After Inauguration Day, fewer and fewer people showed up in the Black Lives Matter Plaza every day. Most people took the footage they wanted and left, except for the homeless people, the street artists, and the fence watchers (protecting the protest signs and street artwork on the fence between the plaza and White House), they have to stay as long as they can. My boyfriend Ryan and I joined the fence watchers in Black Lives Matter Plaza two days before Inauguration Day. Living in DC for two years, I have my personal emotional attachment to this plaza. Most protest routines always have a stop around here. I love this public place not only because it reminds me of all my protest memories, but also because of its symbolic meaning about freedom of expression.
I come from China, where they never allow street protests or any potential disagreement towards the state or authorities. Lacking freedom of association, assembly, and press, only non-controversial protests could be approved by the government, which is always portrayed by Chinese mainstream media as proof that China guarantees the same rights as Western countries. In practice, however, any self-organized protest could be proscribed as a violation of the penal code against ‘inciting subversion of state power’ under the auspices of maintaining ‘social stability’ in a larger narrative. Even though massive protests have happened in Hong Kong since 2019, the public in mainland China generally holds negative opinions towards it because the Chinese Constitution declares that it’s every citizen’s duty to “fight against those forces and elements […] that are hostile to China’s socialist system and try to undermine it.”
Now as I live in DC, I view the BLM plaza as our public space and our social infrastructure, carrying our anger, sorrow, and a deep sense of commitment to the community. The art pieces hanging on the fence are a physical reminder of resistance and cross-class, cross-race bonds reinforced during Black Lives Matter protests, anti-Asian-hate protest, the Women’s March, and so on.
Since last year after George Floyd was killed by the police, more and more people came to protest or march around the Black Lives Matter Plaza, and they left their protest signs on the fences. After months, these signs became a public exhibition and a part of the historical record of the place. They are also a part of collective memory, which has material and social consequences in helping people resist the homogenizing forces of urbanization and maintain the heterogeneity and locality of a place. As Jordan (2003) argues, collective memory affects not only the landscape of the city but also the concrete social, political and spatial projects.
We met Nadine Seiler, 55, a street artist who spent months outside Lafayette Square and Black Lives Matter Plaza advocating against racial injustice and making artwork about human rights and social justice. Nadine told us that last year after the announcement of the newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a group of white conservative religious people stormed the fence and pulled down many signs. From then on, Nadine dedicated herself day and night to stopping the destruction of the signs on the fence. Protecting the material representation of collective memory in space has local significance. The artwork on the fence served as a collective memory for the community itself, and its symbolic meaning was socially constructed by the social activities that happened in this space. Both of these are forces that shape the perception and self-definition of the community, as well as of DC. The plaza provides a symbol for oppressed communities and also a moment of organization, resistance, unity and power for the people that fight against racial injustice, police brutality, and state violence.
A “place,” as defined by Gieryn (2000), is a physical environment invested with personal and collective meaning, memory, and value. Places carry a lot of meanings, which are “qualitative, historically specific configuration[s]”, incorporating a sense of individual rootedness in locale and the dependence of memory on the particularities of the physical and cultural environment (Jordan 2003). Every individual in a place not only occupies a spot but also defines that space at the same time. Public space is not only a physical container. It also composes social relations and contains collective memory embedded in the social activities that occurred on the site. According to Right to the City (Lefebvre 1996), space is shaped by society for economic production and social reproduction. Lefebvre argues that the city is fragmented where use value and exchange value meet in relation to production. During the Covid-19 pandemic and all the recent changes in US politics, the criminal justice system, and the society as a whole, the social exchange that used to take place in the city retreated due to social distancing, the fear of physical encounters, and the uncertainty of safety. The public space shrank both physically and theoretically.
Preserving protest artwork on the Lafayette Square fence is also the protection of a living art gallery. That history would never have been complete if it wasn’t for the fence watchers’ tenacity and dedication to protecting it. But the self-appointed fence watchers can’t physically stop every conservative group from ripping signs off. The DC Department of Public Works also dumped a lot of them that were left on the sidewalk in December. When the city announced they would take the whole fence down we reached out to the National Archives and National Museum of African American History and Culture to save the protest signs.
Howard University and the Library of Congress have already selected some of the representatives for a collection, but there are so many good street artworks, protest signs, and hand-written posters and notes that will be gone with the wind. My boyfriend and I tried to take as many photos as we could to save a digital copy of them; but after the fence is gone, will we still remember the nationwide protest and historic chaos, and the resistance, darkness, and sparkling of humanity?
|June 2020||The protest over George Floyd’s murder and the fence between White House and BLM plaza was first built and people started hanging protest signs and memorial artworks on it.|
|November 2020||Street artists started organizing the art pieces on the fences|
|January 2021||More layers of fence were built around the BLM plaza after Jan 6th, and the conflicts between white supremacist groups and protesters become more and more intense.|
Gieryn, T. F. (2000). A space for place in sociology. Annual review of sociology, 26(1), 463-496.
Jordan, J. (2003). Collective memory and locality in global cities. Global cities: Cinema, architecture, and urbanism in a digital age, 31-48.
Lefebvre, H. (1996). The right to the city. Writings on cities, 63181.
 “Inciting subversion of state power” (Chinese: 煽动颠覆国家政权罪; pinyin: Shāndòng diānfù guójiā zhèngquán zuì) is a crime under the law of the People’s Republic of China. It is article 105, paragraph 2 of the 1997 revision of the People’s Republic of China’s Penal Code.