Space to breathe

George Floyd, BLM plaza and the monumentalization of divided American urban landscapes

Nubras Samayeen, Adrian Wong, & Cameron McCarthy
Published online: 23 Jul 2020


The men who talk most about the valor of Lee and of the blood of the brave Confederate dead are those    who never smelt powder or engaged in battle. Most of  them  were  at  a  table,  either  on  top  or  under  it  when then war was going on … (John Mitchell, Nineteenth  Century  Richmond  City  Black  Councilman,  quoted in Griego, 2015)

I can’t breathe. (George Floyd, quoted in Oppel Jr. & Barker, 2020, July 8)

Hope is invented every day. (James Baldwin quoted in Adelse, 1970, p. 46)


George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and the large scale national and inter- national eruption of protest that it provoked  put  into  stark  prominence  lingering  questions  about the political and democratic order in the United States. Black struggle from slavery to the present has always had generative effect  on the broader  culture and  ethos and  the very  identity  of the US as an imagined community. It has provoked the most profound questions about our humanity and identity in a nation that dissimulates its racist and colonial practices in order to bombastically proclaim itself as a purified model to the world. Indeed, Floyd’s public torture, his execution by police operating within and outside the limits of the law, is yet another heart wrenching reminder of Bruno Latour’s provocative claim that even in the case of the  most  advanced societies  (the  United  States  included):  ‘we  have never  been  modern.’ (Latour,  1993,  p. 10) Once again, it has stirred up the never-fully-sedimentary question of America’s image of itself to the world. It has particularly laid bare the matter of America’s incomplete modernity and the uneven and asymmetrical character of race relations and social relations in general within the country. A central  flash point of this contestation has been articulated to city  life  and, especially  city space, where for the last few decades, as with the Arab Spring, urban dwellers have actively coordinated their negative judgement on programs of neoliberal gentrification that continue to threaten their very existential survival in our cities. Indeed, the past decades  of  urban  ‘development’ and ‘renewal’ have unceasingly accelerated an expulsion and elimination of black and brown poor from the city’s core. This has made the city the site of permanent contestation; and as long as a will to dignity in social life remains, permanent  revolution. For  it is the authors’ firm belief that when the revolution reaches critical mass in the United States it will fume from the city’s perverse and roiling core.

In what follows in this paper, we therefore seek to draw out a key strand of this continuing contest over the sutured symbols of modern life in America, and the persistent racialized  conditions of Black and Brown people within it, that Floyd’s death and the protest over it have provoked. Specifically, we focus on what the struggle over spatialization that the declaration of the sanctuary space of the recently declared Black Lives Matter Plaza (BLM Plaza) in Washington D.C., right in front of  the White House makes  plain. We argue that  this powerful symbolic reinsertion of widespread social and civic support for Black struggle back into city space as a response to Floyd’s death, in an area of the U.S.’ most politically prominent real estate, not only affirms the dignity of Black and Brown lives. It also brings into sharpened focus a struggle for the soul of U.S. modernity in the articulations of its built space. Such  struggle  has  to  be  continuously  restarted and sustained as there exists persistent aggravation stemming from the popular authoritarian impulse to consecrate public space as a platform for the  enforcement of a visible  white supremacism. This contestation over the divided landscape of this country emerges out of   the building out and monumentalization of space in the conundrum that is America’s past and present. Prompted by these developments  that are  the up  thrust of Floyd’s state-licensed murder, this paper urges reconsideration of race and space in relation to the monumentalization of the American divided landscape. We ask readers to consider what has been codified in America’s built space. We implore our readers to look forthrightly at the ‘power geometry’ (Massey, 1993) embedded in this landscape, particularly the perpetuation of the  subversion  of  black  life  and black pasts into the state-affirmed white supremacy which  such  monumentalization  authorizes  and signifies.

