For one week, the monumental flag bearing the text, “A MAN WAS LYNCHED BY POLICE YESTERDAY” flew outside Jack Shainman Gallery’s West 20th location as Dread Scott‘s unfortunate update to the nearly identical one the NAACP once flew outside its Manhattan headquarters. Now, the banner hangs inside, pressed against the gallery’s front window following threats by the building’s landlord to sue the space. The spark: an article titled “Art gallery stands by anti-police violence flag in wake of deadly Dallas shooting,” published on Fox News and filed under “Crime.” Emails and phone calls from the website’s readers flooded the gallery; Scott himself received an email from someone telling him, “I hope you get lynched.” The flag came down, with a property manager citing a line in the lease noting the building’s facade must remain clear of affixes. The intimidation and censorship was a striking echo of what happened in 1938: the NAACP’s own landlord threatened to evict the organization if that flag remained. That one, too, came down.
Today, a version of Scott’s flag will wave freely in Cleveland on the final day of the Republican National Convention, organized by nonprofit organization SPACES to hang outside a record store. But Scott wants them everywhere, and he wants museums and galleries to make the call to fly them.
Yesterday evening, he led a casual but encouraging townhall discussion at Jack Shainman Gallery to discuss the controversy surrounding his flag, joined by artist Eric Gottesman and Lauren van Haaften-Schick, associate director of the Art & Law Program. A crowd of sixty or so gathered in the exhibition space, currently hosting For Freedoms, a show that grew out of Eric Gottesman’s and Hank Willis Thomas’ Super PAC. The room in which we stood was eerily fitting, with visual allusions to violence and racism in the past, present, and possibly future surrounding us through three centerpiece works: Jackie Nickerson‘s photograph of a torn Confederate flag; Jim Rick’s woven “Bid Laden Hideout“; and Andres Serrano’s large-scale, close-up portrait of Donald Trump, under whose steady gaze we remained during the hour-long chat. Scott himself has other works on view, including his painting “Imagine a World without America.”
After providing context to the updated flag — that he had created it last year in response to the fatal shooting of Walter Scott and then rehung it after news broke of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — Scott emphasized that we must continue the NAACP’s action. Buildings need to show the flag in the way it was intended, he said; it does not suffice to display it as an object in a gallery. In its original location outside Jack Shainman, the approximately 6.5 by 9.5-foot banner allowed for chance encounters on a mass scale: to catch the eyes of people on the road, even from blocks away; and of those strolling on the heavily trafficked High Line. Yesterday, I watched from the street as some people walked by the gallery without once glancing at the flag in the window.
But discussions over the landlord’s order were brief, as that issue was decidedly settled by all involved parties. Much more pressing is the killing of Black and Hispanic men that today stands as “a fault line question in this society and about What side are people on?” as Scott said.
“And that includes institutions,” he continued. “They should actually say, either I am for police continuing to ramp up and brutalize and murder people, or I am against that … I think that the most prominent institutions and art institution in this country should be approached and they should show this work.” He specifically cited the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as local museums that could lead by example.
The prevailing mood in the room was a mixture of palpable frustration over the recent shootings and of vehement longing to put something in action particularly in light of the flag’s suppression. People agreed with Scott’s plan — one man passionately demanded the design be reproduced in the thousands — but acknowledged that bureaucratic hurdles and donors will likely stand in the way. With many artists and art world professionals present in the diverse crowd, however, there was a feeling of hope that the collective connections could eventually turn vision into reality, and someone passed around a sign-up sheet to organize those keen on getting things going.
Creating the flag, though, is also complicated: Scott had spent a lot of time researching the exact dimensions, fabric, and typeface to replicate the NAACP’s version, even speaking with a librarian at the Library of Congress, which is now home to the original banner. Producing the canvas rectangle and linen letters took between three and four weeks. He had to expedite the process of the one sent to Cleveland, silk-printing it instead — and that still took four days. He’s now working to keep assembling the flags and would like to make them easily available but does not want to simply produce printable documents. The message must not be easily alterable; part of why Scott’s design works is because it looks so much like the NAACP’s iconic one.
There was a clear desire yesterday not just for change, but for revolution to overthrow the current system that breeds the need for the flag’s return. People spoke heatedly and openly about police terrorizing communities, about their exhaustion with reading the news, about the fact that New York’s own mayor had to warn his black son about his city’s police force.
“This is systemic: the killing and lynching and brutality against black people is woven into the fabric of this society,” Scott said. “It shows the utter illegitimacy of this society and why we need revolution. What hell is going on when what seems like the scourge from the past is living in the present? People who think, Oh, lynching is a thing of the past. It’s a horrific crime, but that’s the past. No it’s not, it lives with us right now, and this system is absolutely useless, and I’m just disgusted by it.”
No easy solution to these problems comes out of a discussion allotted one hour, but Scott invited anyone interested in continuing the conversation to email him or convene at a nearby bar. Before the gallery closed, he screened a recently produced, minute-long video cut in the style of a campaign ad. It features people speaking directly to the camera, calling for revolution to rid America of its current system that dehumanizes so many of its communities. The gallery also handed out large printouts of the flag for people to display wherever they wish; the sign-up sheet gathered signatures for those aiming to show the real thing.
“The NAACP flag wasn’t just a marker of the horror and tragedy,” Scott said. “It was actually part of organizing people across the country to fight the horror and tragedy. It was actually standing with people who were resisting. And that’s what this flag is about … including showing it outside the wall — to much love and respect — and thats why that’s where it needs to be.”
One hopes, however, that a society will emerge where the flag need not be brought outdoors at all.