As protests and calls for racial justice consumed Washington, D.C., local artist and educator Keyonna Jones received a call from a friend about a secret city project.
“One of the artists that was part of the project called me Thursday at six and said there was this kind of secret project that the city was doing. They had a budget — which sent my spine senses tingling — and then she thought I would be perfect for the job,” Jones said in an interview with The Hoya.
City officials had enlisted local artists and volunteers to paint a mural to celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement.
Work on the project commenced before the crack of dawn as Jones and other volunteers coated the asphalt with bright yellow paint for eight hours straight.
“We got on the call at 8, which was where it was laid out — what we were gonna be doing, how grand-scale it was gonna be and that we needed to be there at 3 o’clock the following morning,” Jones said. “So we got there around 3:30 a.m. and we finished probably close to 11 o’clock.”
The final product — “Black Lives Matter” painted in street-wide yellow letters just blocks from the White House — has become one of the defining images of international protests against racial injustice sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in late May.
The artwork, commissioned by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), was unveiled the morning of June 5. The mural runs down Black Lives Matter Plaza, a stretch of road leading to the White House and Lafayette Park.
Black Lives Matter Plaza, the recently renamed portion of 16th Street NW, has been a flashpoint of ongoing demonstrations against racial injustice in the District. The street captured the national spotlight after President Donald Trump ordered police forces to forcibly remove protesters from the area surrounding the White House and St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo-op June 1. Protesters were shot with rubber bullets, tear-gassed and beaten as police and military personnel cleared a path for the president.
Soon after the incident, city officials and local activists worked to immortalize the stretch of road as a space commemorating the fight against racism in the United States. The banner-like mural extends across approximately 2½ blocks, and its width spans a two-lane street, making it an eye-catching installment even for aerial cameras — the mural can be seen from space. Taking just under nine consecutive hours to complete, volunteers ranging from professional artists to passersby helped bring the monumental project to life.
Jones, a D.C. native, was a leading artist behind the “Black Lives Matter” mural. After finishing a master’s in science management at the University of Maryland, Jones established the Congress Heights Art and Culture Center, an arts and education nonprofit dedicated to sharing and exploring art of the African diaspora.
The demonstrative mural she had helped create quickly grabbed national headlines. The publicity the mural attracted shattered Jones’ expectations.
“I really didn’t expect it. I think I was working out of a space of shock, especially once I realized what the gig was, and then once I realized what it was, leading it being a Black woman, thinking, ‘Wow, this is pretty huge,’” Jones said.
However, the mural also received unexpected criticism, according to Jones.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting for people to call it performative or not think it was enough,” Jones said.
Some demonstrators spray-painted messages on the mural, criticizing it for shallow symbolism and calling for policy changes. On the most intense day of protests and only a day after Bowser unveiled the massive “Black Lives Matter” mural, activists painted “Defund The Police” beside the original artwork.
The trend of protest-inspired street art spread to the Georgetown neighborhood, where colorful anti-racist and “Black Lives Matter” murals have been painted on boarded-up storefronts and alleyways.
Neighborhood leaders have collaborated with local artists to sponsor art projects, according to Rachel Shank, executive director of Georgetown Main Street, a nonprofit that supports local small businesses.
“We reached out to a couple of local artists’ collectives: the Capital Artists Collective, a D.C.-based collective, and the Congress Heights Arts and Cultural Center,” Shank said in an interview with The Hoya. “We wanted to try and keep it hyper-local but also open the opportunity for artists throughout D.C., and one of the artists was actually from Baltimore.”
Jones hopes the city’s protest art will catalyze change and inspire continued fights against injustice.
“I don’t think any of us went down there and were rolling paintbrushes like, ‘Okay, when we’ve finished this mural, we are done and racism has ended.’ Like, that’s not it,” Jones said. “I think that’s the beauty of art: It’s a catalyst for change, and it speaks to the phases of healing.”