The context: The BLM plaza as a response to black expulsion

The story of George Floyd’s extrajudicial killing at the hands of the police served as a reminder  that since the first moment of settler-colonialism on American soil, the practices of ‘U.S.  state  agents’ and their precursors have been incessantly devoted to a murderous assault on Black and Indigenous life and an unrestrained avarice to expropriate all land and natural resources. This ‘reminder’ and its popular response exist at two separate poles of America’s struggle with its hypocrisy, its deluded proclamation of modernity, and its persistent coddling of white supremacy in the organization and monumentalization of built space. Since our nation’s coming of age ball-room dance through slavery, expropriation, colonization and widespread murder, Black and Indigenous struggle over space to breathe, straining like levies against  an  ever  increasing  tide, have always run up against the culturally exceptionalist creed and  the  heedless  notion  of America’s ‘friction-free leap’ into modernity. American bureaucrats and social scientists, such as Talcott Parsons and W.W. Rostow, extolled this murderous leap to the world particularly in pro- grams of modernization, modernization theory, and the  proposition  of  constant  development  that needed to be dished out to any countries that could ‘bare the market,’ and particularly in the Global South since the Cold War era (Gilman, 2003).

We start our exploration of the current events regarding Floyd and their significance for our reappraisal of the orchestration of space in the prominent urban landscapes of this country by revisiting the bald facts. On that fateful Memorial Day of Monday May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was arrested for allegedly  trying  to  pass  off  a  counterfeit  twenty-dollar  bill in a convenience store in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The arrest ended in Floyd’s  abominable  death, a public and extrajudicial execution, at the hands of the  police.  The  graphic  video  of  Floyd’s last moments, handcuffed, lifeless, as three policemen sat on his  back,  while  a  fourth  closed off his air passage with a knee on  his  neck,  catapulted  this  rehearsed  police  killing  of  Black men into the volatile media sphere, vaporizing the distinction between old and new media faster than it takes the state to kill a man. As the  clip  of  this  horrifying  event  burned  through social media and all major news outlets, the whole country erupted anew in explosive and indignant protests against the refrain of police-brutality and  state-executed  violence.  Ricocheting  across the country and indeed the planet, these would become a burgeoning center of gravity  for the Black Lives Matter movement, which  the  country’s  rightwing  Chief  Executive  Officer  of  the White House, Donald J. Trump, perplexingly called ‘a  symbol  of  hate’  (Donald  J.  Trump,  2020), evidence of U.S. state-birthed attempts to justify White supremacist violence. Fierce resistance was precipitated the likes of which had not been seen in the United States since the 1960s.


Figure 1. “Black Lives Matter (BLM)” written on District of Columbia’s 16th street corridor, photo courtesy: Stephanie Leedom.

And with the vehement public mobilization in full swing, the anger over more than 400 years of White and settler-colonial violence burned in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

With this propulsive pressure, these developments prompted a surprising symbolic recodification of space in the nation’s capital, at the behest of a city. On Friday, June 5, 2020, the mayor of Washington, D.C. commissioned city  workers  to paint  the historic axial-corridor  of  the District  of Columbia’s 16th Street with massive yellow, street-wide words: ‘Black Lives Matter (BLM)’ (Willingham, Figure 1). A new space thus emerged  in  the capital  and  in  the national  imagination of America’s Black community. Registering in wine dens and caviar lounges across Washington D.C. as a cry from the soul for a new dispensation, certain bastions of White supremacy, such as the Trump White House, responded angrily, fearful of even the slightest gesture that might  besmirch their hypocritical, ‘Modern’ facade. On the street and across the world’s bus stops,  libraries, park benches and chat rooms, the mayor’s efforts have been read as yet another ‘distraction,’ dramatically invoked to dissemble the city’s false promises  for  action  (BlackLivesMatter DC). While symbolically provocative as a sound-bite for U.S. mass media, which always works to titillate while clawing the  popular  narrative back to a comfortable  status  quo, the city’s mayor-commissioned-actions were in lieu of real change. The mayor has shown hardly an inclination to ‘Defund the Police’, a foundational demand for the majority of our recent protests, and a rally cry that has galvanized and put voice  to  the  real  needs  of  the  U.S.’s  overpoliced, state-violated and underfunded communities. The cry for material change has,  and  will  always be, the only true call of dispossessed and marginalized communities across the U.S. and across the world.

