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D.C.’s mayor makes a big show of painting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on a city street

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The 35-foot-tall yellow letters are photogenic, but defunding the police would send a real message.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser walks on the street leading to the White House after the words Black Lives Matter were painted in enormous bright yellow letters on the street by city workers and activists.
Without political action, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser’s actions are just surface level.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

On Friday morning, Washington, D.C.’s Public Works Department, at the direction of Mayor Muriel Bowser, painted “Black Lives Matter” in 35-foot-tall yellow letters on 16th Street between K and H Streets. Bowser also formally renamed this section of the road, which leads directly to the White House, Black Lives Matter Plaza in advance of a protest planned for Saturday.

Bowser’s actions on 16th Street send a photogenic message—and figurative middle finger to the current resident of the White House—but as a statement without political action, it’s only surface level.

Right now, the most powerful way for elected officials to say “Black Lives Matter” is by defunding law enforcement—a stance Bowser has not taken. She’s actually trying to increase police spending in Washington, D.C.

Her proposed 2021 budget, released on May 18, calls for a $578,069,493 Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) operating budget, a 3.3 percent increase from 2020, and a $18,729,714 capital budget, a 51 percent increase from 2020. Meanwhile, her 2020 budget called for expanding the MPD to 4,000 officers by 2021.

Other cities have announced spending reforms amid this week’s protests. Mayors in Los Angeles and San Francisco are redirecting funds from law enforcement to black communities. Four Minneapolis council members have committed to dismantling the city’s police department.

There’s a growing movement among D.C. residents and activists to defund law enforcement and direct money to social services instead. “A budget is a moral statement,” Sean Blackmon, an organizer with Stop Police Terror Project D.C., told Washington City Paper. “It comes down to a question of who gets this money and resources and why do they deserve it?”

“Whose streets? Our streets” has been a common refrain at demonstrations across the country this week, as protesters demand an end to the police brutality and white supremacy that led to the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other black people in the United States who are not safe on any street or in their homes.

The symbolism of 35-foot-tall letters painted by D.C. city employees on city streets is a reminder of this ongoing fight. But let’s not forget that this is the very same area where law enforcement shot rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters. No amount of paint can fix that.