This week, we’ve witnessed another onslaught of senseless killings of Black people by police in the United States. It’s hard not to feel numb when watching execution-style shootings, like the one that happened on Tuesday to Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or the harrowing post-shooting Facebook Live video by Philando Castile’s girlfriend Lavish Reynolds in St. Paul, Minnesota. Every day there is another story. Another death. More inaction. Another example of how little our society does when people who have been stigmatized in our white supremacist culture with the label of “blackness” are killed. Why does this continue?
In the early 20th century, the NAACP used to hang a flag outside their New York headquarters the day after someone was lynched. It was a graphic symbol of what many people wanted to ignore. The NAACP began that practice in 1920 and stopped in 1938, but today the police continue to kill Black people with impunity.
My hope is that we can channel our collective anger and numbness into change. I see the signs of the normalization of death, and that worries me, but even in these times I’m an optimist. Maybe I have to be.
Artist Dread Scott has long focused on the impact of state-sanctioned violence on all of us, and Black people specifically. His work cuts to the heart of the matter in a way that makes your decision to look away a clear choice. He is a great artist; I believe in his work. Yesterday, he hung his flag piece “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” (2015) outside the For Freedoms show at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery. I asked him why, and he responded via email:
The flag is an update on a banner that the NAACP used to hang outside of their national headquarters in New York on Fifth Avenue the day after someone was lynched. They used it during their anti-lynching campaign. During the Jim Crow era, Black people were terrorized by lynching — often public and publicized extra legal torture and murder of Black people. It was a threat that hung over all Black people who knew that for any reason or no reason whatsoever you could be killed and the killers would never be brought to justice. Now the police are playing the same role of terror that lynch mobs did at the turn of the century. It is a threat that hangs over all Black people, that we can be killed by the police for no reason whatsoever — for a traffic stop, for selling CDs, for selling cigarettes. Shot to death, choked to death, tasered to death, driven to death. Standing still, fleeing. Shot in the chest, shot in the back. Hands up, hands down. Point blank range or at a distance. And the police never face justice for their crimes. It is a vivid concentration of the complete illegitimacy of this whole system. Legal armed enforcers of relations of exploitation and oppression murder with impunity.
I made “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” in response to the police murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina last year. It was an unfortunately necessary update to the NAACP sign then and it continues its relevance in this moment. It is a real testament to the moment and courage of galleries like Jack Shainman that are shifting gears quickly to display work like this. It is a trend that needs to spread if we are going to stop the police from continuing their epidemic of killing people, over 566 people this year so far.
I dream of a day when this flag will no longer be necessary.