A mural may proclaim, but it does not speak like money does. As such, the mayor’s symbol operates in the political and not the social sphere. It  is  a statement  of  one  political  regime  against another. It is a statement of Democrats versus Trump-Republicans, and it functions more as an effort for political ‘liberals’ to attempt, hopelessly, to disinherit the fraught trajectory of our nation’s ‘Modern lift off’. It is not, unfortunately, any sort of affirmation that the state-funded, state-mandated and state-executed conditions that caused Floyd’s death, and the death of nearly 1,100 Americans in 2019 (Higgins and Schoen, 2020), will be coming to an end anytime soon. Recognizing  the  mayor’s  mural  as  an  attempt  to  distract  organizers  from  the  real  work  to be  done,  protestors  ‘reclaimed  the  message,  repainting  the   mural   to   say,   “Black   Lives   Matter ¼ Defund the Police”’  (Project  for  Public  Spaces).  The  mayor  and  her  supporting  cast  are   not   the   magicians   they   may   think  they   are,   because   our   publics  know   the   tricks, and remember the disheartening game. Protests are not conferences and they are not legislative sessions. The point is not  to  create  words  but  to  use  words  to  create  action.  The  only statement  that  matters  is  the  ‘talk’  of  money,  ‘Defund  the  Police’;  not  the  words   of   a   mayor, trying to become a fan seven years tardy. These polarizing events demonstrate the multi-level  semiotic  projects  that  symbol  mobilization  enacts.  While  many,  and  especially  ‘white liberals,’ applauded the mayor’s efforts (BlackLivesMatter DCa), BlackLivesMatter DC recognized  what  it  meant  for  the  real  social  circumstances  across  America: the mayor was not  about to move  forward  with  any  form  of  ‘abolition  democracy’  anytime  soon  (Davis, 2011). The people will have to keep pushing.

At the national level, and certainly  the  terrain  of  legibility  of  Trump  and  the  Republican  party, the attempt of this sign to diffuse social calls for real change remained  largely  unrecognized.  At  this  level,  the  sign  retained  its  unabashedly  hypocritical  register,  claiming   to  speak truth to power. The historic 16th Street runs as a central  axis  straight  southward  terminating in the north portico of the White House, Lafayette Square, where the genocidal  U.S.  President  Andrew  Jackson’s  equestrian  statue  bears  down  from  the  center  with  a  direct  line  of vision (Loring, 2017). Jackson, whose graven image on a twenty-dollar bill created  the opportunity for yet another state-execution, Floyd’s murder; birthed  the  Native  American  genocide in the Southeastern United States, exalted racial discrimination and led a constant state-supported barrage against anti-slavery  and  abolitionist  movements.  That  same  day  that  the mayor commissioned ‘Black Lives Matter’  to  be  painted,  June  5,  the  more  than  a  century  old  Lafayette  Plaza  was  officially  renamed  ‘Black  Lives  Matter  Plaza,’  stamped  with  its  own  city street  sign.  This  urban  face-lift  took  place  through  texts,  the  removal  of  iconic  statues,  and the renaming of the square—bringing about  an  extraordinary  transfiguration  of  consecrated space in the national register. It established the visibilization of a new political order struggling to  come  into  being  and  it  thrust  forward  an  oblique  questioning  of  the  disposition of U.S. city space.  One  political  regime  to  another,  playing  power  games  of  rhetoric  for  the fate of  an  impending  U.S.  Presidential election, it was a remarkable  example of a strategic war over signs that has  invaded the most privileged exemplar of   U.S. hegemonic landscapes.

