Dread Scott’s “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” Flag Should Fly outside MoMA
More than a year ago, a South Carolina police officer shot and killed Walter Scott as he fled, unarmed, back-turned, from a traffic stop. In response, artist Dread Scott created a flag.
The message the flag displays, at its core, is the articulation of a fact. “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday,” it reads in white text set sharply against a jet black background some seven feet tall and over four feet wide. It is both physically striking and emotionally powerful. It is also an “unfortunate update,” as Scott puts it, of the flag that the NAACP flew outside of its offices in lower Manhattan in the 1920s and ’30s each time a black person was lynched. (The original flag lacked the words “by police.”)
Initially, Scott thought his flag would be shown in one or two gallery exhibitions and that would be all.
Then, earlier this month, horrific video of the police shootings of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, emerged online. Thousands took to the streets across the country to protest the unending state violence against black people and other minorities. In New York, Scott joined protesters in Union Square, bringing the flag with him. The piece was then mounted to the façade of Jack Shainman’s West 20th Street gallery with the help and support of organizers of “For Freedoms,” an artist-run super PAC, which is also the title of the exhibition on view inside.
It flew for roughly a week, striking a nerve, spreading online through social media, and galvanizing support. At some point it came to the attention of Fox News, which ran an un-bylined story titled “Art gallery stands by anti-police violence flag in wake of deadly Dallas shooting.” Threats poured into the gallery and against Scott personally, with one person telling the artist he hoped he would be lynched. The landlord then threatened to sue, saying the flag violated the gallery’s lease, which stipulated that nothing could be adorned to the facade. The work was eventually taken down.
But the killing of unarmed black and Latino men has not ended. Video emerged yesterday of another, though thankfully nonfatal, shooting. And like lynching, which was used to terrorize and intimidate African Americans by whites who received no punishment for their crimes, these acts of violence by police achieve similar ends with similar impunity. So it should come as no surprise that, though the flag no longer hangs outside the gallery, the message of Scott’s work and the issues of police violence it raises have not only continued to be discussed, but have maintained a fierce urgency. On every level—from the artistic to the political, which often blur anyway—the question has become, what is to be done?
On Wednesday night, roughly 100 people gathered in Shainman’s gallery to discuss how the flag, now prominently displayed inside among the other works of art, could once again fly outside in the world. “We’re continuing the process of trying to spread this. In a time where police are continuing to kill people with impunity, this message needs to be out there, this artwork needs to be out there,” Scott later told me. “I’m very convinced that there are places, large and small, that are interested in supporting this in some way.” (The artist said he was going to reach out to the Brooklyn Museum directly after our conversation.) Another version of the flag flew in Cleveland on Thursday—just in time to catch the last day of the Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump is being crowned the party’s presidential nominee.
Many of those in attendance on Wednesday were denizens of the art world who offered their connections and support to the work in an attempt to get the flag up and on view in more locations. Nothing concrete has yet been planned, but the goal is an important one if real, meaningful action and dialogue is to be had around the violence experienced by black and Latino people across this country.
Adorning the flag to the exterior of an “art world” space is also an overdue acknowledgement that museums are politically charged spaces, not able to turtle unaffected inside their walls as the political winds blow outside. It also offers support, potentially galvanizing further mobilization. Earlier this month, Black Lives Matter protesters marched all the way to the steps of the Met, standing just outside its walls with their hands up—a reference to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Imagine if Scott’s flag was there to meet them.
And though the “art world” is not the only place the image can or should appear, fostering institutional solidarity between large and small museums, galleries, and nonprofits also offers a degree of protection for those less prominent spaces taking the risk of another Fox News-induced hate mob when they display the flag. And for Scott, art and activism have a shared place in addressing police violence. “I’ve been doing both for quite some time,” Scott told me. He’s “helping to organize demonstrations, helping to make banners for demonstrations, as well as taking art into a space that is thought of as a political space, including demonstrations, as well as showing in galleries in museums.”
As part of “For Freedoms,” Scott is once again spurring art into the political sphere by creating an “Anti-Campaign Ad” that was debuted on Wednesday evening. In the video, Scott urges people to resist the political binary of Clinton vs. Trump and instead imagine a revolution. He studied the “extremely effective but extremely manipulative” videos of traditional politicians to produce both a message for change and an implicit critique of political advertisements. “I think people are upset with a lot of things going on in the world,” Scott told me. “There’s a basis for this to resonate.”
Few underestimate the challenge of getting major museums with prominent trustees to take on a radical political statement like flying this flag. When Scott told those gathered at Shainman’s gallery that he wanted the work to fly in front of the Guggenheim, the crowd laughed bitterly. But while Scott later told me that he “can definitely imagine a world where this particular piece is no longer needed because there is a society that does not require cops to enforce relations of exploitation and oppression,” we’re nowhere near there yet.
In the meantime, he notes, everyone will have to decide what kind of society they want to live in and whether this one is acceptable. And as the flag makes clear, there is no fence to stand on. In Taylor Renee Aldridge’s excellent piece on racial appropriation in contemporary art, she ends by quoting Scott: “Either you’re helping the movement or you’re not. There’s no in-between.” Either the violence ends or it doesn’t.