MADEIRA, Ohio — In a student art piece that hung briefly in the Madeira Municipal Building, a man with a pig’s head stands with its hands folded behind its back, flanked by a collage of headlines in capital letters. SHOT SIX TIMES. GRAND JURY DECLINES TO INDICT OFFICER IN FERGUSON SHOOTING. TORTURED BY COPS. THEY KILLED HIM. It wears a gun, a badge and an American flag.
The image, which was displayed in the municipal building as part of an annual art fair, was a faithful execution of the assignment Madeira City Schools had given a group of art students: “Take current event articles published in newspapers or magazines on a similar topic and then summarize those articles into a visual representation of the feelings and emotions within the articles selected.”
The choice to display it in a city building, however, sparked threats against the student artist, outraged calls to the Madeira Police Department — which is headquartered in the same building as the art display — and, ultimately, an early removal. In a statement, Madeira City Schools said it had arrived at the decision “out of concern for the safety of the student.”
“It was not the intention of the student to evoke such a divisive response,” the statement added.
Madeirans said Monday night they were torn over whether or not it ought to have stayed up.
“We have the First Amendment for a reason and sometimes it’s not comfortable to have it, but I would rather protect that freedom of expression than limit what people are saying and try and limit the conversation just because it’s uncomfortable,” said Amy Phillips, whose daughter attends Madeira City Schools.
Byron Marks, who said he works in art himself, wavered.
“I think the picture of a police officer as a pig, I found offensive,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m troubled by the number of unarmed Americans who’ve been shot by police in the past year or so.”
The headlines that form the bulk of the project are from earlier than that. They include stories about the 2015 murder of 50-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, the 2014 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the 1999 death of 22-year-old immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York City and others. All of the victims were black, unarmed and killed by police. Despite activists’ efforts, only Scott’s case resulted in a murder conviction for the officer who shot him.
Incidents like these and the corresponding belief — backed up by some studies — that black people were disproportionately targeted by police officers, often violently, created the Black Lives Matter movement and a new wave of close scrutiny directed at the way American police departments use force.
If the student is sympathetic to that scrutiny, Liz Loring said, they should be allowed to say so, and messages critical of the government aren’t necessarily inappropriate for its buildings.
“I just kind of feel sad as a teacher that, especially with the artwork on a display with other artwork, that it would be unacceptable to have self-expression,” she said.
In a statement, the Madeira Police Department acknowledged receiving complaints about the art project but did not disclose whether it had requested the artwork be removed.
“The members of the Madeira Police Department fully respect and support the student’s right to free speech and recognize that this young artist is very talented,” the statement reads. “However, officers are troubled by the perceived message of the student’s art project.”
So was Lt. Dan Hils, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police and a frequent defender of Cincinnati officers whose use of force becomes the subject of public discussion. On Monday night, Hils said he was saddened by the piece but would not have asked for it to be removed.
“For me, the word I think of is just a little disappointed — disappointed that there is youth that believe that of police officers,” he said, adding: “It’s a beautiful thing our country has — the ability for people to express how they feel and this young person was expressing how they feel. I feel they were wrong.”