BERKELEY, California (AP) — Effigies of black lynching victims found hanging at the University of California, Berkeley have sparked debate over whether the images are powerful protest art or just plain tasteless and racist.
The photographic images were found Saturday morning hanging at two prominent spots on one of the most famous American campuses — especially when it comes to protests. They were discovered a few hours before a demonstration against police brutality organized by a black student union was to start. Police are investigating, but officials say they still don’t know who hanged the images or the motivation.
Race relations in the U.S. have been fraught since grand juries in the St. Louis are and New York City recently decided against charging white police officers linked to the deaths of unarmed African-Americans. About 300 people participated in a peaceful Berkeley protest Saturday afternoon. Many of them later joined a larger demonstration in Oakland that was mostly peaceful, though police arrested 45 people.
UC Berkeley’s leaders released a joint statement Saturday calling on those responsible to come forward.
“While we do not know the intent of the effigies, the impact that it has had on our campus community is undeniable,” chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks and provost Claude Steele said in the prepared statement.
Social media sites hosted debates between those who viewed the effigies as art and those offended by the images.
Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a UC Berkeley professor of social psychology who studies prejudice and stereotyping, said he sees no redeeming quality in the images hanged Saturday.
“Given the volatility of the protests, I think it’s misguided regardless of the protest,” Mendoza-Denton said. “It’s inflammatory and is triggering upset and anger.”
Others, however, said the effigies may have been a form of “guerrilla art” and that images of lynching victims have been used by artists in the past. The rap group Public Enemy used a photograph of two lynching victims on the cover the single “Hazy Shade of Criminal” released in 1992.
Leigh Raiford, an associate professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley who has written about lynching photography, said the images may have been hanged as an artistic expression.
Raiford said there is a long history of artists and groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People using lynching images as part of a campaign to highlight a history of violent racism in the U.S.
“Somebody really did their homework,” Raiford said of the images, each of which had a name of a lynching victim and the year of their death.
A black student union representative said the group is also mystified about who hanged the effigies and why.
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