we certainly encourage expression, but we are using the city streets for city art," Bowser said. When pressed further, the mayor said she hasn't "even had the chance to review it."
The original mural has received international attention, and no less than civil rights icon John Lewis visited the street, which has been newly rechristened "Black Lives Matter Plaza," where he took a photo with Bowser.
The mayor called the original mural an "affirmative piece of art," and said people from around the globe had called to thank the city "for acknowledging black humanity and black lives in the most important city in the world."
But local activists were quick to criticize the effort. The D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter called it "performative" and a distraction from the mayor's failure to make substantive changes to the city's criminal justice system.
"Black people are allowed to be joyful or feel seen with DC renaming a street after Black Lives Matter," Kiki Green, a core organizer with Black Lives Matter DC said in an emailed statement to the group's supporters. "It's also our responsibility to let you know what we are fighting for, who has the power to change things and that power concedes nothing without demand."
Demonstrators paint "Defund the Police" on 16th Street on June 7.
The group has called for a ban on stop and frisk, no new jails in the District, defunding D.C. police, and other changes.
In that same statement, Black Lives Matter DC named black men who have been killed by D.C. police, writing: "We hold that we have a duty to the loved ones named above to ensure that they are not forgotten and their deaths are not exploited for publicity, performance, or distraction."
One the artists who painted the words "Defund the Police" says they considered different ways to transform Bowser's original mural. Turning the flag into an equal sign seemed like the best way to "take the message that was there and turn it into our message," says the artist, who didn't want to be identified to avoid taking credit for the work of a group.
Even though the city repainted the stars, he's glad the words are still there to communicate the message.
"If you defund the police, you're able to invest in black communities and black futures," he says. "I think [Bowser] realizes that's it's a message that's resonating around the country."
A number of protesters also shared conflicting reactions, many wrestling with both the public symbolism and the practical reality.
"I'm torn," Marcia Santos, from Gaithersburg, said Sunday. "I think it's a beautiful thing that has happened. But ... I'm trying to see change happen, and this doesn't happen by putting up a sign for ... Black Lives Matter."
Johnnie Williams echoed that sentiment as he provided water and snacks at the plaza on Sunday afternoon.
"While we appreciate the small gestures of the Black Lives Matter Plaza, painting the streets, that doesn't mean anything for substantive change and accountability," he said, citing Bowser's proposed increases in the police department's budget.
He believes the activists' addition of "defund the police" should be allowed to stay. "We all have the freedom of rights and speech, we should be able to say what we need to say," Williams said. "Because if we were really having an honest conversation, we would be talking about the militarization of police, which has been happening across this country for the past 10, 15 years since the Department Of Homeland Security was created."
Meanwhile, Trey Williamson, who biked in from Northern Virginia with his friend Holston Camp, said he greatly appreciated the original work.
"I think the fact that it's there really sends the message that black lives really do matter, and then seeing the diversity that's been out here for 12 days, and everybody supporting that," Williamson said, adding that it has been particularly heartening as he nears 50. "I've been dealing with this all my life. My three kids, who I thought would never have to deal with racism, have all gone through it. So, for me to see this mass amount of people out here and that message, I think it really puts a statement on that it really does matter."
The friends generally disagreed with the sentiment of defunding the police, saying that it should instead go to better training.
"We don't speak for everybody. You know, everybody's got their own opinion. But I agree with my boy, you know, I wouldn't necessarily necessarily say defund," Camp said. "I would just say move the funding in the right direction—eliminate that chokehold, teach him how to interact better with everyone."
But since Friday, other demonstrators have also scrawled messages on the massive yellow letters of the Black Lives Matter mural, with messages like "not good enough" and "f**k the 'mural,' change the system."
While the additions to the mural on 16th Street received the most attention, they weren't the only messages that activists left for D.C.'s politicians on the city's streets. Protesters painted a second "Defund the Police" mural outside the Wilson Building, where the D.C. Council meets. At one point, protesters laid around the words.
The legislative body is set to take up a bill this week that would ban the use of chokeholds, speed up the public release of footage from body-cameras, require that police officers involved in shooting deaths or other serious uses of force be named, and other steps.
Julie Strupp contributed reporting. This story has been updated with a reaction from one of the artists behind the addition to the mural.