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Dread Scott, “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” (2015), nylon, 84 x 52 1/2 in, hangs outside Jack Shainman Gallery on West 20th Street in Chelsea, Manhattan. (image ©Dread Scott, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

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.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

32 replies on ““A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” Flag Goes Up in New York City”

  1. ‘white supremacist culture’

    in a country with a black president

    not advocating for police brutality/militarization or their constant overreaction but viewing these events in a scope of that magnitude only strengthens dividing lines and detracts from possible solutions like police reform, proper training and community outreach coupled with an end to the war on drugs which unevenly targets black communities. I’d also like to know what the writer suggests we do beyond protests and working towards reform when stating ‘how little our society does’ in reaction to these events, as I’ve seen plenty of action being taken in my home town

    1. Having a black president doesn’t change the system that props up all this. White supremacy was the official ideology of the US up until the 1960s (and still is in many ways) and that was sustained for centuries while institutions, communities, and all other aspects of the culture were created around it. To suggest that a figurehead is enough is topple an entrenched system is incorrect (though it is probably why we are having these discussions in the first place, so in that way it helped). We have to dismantle the framework because in the current system it is possible to have racism without racists. We need to be clear this is a system created to disenfranchise and target certain people (first it was Native Americans, and now more specifically targetted to Black populations).

      Thank you for asking what I advocate, and I personally believe (in an art context) we have to be honest about the ideology behind museums and other instutions that we interact with and ask what they are doing and how they can challenge those troubling realities. Let’s start with informing everything we do with the knowledge that Black Lives Matter. It seems simple but I’ve seen that in all our families — specifically those of us who are not Black — such a declaration is still controversial. I don’t event think people agree on that.

      1. I appreciate the current and historical value of the flag and slogan, but some of us who belittle it, do so because we believe that our lives matter also, but the media doesn’t report our deaths. I would like to take this occasion to extend the gamut of slogans beyond the police target, to the pharmaceutical industry. Too many of our contemporaries expect death from illness or medication.
        Also, all opinions matter. Yours, mine and good bye.
        What would happen if a cop would think Black Lives Matter, while aiming his or her gun to a Mexican, a Catholic or a dog?
        Scientists are needed, please to hurry up the inventions of non lethal weapons, doctors to think twice before endorsing “better” poisons.

        1. That’s a very paranoid interpretation not proved by historic and current facts. Next think you’ll say is white supremacy doesn’t exist as an ideology that has infiltrated every aspect of US society.

          1. You don’t have the right to tell me what I will be doing “next”.
            You could earn that right if you have and show me your clairvoyance credentials, maybe.
            MY current facts are that I have been arrested three times in the last four years, twice by black and white cops, and once a fat black female cop sat on my arm on an Elmhurst hospital stretcher, laughing at me when I asked her to get off of me.
            I don’t hate all black cops for it, just that one piece of shit.

          2. I don’t know what you mean by white fragility.
            My arm didn’t break under the weight of the fat ass, but my freedom was assailed. I did however have the strength in my left arm to take a lighter out of my pocket and to set the mattress I was laying on, on fire, which alerted the hospital personnel and other cops, to witness the injustice and to be set free.
            I didn’t go to Elmhurst to make a fuss, I have MS, and I was already in pain.
            If that’s what you mean by fragility, I hope nobody else will ever have my illness or any other one.
            But maybe you meant something else.

          3. I’ll translate this for other people: “I hate it when people speak up against white supremacy and I will follow Trump’s lead and say the opposite of something expecting other people to think my nonsensical comment makes sense.”

    2. Oh, that’s right – America can’t be a white supremacist culture with a black President. I can see your logic. If only blacks would stop acting so uppity and militant when their men, women and teenagers are treated like less than chattel by a militarized and racially-biased police force, and are brutally murdered. Without accountability. Without justice. Without outrage from whites like you who think Obama’s inauguration 8 years ago signaled the end of systematic and institutionalized oppression. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Not to diminish any of this, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the NAACP flag recently became more visible in local art discourse because the LOC picture and related materials are included in the Brooklyn Museum’s current Agitprop show

  3. I’m a big believer that art should provoke, and this IS an historical moment that shouldn’t go ignored. Black Lives Matter has ben the single most important movement since Occupy in getting the normally anethesized and distorted mainstream to listen and to think. But I become very weary when the artist claims, as he did in his email, that the “whole system is broken.” Keep in mind that a black man opened fire on a peaceful protest last week and killed six cops. Fox News immediately dubbed it a “race war.” I think everybody — blacks, whites, artists, cops, everyone in between, needs to tread carefully in the coming weeks so as NOT to incite further violence. The best movements are movements of NON violence — we have Ghandi and MLK Jr as our examples, and the problems are right there on the surface right now, which no one can ignore. But to call the whole system broken is both wrong and something that is almost a call to arms….it encourages people to disrespect a system that is, on the whole, just trying to keep the peace. If it comes down to open warfare between blacks and cops in this country, we all know it will have tragic and senseless consequences. This was one week where three separate incidents happened side by side. The majority of cops are good. Let’s not play into Fox News’ hand and start a war. Like I said, it will end very badly.

