Police advocacy groups in Wisconsin objected to a painting displayed at the Madison Public Library on May 1 that shows an African-American boy pointing a toy gun at three riot police officers who have their weapons aimed at the child, calling it inflammatory and biased.
Artist Mike Lroy said the piece — acrylic and spray paint on canvas, entitled “Don’t Shoot” — is meant to stir emotion and provoke reflection.
The criticism comes as demonstrations endure nationwide to protest the killings of black suspects by white police officers, most recently the death of Freddie Gray while in Baltimore police custody. In March, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed biracial man in Madison, sparking demonstrations.
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association and the Madison Professional Police Officers Association issued a joint statement saying they are “deeply troubled” by the artwork.
The “storm trooper portrayal of officers who appear to threaten a small child only serves to advance patently negative law enforcement stereotypes,” the groups said.
Lroy defended his art.
“Art is a positive outlet for expression, emotion and activism,” Lroy said in a description posted next to the painting, adding that his aim is “to empower black individuals who are feeling angry, forgotten, and demonized by the mainstream narrative.”
The organizations said to demand that it be removed would not be an appropriate response to free speech, but that they wanted to exercise their own right to be heard.
“This is a sensitive time in our community,” said WPPA executive director Jim Palmer, calling the display “inflammatory, negative, stereotypical and a slap in the face.”
Madison Public Library director Greg Mickells said the piece is displayed in partnership with 100 State, an entrepreneur incubator organization that supported three artists in residence.
“Some of the work will reflect a wide range of views, expressions and interests and may be unorthodox or controversial. The library’s display of these items doesn’t constitute endorsements,” Mickells said.
Mickells said library staff knew the artwork would have an impact and that they hoped it would provoke dialogue. He said he would invite the police groups to publish their own statement which could be displayed next to the piece. Palmer said he would take him up on that offer.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne is weighing whether to file criminal charges against city of Madison police officer Matt Kenny, who shot and killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson. Kenny was responding to calls that Robinson had assaulted two people and was running in traffic. Police said Robinson attacked Kenny inside an apartment house.