As with the mayor’s political act, Floyd’s death reminds us that the U.S. is not modern, and indeed, all the nation’s murals and monuments are but ‘a thin veil  to  cover  up  crimes  which  would disgrace a nation of savages’ (Douglass, 1852). But its powerful call out to humanity was the accumulation of the cries of hundreds of years of violation and suffering, and resisting and surviving. In so doing, it snagged the veil that covers the U.S. claim of a just and fair modern democratic order. It re-surfaced and re-exposed America’s long  fractured  society  that  dwells  within its nationalistic perimeters. Hence, today, Floyd’s last words ‘I can’t breathe’ serve as a reminder of the hypocrisy that shrouds the  long-standing aura  around  Washington, D.C.,  which  has always stolen its way toward an ‘ideal democratic landscape’ and, also paradoxically, never ceases to be the signature and epitome of colonial  power.  D.C.’s  beautiful  landscape was a design tool that has long served to bury and obscure the nation’s Black history. It has  existed as a glittering codification of White supremacy and fragile hegemony. And now, the BLM plaza calls  this settled narrative of Anglo-American triumph into question at the national level. The plaza provides a token of recognition for all those who have felt unheard, and it is a sign that the construction of a new ‘abolition democracy’ (Davis) is beginning to catch attention in the ballrooms   and boardrooms of the United States.

Codifying colonial space: Some historical background

The story of the capital’s origin is lodged in the historical backdrop of profound inequality, callousness and indifference. It is the space where monumentalized white supremacy overlays mark- ings of an imperial and racial order. Its origins therefore are rooted in paradox, contradiction and disavowal. Though the nation’s capital ostensibly asserts that the US is a democratic country, the process of designing DC was never at all democratic. It did not arise from people’s popular imaginings; it was instead the choice of George Washington (1732–1799), the first president of  the United States, to make a federal center. He decided that the District of Columbia, the core of the  new government, would be by the Potomac River, 13 miles north  of  Mount  Vernon,  his  own  8,000- acre opulent estate (Washington, 1919). Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who was recruited from France to fight in the American Revolutionary War and whom Washington personally trusted, designed Washington, D.C. in 1791, following a French vernacular (Bowling, 2002). L’Enfant  designed the ornate city in Baroque style, transposing French  colonial  architectural  elements  to the American landscape. This orchestration of built space, its monumental language and super- imposed circles and axes were directly derived from French colonial design vocabularies of that  time. L’Enfant’s  plan was not merely to place the important buildings and  the people of  power in strategic locations based on the contours of waterways and shifting  elevations,  but  also  to  make a city that could be ‘beautiful’—white washing and pasting over the  material  fact  of  the deep integration of black labor in the construction of the capital center and the presence of blackness in the capital’s surrounding landscape. Thus, L’Enfant’s D.C. was an exemplary city of power which later was also emulated in the making of other colonial cities such  as  Edwards  Lutyen’s New Delhi in India.  L’Enfant’s  biographer  Scott  Berg  noted  that  his  plan  was intended to make the nation’s capital a city of ‘public walk,’ where, ‘[t]he entire city was built around the     idea that every citizen was equally important.’ (Berg quoted in Fletcher, 2008). L’Enfant’s idea of  a ‘public walk for all,’ paradoxically, consecrated brutal asymmetries  of  inclusion  and  exclusion that continue to violate all who bear the burden of this nation since its founding acts of expropriation, genocide, colonization, enforced domination, imposed starvation and slavery (Dunbar- Ortiz, 2014). In making Washington’s dream into  reality,  L’Enfant  sought  any  good  Modern’s  ideal, the purification of space (Latour, 1993). His  urban  imagination  cross-pollinated  with colonial times and social contexts of white  violence, which  promoted the  elevation of  elite viewers  and, especially, leaders of the community of whiteness, who would be immersed in the disgustingly-privileged visual and spatial pleasure that D.C.’s vistas, urban walks, streets, and landscape afforded to the heedless colonizers. Thus, blackness was concealed from the visible landscape spaces, and evidently for the U.S.’s hoax of modernism to continue, it must remain absconded!