    1. fascinating that you’re inclined to think this (non-violent) artistic action is what might “start a war” — instead of, you know, the racist vitriol spewed by Fox News or the actual, lethal violence perpetrated by the state. :

  4. White AmeriKKKa has never come to terms or atoned for its crimes and sins against black people and it NEVER will until the Black man rise up and hold white supremacist AmeriKKKa accountable for its crimes against Black Humanity. Micah Johnson is a FREEDOM FIGHTER and hero to me and millions of Black People. Like Nat Turner and other great Freedom Fighters he struck a blow against white terrorism and tyranny. May the great African Warrior REST IN PEACE. No greater love that thee who gives his life for his people who are under the yolk of oppression for 400+ years in AmeriKKKa and KKKanada.. We salute you brother Micah and we thank you for your sacrifice.

      1. Protecting BLM Marchers my A$$.. I see you want to insult black peoples intelligence. I guess the guards at Auschwitz was there to protect the Jews eh Einstein? I hope you aint as dumb as you look Neander!!

      1. Yeah Go back to Afrika eh..is that all you got Neander? You should have thought of that before you demonic SKKKumbags invaded Africa to loot, murder and kidnap my African ancestors A$$hole!!. ISIS are boy scouts compared to Caucazoid Neanderthal savages.

        1. ISIS are the progeny of many of the kidnappers of Africans.
          I’m not saying that Whites didn’t do it also, but so did many Africans themselves.
          However, most Caucasians were in danger of exotic (for them) diseases and stayed away.
          Slavery was a terrible part of many cultures for thousand of years.
          Whites have not been exempt from it. Greeks, Romans, Moors had White slaves.
          My own ancestors from Romania have been oppressed by Otomans for hundreds of years.
          Do I hate the Turks now?
          It’s water under the bridge, though I think that they are wrong for going back to religion based politics.

  5. Dread Scott is a technically proficient artist. He uses
    clean graphics based on historical imagery to
    communicate a seemingly clear message.
    However, the message here is not simply
    an altruistic revelation of racism in our society.
    Scott is sensationalizing these murders for a personal platform
    with a very different agenda. This image, is a mechnism to inflame anger
    and incite violence towards an end goal of anarchy and revolution.
    I challenge you, Hrag and the gallery, to look behind the curtain of
    intentions regarding this piece.

  6. I never said that the flag being hung in Chelsea would start a war…I was voicing concern about what the artist said in his statement — that the system is broken. Within a minimized context of one man getting lynched by cops — as the flag states — criticizing the “system” as a whole CAN incite violence among the most angry and upset people who already feel victimized by cops. It IS a sensationalized statement, especially because it’s stripped of a larger, and much more complicated (Less black and white excuse the terrible pun) context of what’s really going on. As another commentator pointed out, the banner does border on being sensational. All that really does is fan flames that make innocent people who feel powerless — in other words, many people of color — go and do impulsive things in rage, having been given some sort of glorified permission by a leader who tells them the “system is broken” anyway. To me personally, what makes the leaders of Black Lives Matter so powerful and so important is in how they can articulate a whole set of experiences that white America isn’t necessarily aware of. And they do it not through hyperbole, not through sensationalizing, not even through fudging the facts or overlooking important parts of the context. They really don’t need to. The facts speak for themselves. This banner goes up a few days after five cops were killed by a black man. It’s an already tense situation in any urban diverse area. Nobody needs to throw a match into what is already a tinderbox. Again, I’m not saying this banner could start a war, but I sure do hear echoes in the artist’s work that give license to anarchy.

  7. Thank you Hyperallergic for your removal of a black man’s comments on the issue of art, culture and conscience……mine. Great way to have an honest dialogue – only allow a white artist the privilege of having a voice. Paging Eldridge Cleaver…….

      1. The Eldridge Cleaver quote is, “You are either part of the solution, or part of the problem.” Moderated commentary notwithstanding, I think I am more qualified to speak on racism, having had personal experiences of a lifetime.

  8. thanks frostmoth for the historic photo comparison, thanks to dread scott for the work, the gallery and hrag for helping to share. i think this piece is on point, and i’m not the only one.

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