This Powerful Flag Is Galvanizing The Black Lives Matter Movement
In 1920, the NAACP erected a flag at its Fifth Avenue headquarters that read “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.” It stood for eighteen years before the association’s landlord forced its removal. Today, however, an almost identical flag is being shown at the Jack Shainman Gallery on West 20th. The design is the same, the font too, as well as the borders and color scheme, but this one reads “A MAN WAS LYNCHED BY POLICE YESTERDAY.”
It went up on July 8th, (and has since been moved inside) just days after the tragic deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile: an impromptu but nonetheless imperative addition to the gallery’s For Freedoms show, which had already been on display since June, including work by Scott. With works from artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Marilyn Minter, and Trevor Paglen, For Freedoms is styled as not only an art show, but an artwork in and of itself—“the first artist-run super-PAC,” which seeks “to inspire deeper political engagement in the 2016 American Presidential election.”
The 2016 American Presidential election, for its part, has continually capitalized on black lives as grist for ongoing political posturing: a palliative for inaction. The flag on West 20th street reminds us not only of the current political climate, but the fact that behind every debate—e.g. “black lives matter or all lives matter?”—and every statistic, people with families, memories, and feelings—lives—are being killed.
lynchings were public to keep a class system based on race intact in the Jim Crow south. Public Executions by Police 2day do the same.
— Killer Mike (@KillerMike) July 7, 2016
The word used by artist Dread Scott, the flag’s creator, to describe it is “horror.” But all horror stories must come to an end: his practice has long been focused on asking people to imagine a different world, and for that, he is no stranger to controversy. Having first come into the news as an art student with his work What Is The Proper Way To Display A US Flag?, an installation that invites viewers to stand on an American flag, he has reenacted civil rights protests in Birmingham by subjecting himself to a fire hose (On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide), and charted maps while leaving most of North America noticeably absent (Imagine A World Without America). We talked to Scott to learn more about For Freedoms and the flag that’s currently capturing headlines. Read our conversation below.
How did “A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday” come together? It’s dated 2015.
I made the artwork initially in response to the police murder of Walter Scott, in South Carolina in 2015. When this killing happened, it really needed a response: this was one of the first videos where you can see a policeman just cold-bloodedly murdering somebody. A lot of the others, you can claim, “oh, well they were reacting in the heat of the moment.” This was just a cop who thought he could shoot somebody in the back and get away with murder.
So I designed [the flag] and got it produced as quickly as I could, and showed it [in a gallery] in Des Moines, Iowa. But that’s the only time the work had been shown, until the For Freedoms show happened, and the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I emailed Hank Willis Thomas, who’s one of the organizers of the For Freedoms show, and said, “look, I know this is unprecedented, but can we add a work?” (laughs) “Here’s what I’d like to add.” They said yes, and the gallery called me up and said “how quickly can you get down here? Hop a cab, bring the flag.”
“What’s going on when simple traffic stops are leading to people getting killed?”
And this flag is modeled after the one that hung outside the NAACP.
Yeah, this is modeled completely on that. When I was making the flag, I knew of that flag and that’s why I wanted to do it. I studied the typeface and tried to find a font that matched that as exactly as possible. I ended up calling the archivist at the NAACP, because all the pictures are in black and white, and I wanted to make sure the flag was actually black and white text, and not red and white or something like that. I really was trying to, as much as possible, match it. That flag both marked a tremendous horror. 1948 was the first year there was not a public lynching in the United States since the Civil War.
This was an occurrence that happened every single year: lynchings were very public, and it was a way to terrorize the black community. These were celebrations—sometimes 20,000 people would gather at lynchings (20,000 white people)—they would have their pictures taken with bodies on fire, bodies hanging from trees, or bodies hanging from telephone poles. And with kids! This was a celebratory, picnic, righteous thing, and then they sent postcards to people to celebrate their good work and send postcards to black people in neighboring towns to intimidate and terrorize them. The NAACP had an anti-lynching campaign to stop this horror. I wanted to sort of reference and mark that, but also, it was an act of defiance. The NAACP was not just marking this war [against lynching]; they were really trying organize a nationwide movement to stop it. And so, I really wanted to get people to both mark the horror of murder by police, but also stand with this movement that’s in the streets, and newspapers. What’s going on when simple traffic stops are leading to people getting killed? When people following orders of the police are getting shot and murdered by the police; when children are playing with toy guns and two seconds later the police are killing them. It’s an outrage, and it needs to stop. This artwork is really trying to stand in that history, but also encourage people to live with that history and actually get to a society that doesn’t need cops that brutalize and terrorize people.
Why, “a man was lynched by police yesterday?” Why not the original? Why not “a man was shot by police?”
First off, the police kill people in lots of different ways. Eric Garner was choked to death. People have been tasered to death. Freddie Gray encountered the police and was perfectly healthy, he was beaten and twisted like a pretzel, and put in the back of a van and driven to death—his spine was broken. It’s not just about them shooting people; it’s about them killing people. I did want to tie it to this horror of lynching. People rightly, today—even people who I would disagree with very bitterly, politically—think that lynching is a horror, an abomination of the past. People don’t necessarily think of what the police are doing like that, but it really is. More people have been killed by the police in any given decade than were killed at the height of lynching. The height of lynching, 1885-1894—that decade—there were [1,726] people lynched. Just last year the police killed [1,134] people. In a year. So five times as many people are being killed by the police [in the same amount of time] as were killed at the height of lynching.
Has there been any backlash, especially in the wake of the tragedy in Dallas?
The backlash is manufactured backlash. It’s real, but it’s manufactured. The first response that was hostile was Fox News. They contacted the gallery and basically said “after the events in Dallas, have you reconsidered showing it?” That was their question. It was like, “uh, no?!” The gallery responded that they had not. The work is part of the For Freedoms show, and it’s going to stay up. We’re not going to censor the work. I think that’s very righteous: they’re two completely unrelated things. Fox’s insinuation that, because of this unrelated incident in Dallas, that people should not have the right to make art, display art, or protest the wanton killing by police of people: the insinuation that that’s how people should respond would set a tremendously dangerous precedent.
The gallery was courageous and said, “we’re not backing down, we’re standing by the work. We like the work, and we’re going to continue to show it.” Fox’s story included a quote from an unnamed cop—they couldn’t even find an actual cop to put his name and say “I don’t like this”—and so they ran with this sort of story that was basically trying to fabricate and foment a controversy. And since then, in this particular political climate, where a leading political candidate of one of the two major parties is calling for people to get beaten up at his rallies—there’s a real fascist climate.
The gallery’s received threats. I’ve received death threats. There are people working at the desk getting phone calls and emails—really hostile calls. The latest that’s happened is that the landlord has demanded that the gallery take the flag off the building. [Ed note: We spoke to a representative from said landlord, the Rouhollah Kalimian Trust, who told us that the flag was in violation of the gallery’s lease, which prohibits them from displaying anything outside the building. It has since been moved inside.] Which is sort of an ironic repeat of history, in that the NAACP was threatened in the ’30s with eviction, if they didn’t stop flying that flag. They eventually had to stop.
Stay tuned to Milk for more politically conscious art.
Lead image courtesy of Dread Scott and the Jack Shainman Gallery. Additional images via Dread Scott and Cult Nation.