In the consolidation of its racial order, today, D.C. is a city of racial inequality. It consciously elevates its  iconic buildings and monuments while  defunding the spaces  and ignoring the voices  of marginalized communities. Hence the legacy of slaveholdings has always been intentionally obscured. Consider as a starting point, for instance, Jefferson’s land ordinance of 1785 and the elaboration of  Jefferson’s  grid, a landscaping gauge and signature facilitating farmland purchasing rights, ruthlessly interred and erased knowledge of  the gender or  race of workers  who toiled  on such lands. This was the first supremacist codification of landscape infrastructure of  United States. It confirmed a divided and asymmetrical landscape  in  which  white  actors  owned  and  black and brown subjects toiled. This landscaping formula drove the organization, surveying and carving up of public space and lands across the country and the rectangular  design  of  urban  spaces like gardens, plazas, fountains, and large  avenues  set in  axes  that direct  one’s  gaze  often to the white buildings, and terminates in a focus that often symbolizes the white power and ownership of public spaces (Carstensen, 1988). Consequently, overall, the proportioning of space across the country had always been an instrument for  a  rather  ubiquitously  divisive  landscape,  yet deceivingly symbolizing democracy (the  paradoxical  myth sustained  by Jefferson  and  others of the yeoman white farmer working alongside their slaves at the center of the consideration of the organization of the political order [Hofstadter, 1956]).  D.C. therefore sprouted from  a dominant landscape imagination focusing on the nation’s founding fathers, the white presidents, and served to suppress the other side, which is Blackness—a landscape of the Black and Indigenous, which was ignobly designed by civil-authority to be invisible, hidden, and unspoken. With the landscape of Presidents’ homes and estates designed in neoclassical styles, the White landscape stretches from D.C. to Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Tennessee, New York, and spaces across the West. Virginia’s Presidential estates such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, James Madison’s Montpelier, and the Berkley  Estate  of  President  Benjamin  Harrison remain close to this governmental core. All these estates, gardens,  and  public  spaces  serve to glorify the leaders of this horrific settler colonial fantasy, fueling the nightmare of  Whiteness, superiority, violence and death across the landscape. In  contrast  to  these  late Presidents who are still celebrated in their glorified monumental cemeteries, the burial grounds       of their Black and indigenous counterparts (their advisers, their workers, their sometimes  forbid-  den lovers and help) were too frequently desecrated, erased or suppressed from arising.  Black  slaves worked as the oppressed labor on these projects. They were the  foundational  labor  on  which the White House is built! The  markers  of  this  labor  are  now  unimaginably  whitewashed out of the public record and the history primers used in schools. Innumerable enslaved bodies disappeared in the woods of these  landscapes,  unrecognized  and  banished;  these  bodies demand a desperate ethnographic archeology of Black labor in the construction of Colonial  America. They cry out for a revelation of Colonial America’s torturous past so that we can better understand its turbulent and hypocritical present.

This banishment of Black and Indigenous labor and subjectivity  has  horrifically  marched  onward from the founding of the settler-country. Its post-Civil War regional bifurcation into North-South continues in the unceasing present-day expulsions of the Black and Brown poor everywhere! The North triumphed, and thus slavery ‘ended.’ Yet with a bifurcated landscape, emancipation remained in practice illusory, something of a shibboleth as unofficial slavery, chain gangs and the prison complex blossomed their terrifying fruit across the nation. Social division, oppression, and violence continued systematically in structured ways even after the culmination of the war that many believed would bring harmony and final emancipation  from  slavery.  America’s White heritage dominated the popular culture, not by accidental  gestation  but  constant fomentation and instigation. This hegemonic fomentation is illustrated in the pedaling of nationalistic mementos like President Washington’s portrait embedded on stamps (1947) and President Jackson’s image  on the twenty-dollar bill that the formed the pretext for the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd.

