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Congress is feuding over a teen's controversial painting that dramatizes events in Ferguson

One of the bitterest fights being waged in Congress right now is over an acrylic painting by a teenager in Missouri that almost nobody had heard of until this Friday.

For seven months, the painting (shown below) sat in the middle of a tunnel connecting the US Capitol to a House office building after it was hung there by Missouri Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay:

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

The painting by Missouri student David Pulphus, 18, was hung there after he won a local art competition in Clay’s district. Nobody objected to it until earlier this month, when police organizations began raising objections to the painting’s depiction of an officer as a pig.

What followed was a surreal tit-for-tat that’s almost too easy to read as a symbol of congressional dysfunction. Heeding the outcry from some police groups, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California personally took down the painting on Friday. On Monday, Democrats fired back at a press conference at which Rep. Clay, joined by other black lawmakers and the head of the Congressional Black Conference, reinstalled the painting at a small ceremony.

But after the ceremony this morning, the painting was again removed by Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, who returned it to Clay. Clay responded at a little after 2 pm by putting the painting up for a third time, where it lasted for — you guessed it — just a few hours.

At around 4 pm, two other Republican representatives — Dana Rohrabacher and Brian Babin — again removed the painting, marking the fourth time it had been moved Tuesday.

Republicans have the power to remove the painting

The back and forth over the painting is almost certainly going to end the way the Republicans want it to: They will have authority to say whether the painting can stay, and will probably move to take it down, according to Mark Harkins, a congressional expert at Georgetown.

Already, several Republican Congress members have told House Speaker Paul Ryan that it should be taken down. Ryan’s spokesperson said “there’s a general consensus that the painting needs to be addressed.”

Ryan can tell the office of the Architect of the Capitol, which will have final say over the matter, what to do. (That office is responsible for overseeing the buildings and grounds on Capitol Hill.)

Clay’s office recently reported the Republicans’ decision to remove the painting to Capitol Police. Fox News has reported that police won’t be taking up the investigation.

As the Huffington Post’s Matt Fuller pointed out on Twitter, that may raise some eyebrows: Republican Congress members took someone else’s property without legal authorization, even if they also returned it to Clay.

Black caucus, Republicans clash over painting’s fate

Rep. Hunter has characterized the painting as an insult to law enforcement, and challenged Democrats to either admit to supporting the depiction of police as pigs, as the painting suggests — or agree to have it taken down.

But Republicans and Hunter have also argued that the reason they were empowered to simply take it down on their own was because it violated congressional rules against paintings depicting “contemporary political controversy.”

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus think that’s ridiculous. As Clay pointed out Tuesday, the Capitol is littered with paintings and regalia of slaveholders, and no Republican question that as political or controversial.

This dovetails with Clay’s main argument: that removing the painting would violate the First Amendment. Without endorsing its depiction of police as pigs, Clay says the painting reflects an important emotional statement that can’t be reduced to “political controversy.” Removing the painting amounts to stifling another person’s perspective, not just a gratuitous insult against police.

“I do not agree or disagree with this painting. But I will fight to defend this young man’s right to express himself because his artwork is true for him and he is entitled to that protection under the law,” Clay said at this morning’s press conference.

The fight over the painting in the context of Trump

But there are much bigger forces that have made the fight over the painting so suddenly fraught with meaning. At around the same time Clay and other members of the CBC gathered to rehang the painting this morning, protesters less than a block away were erupting into chants at the confirmation hearing of attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions.

"No Trump, no KKK, no racist USA," they shouted as they were escorted away from the Capitol in handcuffs.

The two events may seem unrelated, but they’re intimately connected by fears of how the new authorities in Washington will listen to black Americans and take seriously their fears of police violence, according to Harkins, the Georgetown professor.

Harkins argues that you can’t view this debate without considering that the nation’s first black president is about to cede power to Donald Trump, who was openly supported by white supremacists and hate groups. Trump also expressed enthusiasm for bringing back/expanding stop and frisk, which is almost an explicit endorsement of police violation of the constitutional rights of black and Latino people.

This is the context in which we have to understand Clay’s efforts. Clay has said he wants to defend the right of a black teenage boy to express his experience of America within the halls of Congress. That helps explain why the stakes of this seemingly minor fight feel so high — why the Congressional Black Caucus was willing to spend hours on it on Tuesday, despite being busy with the threat of Obamacare repeal and dozens of other fights in Congress of greater consequence for policy.

“The painting reflects generations of struggle, sacrifice, abuse of power, and tenuous relationships between minorities and a system of justice that still provides equal justice for some, but not all,” Clay said at this morning’s news conference a few hours before the painting was again removed. “So I am very pleased that today we have restored the winning painting to its assigned location.”

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