The bronze, 38-foot-tall statue of George Washington that looms at the west entrance of the University of Washington’s Seattle campus has been looking different lately. It stands covered in dark red paint meant to symbolize blood, surrounded by posters and chalk statements calling it a symbol of racism against the university’s students of color.
For many of UW’s Black and Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC), this statue they must pass every day symbolizes a dramatic glorification of slavery, white supremacy and settler colonialism. Today, they are demanding its removal.
“The desire to take down the statue has existed for as long as Black and Brown people have been able to be on this campus; we are just reigniting that demand to meet the present circumstances,” said a member of the university’s Black Lives Matter coalition (UW BLM), who wished to remain anonymous to avoid targeting from university actors.
In late June following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police and the influx of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, a Change.org petition calling for the removal of the George Washington statue was created by Black Lives Matter Allies at UW, an organization that now collaborates with UW BLM. The petition has gained nearly 5,000 signatures.
“When [Washington] was ‘protecting American freedom’ he was not protecting the freedom of the African American community. In fact, they weren’t even deemed human beings to him. This is not a history that we as a nation should be proud of nor have on a pedestal,” the petition states. In addition to the removal of the statue, the petition makes three other requests: Replace the statue with a Black Lives Matter fist; rename George Washington Lane where the statue stands to George Floyd Lane and rename the neighboring By George Cafe to Juneteenth Cafe.
But sharing the petition and spreading the word on social media isn’t what’s called the most attention to the cause. Since Aug. 2, UW BLM has been organizing acts of “Art as Education” as part of a month-long demonstration of “resistance art.” Every day between 4 and 7 p.m., members and other students of the university have gathered around the Washington statue with posters, paints and chalk to create theatrical artwork in an attempt to overwhelm and draw attention away from the actual sculpture.
The statue is now covered in paint and surrounded by posters with statements such as, “We’ll be here every day until white supremacy falls,” “The ghost of racist past” and “People over property. Stop silencing BIPOC.”
It was after only the first day of this demonstration that the university responded by sending members of the UW Facilities department to take down the posters and clean the statue.
In an interview near the statue on Aug. 27, the UW BLM member pointed to a man next to the statue who was holding construction tape and said, “He’s with Facilities. I spoke with him the first day when he came by with some UWPD officers. He admitted that they were there to protect him [the statue] from us while he cleans the area. I guess they’re all afraid of students with Crayola crayons.”
While their month-long resistance art demonstration is starting to wind down, UW BLM has received very few responses from the UW administration. But this silence, explained the UW BLM member, is a statement in itself. “The Black student union is calling for the statue to be removed. President [Ana Mari] Cauce can either meet that demand or choose to dismiss it in order to favor other constituents.”
Prior to the beginning of the demonstration, UW President Cauce took to social media to hint her opinion on the matter. “Ana used her personal Facebook to leave comments on students’ reposts of the petition, linking a Bloomberg article that was in the sentiment that George Washington was a man of his time and that there’s values that we can still derive from him — asserting herself in a very strange way as a non-Black person toward Black students and their demands,” the UW BLM member said.
The UW Office of the President did not respond to an email from Real Change requesting comment.
Still, even though the university has made no motion toward removing the statue, the UW BLM member is assured that there has been some progress toward educating UW students and faculty on the often sanitized history of American founders. While it’s no secret that Washington’s legacy runs all throughout the country, UW BLM members hope that starting the conversation around the campus statue will plant the seed for further growth away from systemic racism.
“Of course we desire for the university’s name to be changed, but that’s not what our demands are right now. Our demands now are to interrogate why we have statues that force Black students to directly confront racist figures when they come to campus, especially when the university is always claiming to be so inclusive,” the UW BLM member said. “When you put any figure on a pedestal, you are saying that they are who we should look up to.
“When we have statues like this, we need to understand who the statues are for and acknowledge who will continue to remember this traumatizing history that these founders created.”
Read more in the Sept. 2-8, 2020 issue.