New York City’s Union Square Park has long been a mirror of the times. In 1882, 10,000 workers marched in America’s first Labor Day Parade, which culminated at the park. In 2018, pro-choice activists rallied in the park after Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Union Square Park opened to the public in 1839, but it wasn’t until it was redesigned some 30 years later, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, that it became a public forum and a gathering place in the name of social justice. Last Friday, a crowd gathered again in the park, this time to welcome a trio of sculptures.
Facing each other on the south plaza, two larger-than-life busts of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor rose above the crowd. A third statue of the late Representative John Lewis—a prominent civil rights leader who spent more than three decades in Congress—stood between them. Standing on three plinths, the busts are part of a new exhibit titled “Seeinjustice” that builds on the park’s history as a democratic place—and puts the need to keep fighting for social justice on a literal pedestal.
In March 2020, Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker, was shot and killed during a botched police raid at her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Two months later, George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, ignited a nationwide movement for social justice.
In many ways, their busts are a symbol of this movement. Standing 10 feet tall, the sculptures by Chris Carnabuci are made of layers of precision-carved wood that was coated in metallic bronze paint. While striking, the paint reflects more than an aesthetic choice—it also helps “mitigate [any] damage,” according to Carnabuci. And in fact, just one day after being installed, George Floyd’s bust was vandalized by a man who threw a container of grayish-blue paint on the sculpture. (Carnabuci decided to paint the bust to protect it after the same sculpture was defaced earlier this year.)
“After completing the first Floyd sculpture, I did one of Breonna and then John Lewis, who I always admired and viewed as an elder statesman in the cause for justice for all,” says Carnabuci. “My intention was to create an environment where we can share and listen to each other’s opinions, without violence.”
The exhibition was created by Confront Art, an organization that was formed in 2020 and works with artists like Carnabuci to create public art that brings awareness to social justice causes. “It was always our vision to host this exhibition in Union Square,” says cofounder Lindsay Eshelman. “[It] has been a gathering spot for free speech and assembly for over a century.”
Union Square first gained its reputation as a site for political rallies during the Civil War. In recent history, it was a site of solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11, it played host to rallies contesting the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and it welcomed protesters calling to defund the police in 2020. “Many important moments have been marked in this location,” says Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, the nonprofit that helped organize the exhibition together with NYC Parks. “We’re very proud of that history as being a place where New Yorkers congregate.”
Indeed, this is a place where people meet. Before the pandemic, Falk says about 36 million people came through the 14th Street–Union Square subway stop each year. The numbers may have dwindled during last year’s lockdowns, but the park is in the midst of a $100 million makeover to make it more pedestrian-friendly—and bring it back to life.
Earlier this year, the park welcomed “The Only Other,” a large-scale sculptural text by Soho artist Midabi. “It’s a call to wake people up and remind them that we need to constantly be invested in the world around us because the only other thing is nothing,” says Falk, noting that the call to action applies to everything from social justice to climate change.
Midabi’s sculpture will remain in the park for a year, but the “Seeinjustice” exhibit will only be around until October 31. The sculptures will then tour other cities and eventually be auctioned off, with proceeds going to charities involved, including John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation and We Are Floyd, the nonprofit created by George Floyd’s brother Terrence Floyd. “When people visit these three sculptures in Union Square Park, I want them to walk away with a change of heart and understanding of what people of color have endured over the years,” says Terrence Floyd. “We are all human, with human rights, and have a purpose in this world.”