Our Unwitting Autobiography

A geographer puts on her social-scientist bifocals to photograph the signs of public yearning macro and micro, near and far, in a summer of protest in Washington, D.C.

Temporary fence at Lafayette Square. "Black Lives" is spelled out with yellow tape; beyond the letters are portraits of Black and Brown people killed by police.
Temporary fence at Lafayette Square. “Black Lives” is spelled out with yellow tape; beyond the letters are portraits of Black and Brown people killed by police. [All photographs Elizabeth Chacko, 2020.]

As the pandemic unfolded in the spring of 2020 and my university moved to online classes, I decided that a regimen of walks was what I needed. First in my own neighborhood and then in other parts of Washington, I wandered daily as a participant-observer, a 21st-century flâneuse exploring her adopted city. I put on my social-scientist bifocals and observed things micro and macro, near and far, documenting what I saw in photographs and notes.

I wandered daily as a participant-observer, a 21st-century flâneuse wearing social-scientist bifocals.

Washington locked down for the first time on March 26. Yet denizens of the District and its neighboring suburbs mobilized in protests throughout last summer. These photographs were taken mostly in the months of June and July, a period during which the New York Times noted that Black Lives Matter was emerging as one of the largest activist movements in the nation’s history. 1

On June 1, a loosely knit group of peaceful demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Square — a public park long used to stage protests — to condemn the wanton killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people. It was here that law enforcement infamously cleared a path so that President Donald Trump could pose with a Bible in front of the adjoining St. John’s Episcopal Church. Later the same day, protestors assembled near Judiciary Square were subjected to “rotor washing” or “thumping” by National Guard helicopters churning debris into their faces. Less than a week after these incidents, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser authorized the painting of the words “Black Lives Matter” in 35-foot yellow letters along a two-block stretch of 16th Street, mere yards from the White House. Meanwhile, federal officials erected a ten-foot fence along the northern edge of Lafayette Square, effectively preventing access to the park and the area around the White House. Undeterred, Washingtonians began to use the fence as a gallery wall, creating a richly textured assemblage of protest art.

Signs on the Lafayette Square fence (top left); projection on the façade of the Washington National Cathedral (top right); yard sign in the Cleveland Park neighborhood (bottom left); mural by <a href="https://www.instagram.com/csrmxt/">César Maxit</a> at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Douglass Commonwealth is the proposed name of the 51st state. The figure is signing “I love you,” and the abbreviation on their mask means "you are loved."
Signs on the Lafayette Square fence (top left); projection on the façade of the Washington National Cathedral (top right); yard sign in the Cleveland Park neighborhood (bottom left); mural by César Maxit at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Douglass Commonwealth is the proposed name of the 51st state. The figure is signing “I love you,” and the abbreviation on their mask means “you are loved.”

Signs and banners were appearing at religious institutions as well. The Washington National Cathedral engaged an events-lighting firm to adorn the cathedral’s facade with the words “Black Lives Matter” in an after-dark display that lasted two weeks in mid-June. At the National United Methodist Church, an outdoor exhibit memorialized victims of gun violence. St. John’s, which was built in 1816 and is known as the Church of the Presidents, put up their own BLM sign, complementing a four-story banner proclaiming the same message on the adjacent office building of the AFL-CIO. Across town, the “Black Lives Matter” sign at Washington Hebrew Congregation (established in 1852) is still standing on its grounds, next to a stainless-steel sculpture known as the Behrend Menorah.

As stores, bars, and institutions closed in response to the Mayor’s edict, plywood on boarded-up windows offered still more surfaces for art and messaging. The young entrepreneur Tarek Kouddous had founded his firm Radical Empathy in early 2020, as a for-profit start-up organizing open-air events. Kouddous pivoted to matching property owners with artists and, by late June, had facilitated installation of 23 murals. On Juneteenth (June 19), as Congress readied for a vote on D.C. statehood — it passed in the House but was not taken up by the Senate, though it may soon come around again — Mayor Bowser herself moved to commission murals. 2 The city invited six local artists to create 51 paintings at thirteen different sites across all eight District wards. At still other sites, like Thamee Burmese restaurant on the H Street Corridor and The Park at Fourteenth a few blocks from the White House, individual proprietors contracted well-known muralists to make visual statements on their business facades, while some locals took the project of agitprop upon themselves.

