It is arguably the most awkward mural in the nation’s capital.
Near the corner of 13th and U Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C., tourists and residents can find a tall, brightly colored portrait of two African-American icons painted on the wall of a local restaurant. On the left, there’s a grinning Barack Obama, painted in a way that calls to mind the images of his 2008 “Hope and Change” streak. And on the right is a large, smirking Bill Cosby, staring down at onlookers.
It’s a famous mural, on the wall of a famous Washington restaurant named Ben’s Chili Bowl. In 2009, President Obama stopped in with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. Everyone from U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and Hillary Clinton to Chris Rock and Bono has patronized this local landmark, one of the very few businesses in the neighborhood to remain open and unharmed during the 1968 riots. (Russell Crowe’s character in the 2009 thriller State of Play is a big fan of their half-smokes and cheeseburgers.)
It’s also a landmark where Cosby has long been adored. The comic has been a longtime friend and supporter of the Ali family, which founded and owns Ben’s. He has visited the establishment ever since 1958, when he was doing a stint in the Navy, and he (like the Obama family) is always invited to dine there free of charge.
Over the last year, calls have intensified for the Cosby mural to be removed. (Cosby has already been stripped of his honorary Navy title, a Disney statue, and another mural in North Philadelphia.) The flood of sexual-assault and drugging allegations—and now a felony charge—have led customers, observers, and commentators to, at the very least, raise an eyebrow at the Ali family’s sustained loyalty to a man now being called “America’s greatest serial rapist.”
In October, the mural was defaced by a street artist with a picture of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
“What I would like for people to take away from this particular event is that it is an embarrassment to residents of D.C., old and new, that [Cosby’s] face is still up on the wall mural,” the artist Smearleader told NBC’s Washington affiliate.
The mural was also censured by The Washington Post’s editorial pages. “It’s time we took ownership for what we’re calling public art in the form of a mural of an alleged rapist on a restaurant frequented by hundreds of drunk college students, historians, and chili aficionados,” Devin Boyle wrote in a Washington Post op-ed article arguing for the mural’s removal.
“To Ben’s Chili Bowl: If you choose to finally remove Cosby from the mural and the sign that says he is eternally entitled to a free meal, I will personally come to thank you and purchase something,” a reviewer with the handle “Sarah L.” posted in December.
“Some of the pictures [photos on the restaurant’s interior walls] included the fantastic Anthony Bourdain, ignorant Paula Dean, the rapey Bill Cosby, and even El Presidente himself Barack Obama,” user “Ryan C.” noted.
So what, if anything, would it take to effect the removal of the tribute to “America’s Dad?” Yet more accusers? A conviction? A confession? At the moment, it’s tough to say. Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Ali family did not return The Daily Beast’s multiple requests for comment on this story—and it isn’t hard to guess why.
“Cosby is part of our family,” Vida Ali, daughter-in-law of the founders, told the Washington City Paper in November 2014. Ali declined to comment on specific allegations, and said that customers had been showing up to express their support for the embattled Cosby.
“Cosby being part of our family, it’s natural that it’s part of the discussion,” Ali said. “But it’s been in a positive light, and it’s wanting to support him.” The family also said at the time that Ben’s Chili Bowl would continue to honor Cosby’s free-food deal, and there were no intentions of painting over or tearing down the mural.
In more recent months, the Ali family has stayed quiet about the latest developments in the Cosby rape scandal. Their longtime, close family friend, who dined at Ben’s well before achieving international fame—who in fact proposed to his wife at that very restaurant—has not been by recently, either.
In 2014, Cosby did appear at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Ben’s in Arlington, Virginia—the first Ben’s not located on U Street.
“I want my body buried not far [at Arlington National Cemetery],” Cosby joked at the event. “So my ghost can get up, make the trip here instead of flying all the way over to U Street.”
The Ali family will now have to decide whether or not they still wish to pledge the same kind of fierce loyalty to Cosby.
“I’ve heard that the Ali family may ask the public its opinion on the matter and make a final decision accordingly,” The Washington Post’s Tim Carman wrote in July. “What’s more interesting to me, though, is what the Ali family thinks.”