Between 1920 and 1938, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) flew a flag from the window of its Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York City when a lynching took place. It stated, simply, starkly: “A man was lynched yesterday.” The flag demanded that the people of Manhattan, however far they were from the American south, bear some form of witness to the racist murders taking place in their nation.
Today, a revision of that flag hangs a few blocks west, emblazoned with the same white font on a black background, with two additional words: “A man was lynched by police yesterday.”
The flag, which hangs outside the Jack Shainman Gallery on West 20th Street, is a piece by the artist Dread Scott. Scott told Hyperallergic that he created the work, entitled A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, in 2015, after Walter Scott was fatally shot eight times in the back by police officer Michael Slager.
“It was an unfortunately necessary update to the NAACP sign then and it continues its relevance in this moment,” the artist wrote to reporter Hrag Vartanian in an email:
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.
Just like the NAACP’s demanded citizens to see the stark truth in the early 20th century, Scott’s work will demand the same of city-dwellers who might be perusing galleries or strolling to the High Line this weekend. “His work cuts to the heart of the matter in a way that makes your decision to look away a clear choice,” wrote Vartanian.
We cannot look away.