By the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, coterminous with the consolidation of Jim Crow, the landscape of Whiteness grew in its violent prolix. A powerful example     of this can be identified with respect to the monumentalization of space in Virginia. Civil War monuments were erected in Virginia’s capital Richmond  in  the  concerted  effort  to  consecrate  and make a popular a palpable landscape that would evoke the pre-Civil War past. The great  broader aim, then, was to valorize the Southern heroes of the Confederacy invoking in collective memory the vainglorious recuperation of those who had lost the consequential internecine war  over slavery. But whose collective memory was  evoked?  Richmond’s  Monument  Avenue,  as  a  case in point, was designed as a tree-lined grassy mall punctuated by statues of Virginian Confederate veterans of the American Civil War (Whiteness alone was enough to redeem these contested figures, some might argue, from their betrayal and terrorism against the developing state). Many of the designs followed the model of colonial streets in England,  and  the  statues reflect those set in place by the British in Colonial India and throughout its empire as symbols of pride (Cannadine, 2001). Over the objections  from  the  Black  members  of  Richmond’s  City Council, the City appropriated spaces for the dedication of five monuments of J. E. B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and that most influential and pro- vocative figure, General Robert E. Lee, in the time of the Jim Crow era (Griego, 2015; Driggs et al., 2001). Colonial Archer Anderson of the Lee Monument Association said that the city had ‘dedicated the Lee Monument not as a memory to the Confederacy, but as a  testament  to  “personal honor,” “patriotic hope and cheer,” and an “ideal leader”’ (Griego, 2015). But whose patriotic past is it? And whose pride is enacted at the cost of so much pain and violence?

In their material and discursive elaboration of the vernacular of Whiteness, these equestrian Confederate statues have become symbols that idolize the racial supremacy, hatred, and racism of the Confederacy. Inversely, their erection and valorization have  come  at  great  cost  to  Black  and Brown people as these monuments silently abet racial violations through landscapes, assuring further epistemic violence. In their exultation and  codification of history’s victors (in  reality, the reborn losers and traitors of the American Civil War) they continue the long trajectory of the suppression of Black subjectivity, Blackness and Black iconography in the American landscape.

The potency and sovereignty of Whiteness are ensured and established by means of these statues. Institutional campuses, such as the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, have war monuments like the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, which are protected by state law. To these must be added the litany of paintings of elite property owners, members of the plantation squirearchy and the celebratory bunting and emblems idealizing the Colonial era that are scattered across university property, not only in the South but in the North as well. Many of these figures, often benefactors of U.S. universities, made their profits from operations in some part of the universe of slavery. These powerfully symbolic figures now often serve to arouse more racial violations. These emotionally charged spaces  impose  an  excessive  force from the landscape that is comparable to the physical force that the police officers inflicted on George Floyd and others like Eric Garner, who also died of extrajudicial  police  chokehold  while arresting him in 2014, and many more.

But the war over signs which monumentalization provokes does not and cannot end with the ‘victors of history.’ Such a struggle over the iconography of the past and the present is marked by ruptures and discontinuities. There is a current of resistance against the grain of the cultural dominant, after Gramsci, ‘a war of maneuver.’ It is  the  long  revolution  that  was  enjoined by  those late-nineteenth century Black Richmond City Council members, like John Mitchell, who resisted the instalment of statues that would convert  ‘white traitors’  like Robert E. Lee  into heroes:

The men who talk most about the valor of Lee and of the blood of the brave Confederate dead are those  who never smelt powder or engaged in battle. Most of  them  were  at  a  table,  either  on  top  or  under  it  when then war was going on … (Mitchell quoted in Griego, 2015)

