A group of police officers in Northern California sued the city where they work, claiming that a Black Lives Matter mural featuring an image of Assata Shakur, who was controversially convicted of killing a state trooper decades ago, amounts to discrimination.
The officers from the Palo Alto Police Department especially took issue with a quote featured on the mural that reads, “We must love each other and support each other,” and claim the combination was harassment.
Oakland-based artist Cece Carpio painted the mural that was approved by Palo Alto City Hall during last summer’s racial justice uprisings. In a previous interview, Carpio said Shakur was included because she has become a symbol for disrupting the status quo.
Carpio’s work is often centered in community and works to uplift impacted communities, not to denigrate or attack others. Earlier during the pandemic, Carpio also painted a mural recognizing frontline workers.
The Women’s Art Twitter account highlighted another Carpio mural, noting common themes of resilience, ancestry, and resistance. The mural, commonly referred to as “We Got Us,” was also featured on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Palo Alto Daily Post first reported news of the lawsuit, including a copy of the complaint, which alleges the city violated various provisions under California law. Officers Eric Figueroa, Michael Foley, Christopher Moore, Robert Parham, and Julie Tannock allege adverse employment actions taken by the city but only mention failure to investigate claims made by the officers and refusal to remove the mural.
The five officers further claim that by allowing the mural to exist, the city “created and allowed to exist a hostile environment and discriminated against Plaintiffs on the basis of their race, national origin, color, and/or association with a protected class.”
Another far-reaching allegation in the lawsuit claims a depiction of a Black panther was a reference to the New Black Panther Party — designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a virulently racist and antisemitic organization whose leaders have encouraged violence against whites, Jews and law enforcement officers” — and should also be considered discrimination and harassment.
However, the black panther image is more commonly associated with the original Black Panther Party, which has become a fixture in American popular culture, with even a major motion picture featuring Fred Hampton Sr., one of the organization’s most well-known leaders.
The officers who filed the lawsuit are seeking a minimum of $25,000 in damages. Public records from 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, show four of the officers suing Palo Alto for the mural each earned more than $130,000 annually, not including additional salary compensation. Earnings for Parham were not available on the site.
Labeling Shakur as simply an escaped cop killer arguably ignores the complexity of the Black liberation struggle in the late 1960s and 1970s. The fixation on depicting Shakur as a symbol of “pro-police violence” is a creation of police, not of activists themselves.
According to Palo Alto Online, the issue with the mural was first raised in June by an Indianapolis-based police lobbying group. The National Police Association also launched a petition demanding the city remove the mural.
Activists say that Shakur’s writings and quotes are motivational. People who turn to her quoted imagery typically do so out of love and respect for their communities, not hatred of police.
When previously asked if they endorsed killing police officers, three artists affiliated with the project said no. The quote used in the painting is a part of a longer quote that has become a chant recited at protests.
Shakur was tried multiple times before finally being convicted in 1977. Some evidence suggests bullet wounds sustained by Shakur were actually proof of her intent to surrender to officers. Other issues of process and procedure have also been alleged.
In 2014, CounterPunch published an open letter from Shakur in which she maintained her innocence. She also stated she received an unfair trial. Shakur also described findings from a report submitted to the United Nations describing her case as involving political persecution.
Shakur describes a scenario all too familiar of a “routine” traffic stop gone wrong and a white cop eager to shoot. Critics have noted that Shakur had gunshot wounds consistent with someone surrendering. Assata did not actually fire any gun or shot at an officer, but she was considered an accomplice to the murders of her comrade Zayd Malik Shakur and New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.