Vandals erase message of non-violence on billboard at George Floyd Square

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Alicia Eler, Star Tribune
·3 min read
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A billboard promoting non-violence at the site of George Floyd's death has been transformed by vandals into a pro-violence message.

Designed by Minneapolis artist Xavier Tavera, the billboard at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue shows a tear-gas canister used by police during protests last spring with the words "Don't let anyone convince you that non-violence is ineffective."

Someone this week covered up the "non-."

Tavera learned of the vandalism after a photo was posted Wednesday on the George Floyd Square Instagram account (@38thandChicagoGFS), which has more than 13,000 followers. The post seems to interpret the billboard as pro-police, joking that the vandals should be brought "to swift justice for their crimes at the next morning meeting where they should be served a minimum one coffee and doughnut."

"Violence is effective," the post continues. "Police violence has predicated some of the most massive protests in history. When the police commit violence against protestors, it is effective in escalating situations, enflaming tensions, and convincing people they need to take a stand."

Commenters on the post chimed in, with one calling the artist "a cop sympathizer." Tavera, who identifies as Latino, joined the discussion to defend himself as a person of color, writing: "I am for peace. Look at it closer. It doesn't matter what violence the police inflicts on us we can stand our ground and protest peacefully."

The billboard went up as part of NE Sculpture Gallery Factory's ongoing Social Justice Billboard Project, which intends to elevate voices of artists of color. Two other billboards also went up recently at 38th and Chicago, by Twin Cities artists Seitu Jones and Jim Denomie.

The "cop sympathizer" comment was based on an Instagram post Tavera made in April 2020, before the killing of Floyd. Tavera posted a photo from his neighbor's daughter's birthday party, showing a young girl posed in front of a squad car with two white female cops. "She had mentioned that she wants to be a policewoman when she grows up," he wrote, and the surprise visit felt special.

Tavera said Thursday he expected the billboard to be controversial, and it became more so after Daunte Wright was killed by police Sunday.

A photographer whose work focuses on the Latino community and issues of identity and race, Tavera said that "we are also profiled," noting the recent killing of a Latino teenager by Chicago police. But he is interested in the debate his billboard spurred and isn't sure whether he will restore its original wording.

"Most of the work I do is to spark conversation and dialogue," but he said "both the extreme right and the extreme left are ... completely missing the point" of his billboard, which is intended to support resistance to police violence. "To completely block the dialogue — that is kind of sad but also interesting to observe."

Earlier this year, a mural painted on the side of Cup Foods where Floyd was killed garnered similar controversy. The mural was created by a small team of non-Black artists without input from Black artists or the community. The mural has been defaced multiple times, but it continues to be preserved by the caretakers of the Floyd memorial.

Last summer, activists ripped down and destroyed a mural painted on the front of Kmart on Lake Street by a white woman, portraying a white-looking cop hugging a Black protester.

Alicia Eler • 612-673-4437

@AliciaEler