A bend in the river of history

In the blaze of the current uprising against the police’s incessant brutality, and after the suffering     of so many violations and murders throughout Black history,  the  outcry  provoked  by  Floyd’s death successfully soiled the veil shrouding the landscape of blackness. It echoes forward deep existential  yearnings  from  the  long  durée of  Black  struggle  against  confined  spaces  and  imposed monumentalization. On June 5, 2020, amidst the context of powerful  community  indignation,  D.C.’s African American Mayor Muriel Bowser decided to put out nationally visible texts in gigantic letters that attempted to capture the spirit of  ‘Black  Lives  Matter’  in  the  direction  of  the  White House. And, she would subsequently rename Lafayette Plaza as ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza.’  (fig. 1)  This iconoclastic gesture certainly strikes a blow against Andrew Jackson’s malignant equestrian statue from the War of 1812 that was the center  of  focus  of  the  square,  now  disowned  in  the new BLM Plaza. It also catalyzes on the civic terrain a possible step toward the repossession of blackness  in  Monument  Avenue  vis-‘a-vis  America’s  tragically  defined  nationalist  landscape.  On June 4, responding to the massive outpouring of devasted anger over Floyd’s death, Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam pledged to remove the iconic statue of General Lee (Figure 3).

This historic decision, if and when implemented, will change the meaning of D.C.’s White nationalist landscape, stinging its Whiteness just a little, or rather indicating the very long road  toward another possibility. Other leaders of Virginia have also committed to taking down the other four Confederate statues along prominent Monument  Avenue,  changing  the  asserted  meaning that has unfortunately been triumphant for more than a century. The thresholds of fences in  the  plaza areas without any designer whims may one day  turn into a  healing  landscape  of  tears and joy as well (Figure 2).

Fig. 2. The White House fence and the threshold between the public and the private realm becomes a healing landscape
form, photo courtesy: Stephanie Leedom.

Floyd’s death echoes the call  of resistance  to state-driven  genocide. Such  a  call reverberates in the plea not just for justice, but also  for  the  defunding  and  dismantling  of  these technologies and apparatuses of state oppression and violence. The upthrust of these developments places enormous discursive and material pressure on the dominant forms of monumentalization of landscapes in the United States and around world. It  puts  in  historical  suspension those pesky conundrums and hypocrisies that have always afflicted dominant landscape design in this country. And it brings into view  the charge  of the  light  brigade  of rag  and tag  interventions  of designer and non-designer activists punching not only above their weight, but for their right to  be acknowledged. The call of humanity to George Floyd’s memory ripples across space and time, urging a recognition of the known world  by a mixed group of designers and  non-designers,  old  and young, people of all genders, spheres, modes of being classed and racialized under the banner of flags, programs for change, varied perspectives and attitudes. Not since the 1960s have public design processes in city space been placed under so much cultural and material pressure!

Conclusion: Black lives and landscape have always mattered

In the twenty-first century, these  landscapes of  Whiteness  continue with a denial of the history of all those who have been oppressed. Hence, today, we say, ‘Black Lives and Landscape have always Mattered;’ and the conditions for social life will continue to be fought for until they are attained and all systems of oppression, including police and the police-state systems, dismantled. From these social, economic, political and landscape interventions, people recognize the connotative and powerholding part of our social landscape. This change is a tiny step toward emancipation after a long, suffocating history, and also a reassertion and reclamation against state-oppression, which will maintain its stronghold as long as systems of state-driven violence, policing and the willful negligence of violated treaties go unrecognized and unaccounted for. George Floyd’s last words ‘I can’t breathe,’ as a cry of  humanity,  overturns  L’Enfant’s  gaze,  decrypts the codified, Colonial landscape and is being remembered in the reclamation of public spaces, the White nationalist landscapes of D.C. The inequitable landscape of Whiteness is recognized within historical context and meaning. As protests erupt in DC, their spirit spreads throughout the world. Many other communities and peoples are  calling  out  for  a  rendezvous  with and a recognition of history and the myriad disgraceful, supremacist, settler-colonial, and oppressive landscapes.

Figure 3. George Floyd’s face overlaid on General Lee’s statue on Monument Avenue, Richmond, photo: Internet, New York Post June 10, 2020.

