By Marianna Sotomayor, Alex Moe, Kasie Hunt and Elizabeth Chuck
A high school student's painting that depicts the tension between police and the black community in Ferguson, Missouri, keeps getting pulled down from a Capitol hallway by Republican lawmakers.
The artwork, painted by Missouri teen David Pulphus, was selected as part of the Congressional Arts Competition to hang in an underground tunnel that connects the Capitol with House office buildings.
It portrays officers with animal-like faces pointing guns at black citizens and has a sign in the background that reads "racism kills," a nod to the protests that rocked the St. Louis suburb after the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in 2014.
The painting is at the center of a partisan battle surrounding the First Amendment and rules of the Capitol, and has created a growing chasm between Republican lawmakers and the Congressional Black Caucus.
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Hung up in June 2016, the painting has been removed — and restored — at least three times in the past week. Every time, it's been returned to Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who represents the district that includes Ferguson. Pulphus, 18, is a resident of Clay's district.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., personally took the painting down last Friday. Tuesday morning, members from the Congressional Black Caucus led by Clay re-hung the painting and held a ceremony to celebrate restoring it to its place on the wall. Then later in the day Tuesday, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., took it down.
It was returned to Clay's office, and then to the wall, only to be stolen a third time, by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Brian Babin, R-Texas, and again returned to Clay's office.
Clay defended the artist's creative expression, saying that he grew up seeing law enforcement's actions against young black men as "animalistic."
As Clay re-hung the painting Tuesday afternoon, he told reporters, “it has become a very childish charade” and added that he is “getting a little dizzy" having to keep putting the painting back up — but vowed to "be persistent in protecting my constituent’s constitutional rights of free speech.”
He added that Hunter's personal offense should not take precedent over the First Amendment. Hunter disregarded the freedom of speech argument, saying instead that it's about House rules.
"It's offensive. It portrays police officers as pigs and it doesn't belong in the U.S. Capitol. It's that simple," Hunter said before adding that the House will move to take it down again. As of Wednesday morning, the painting was still up.
The artwork was commissioned by the Architect of the Capitol to hang among other pieces of art that line a hallway in the Cannon Office Building basement. Pulphus' submission was one of hundreds of winners in the annual Congressional Art Competition, which began in 1982.
Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash. — a former police officer — sent a letter to the Architect of the Capitol Wednesday to review the painting in question and to ask whether it should be hanging in the halls of the Capitol, according to the rules. Reichert wrote the painting “is in clear violation” of the guidelines which state art that depicts "subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed."
Reichert’s office has not received a response from the Architect.
Marianna Sotomayor is a 2020 campaign embed for NBC News.
Alex Moe is a Capitol Hill producer for NBC News covering the House of Representatives.
Kasie Hunt is an NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent and the host of MSNBC's "Kasie DC."