The murals, flags, and banners of 2020 were tangible if ephemeral representations of protest, mourning, celebration.

Even my neighbors were putting signs on their lawns. Some simply stated “Black Lives Matter” in black-and-white letters on a black-and-white-striped ground. Others announced intertwined ideals: “In this house, we believe Black Lives Matter, Love is Love, Science is Real, Feminism is for Everyone, No Human is Illegal, and Kindness is Everything.” Or, another version: “In our America, All People are Equal, Love Wins, Black Lives Matter, Immigrants and Refugees are Welcome, Disabilities are Respected, Women are in Charge of their Bodies, People and Planet are valued over Profit, Diversity is Celebrated.” There were signs appreciating essential workers (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who seemed to have gained Washingtonians’ trust). It being an election year, there were signs of party affiliation too, but I saw none promoting the Trump-Pence ticket — and I looked for them. Even in Ward 3, the city’s richest and Whitest jurisdiction, residents were visually asserting solidarity with people of color.

Thamee Burmese Restaurant with mural by <a href="https://www.instagram.com/aniekanreloaded">Aniekan Udofia</a> (left); yard signs in the Glover Park neighborhood.
Thamee Burmese Restaurant with mural by Aniekan Udofia (left); yard signs in the Glover Park neighborhood.

Did the political signs across the city reflect a collective shift in White attitudes about race and racism? Was this a transformation that extended the boundaries of privileged lives into the farthest reaches of the Black majority or the underprivileged wards of the District, enlivened with empathy sufficient to remember past wrongs and the courage to redress them? Unfortunately, no — Washington’s segregated Black and Brown communities have long been demanding equitable treatment in critical areas such as policing, employment, housing, education, healthcare, and access to healthy food, with little traction in a fast-gentrifying city. Yet I find the visuals powerful in their symbolism: they publicly acknowledge and denounce a prevailing culture of White supremacy.

Geographer F. Peirce Lewis writes that landscape constitutes “…our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our ideas, in tangible, visible form.” 3 Material objects and images are integral to human settlement, helping to create the cultural artifact that is the city. The murals, flags, banners, signs, and street art of 2020 were tangible if ephemeral representations of protest, mourning, celebration, and democracy; they signal a yearning for a more egalitarian social reality amidst the complex meshing of race, power, and privilege in the nation’s capital.

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Notes
  1. Nationwide, BLM protests are said to have peaked on June 6, when an estimated half a million people turned out in some 550 places across the United States to uplift the value of Black lives. Those protesting were not necessarily Black: 95 percent of counties where a BLM protest unfolded were majority White, while nearly three-quarters were more than 75 percent White. See Larry Buchanan, Quoctrug Bui, and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in U.S. history,” New York Times (July 3, 2020).
  2. See Barbara Sprunt, “In Historic Vote, House Backs Statehood For D.C.; Trump And The Senate Say No,” (June 26, 2020), and “With Stronger Democratic Support, D.C. Statehood Fight Returns To Capitol Hill,” NPR (March 22, 2021). The bill is sponsored by the District’s nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton.
  3. F. Peirce Lewis, “Axioms of the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene,” JAE, vol. 30, no. 1, “Teaching the Landscape” (September 1976): 6-9, https://doi.org/10.1080/10464883.1976.10758067.

 

Cite
Elizabeth Chacko, “Our Unwitting Autobiography,” Places Journal, April 2021. Accessed 26 Sep 2021. https://doi.org/10.22269/210420

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