Today, the masses demand the removal of controversial  Confederate  statues across the country; terrible statues saturated  with  the  glorifications  of  injustice  such  as the Robert E. Lee equestrian statue (Figure 3) in  Richmond  Virginia  or  the  Texas  Rangers  in  Dallas. In global communities such as  those  in  France,  England  and  Belgium,  protestors  have  also called for the confiscation of their Colonial statues. In Belgium, protesters have demanded removal of the statue of the brutal Colonizer, King Leopold II, one of the first ‘leaders’ to be remembered for ‘crimes against humanity’ (Williams & Franklin, 1985). In  France,  protesters splashed red paint on the statue of the French revolutionary Voltaire who was the  owner  of  sizeable colonial plantation holdings. And in England, the statue of the slave trader Robert Millington and the colonialist, Cecil Rhodes, have also been confronted with a similar public rejection. Hence, shaking the core of our  consciousness,  which  many  have  long  ignored,  we come to a recognition of old forms of hegemonic spatial organization as ‘Black  Lives  and  Landscape have always Mattered.’

What one is strongly reminded of, regarding these developments, is the generative power of Black struggle in the U.S., its capacity  to hold up a torch of scrutiny to the modern condition all   over the U.S. and across the world. This struggle, as  we  indicated  in  this  article,  is  right  now  being conducted, as it always has been, on many fronts powerfully articulated to space. It challenges not only the monumentalization of space in which White supremacy and hegemony have been etched into the landscape, codifying a terrible relationship of settler-colonial powers to terrorized people and exalting despicable White supremacy over the human interests of oppressed  and marginalized subjects everywhere. It also challenges the bombastic symbols of one civic organization to another. Thus, it dutifully challenges the  socially  negligible actions by  the  mayor  of Washington, D.C., who thought that a few marks on the pavement  could distract people  from  the real work to be done: defund and dismantle all state-driven systems of oppression and violence. The liquid installation of ‘Black Lives Matter,’ made firmer by adding ‘¼ Defund the Police,’ and the elevation of BLM Plaza, not only in front of the White House but onto the agendas of many around world, serve to prod the consciences of those self-satisfied with the ‘purified’ settler-relations of ‘Modern’ society. They project an alternative agenda of political recognition against the long  durée of White Supremacy across landscapes, practices   and   state-executed enforcement in our cities. They remind many to  rise  up  against  the  grotesque  reordering  of  space that neoliberal policy making has scripted onto city space and the systems of policing that desperately hope to maintain it. Despite its innumerable shortcomings, the  BLM  Plaza  serves  notice on a status quo that is no longer tenable.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).



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Notes on contributors

Cameron McCarthy is Communications Scholar and University Scholar in the Department of Educational Policy, Leadership and Organization (EPOL) and in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Professor McCarthy teaches courses in globalization studies in education, postcolonialism, mass communications theory and cultural studies at his university.

Nubras Samayeen is a doctoral scholar at the Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is doing her research on Landscape/Architecture with a minor in Heritage that focuses on modernist American architect Louis Kahn’s work in Dhaka, Bangladesh and probes modernism’s instrumentality in creating  national  identities  by  homogenizing  the  cultural  ethos  of  South  Asian  countries  in  their  post-colonial paradigm.

Adrian Wong investigates media, communication, policy and power as a PhD student in the Institute of Communications Research and Community Data Clinic at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Raised in California, he is also trained in classical music and meditation, and serves as Co-President of the University’s graduate labor union, the Graduate Employee Organization.

Nubras Samayeen, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Champaign, USA

Adrian Wong, Institute of Communication Research, University of Illinois, Champaign,  USA

Cameron McCarthy, Global Studies in Education Division, University of Illinois, Champaign, USA

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Full Citation Information:
Samayeen, N., Wong, A., & McCarthy, C. (2020). Space to breathe: George Floyd, BLM plaza and the monumentalization of divided American urban landscapes, Educational Philosophy and Theory,
Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Josh Olalde on Unsplash