Is This Art or Racist? Cardboard Lynching Effigies at Berkeley Stir Debate Over Limits of Artistic Expression
Effigies of Black lynching victims shook the University of California, Berkeley campus over the weekend, but what many perceived as a racist, hateful display is now being defended by the group responsible for the figures as art.
When the cardboard cutouts of Black lynching victims first appeared on the campus on Saturday there was an immediate debate over the intended message.
On Sunday, a statement was posted on one campus bulletin board that claimed the “collective of queer black and PoC [people of color] artists” was behind the displays.
The statement apologized “solely and profusely to black Americans who felt further attacked by this work” but also defended the displays as being “relevant to the social framework in which black Americans exist everyday.”
There was no statement posted when the effigies were discovered; only the names of the lynching victims and the year the lynchings took place were on display along with the words “I can’t breathe.”
The message is a reference to Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who told officers he couldn’t breathe 11 times after New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a NYPD-banned chokehold.
In the midst of the string of unarmed Black men and women being killed by police officers, the message behind the effigies was all the more difficult to decode.
Twitchy.com reported that the displays were likely an “ill-concived attempt by left-wing anti-police protesters to show solidarity with victims of police brutality” and one professor at the university said the displays were “misguided” at best.
An African-American studies professor at the university, Leigh Raiford, on the other hand, was supportive of the displays and saw them as a form of “guerilla protest.”
“I don’t dismiss the power and fear that these images provoke but I see this as guerrilla protest,” she told the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, people are still urging the individuals behind the pieces to come forward, but they have made it clear that they have no intentions of doing so.
For some people, the decision to remain anonymous is all the more reason to question the intentions.
“This artist statement at Berkeley….I have questions,” writer Mikka Kendall tweeted. “Being Black & POC artists doesn’t mean Black American. At all.”
Another user responded to Kendall and said, “So [I’m] not the only one who raised my eyebrow with that ‘Black & PoC’ canard.”
Another user added that the group’s intentions have nothing to do with whether or not they should apologize. The simple fact that people were hurt and offended regardless of their intentions is enough to come forward and sincerely address the issue.
“Choosing to remain anonymous after hurting so many people makes me question sincerity of apology, accountability,” political writer Sarah Kendzior tweeted.
UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks slammed the displays as “deeply disturbing” and said campus police will be looking into the matter.
The displays appeared a day before students planned to come together to protest the recent police killings of Black citizens.
While some students said the displays did make them a bit anxious they still were not deterred from participating in the peaceful protests over the weekend.