If you live in New York City, you may have seen Dread Scott's "A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday" swaying in the wind outside the Jack Shainman Gallery this summer. The stark black-and-white piece, which was a part of the gallery's For Freedoms exhibit, did what much of what Scott's work has done for three decades: hit you over the head with an undeniable reflection on the state of American society. This summer's piece was a direct response to the sustained campaign of state terror inflicted on black and brown Americans across the country; in the past, Scott has used indelibly American symbols like the flag, currency, and the constitution as the basis of his "revolutionary art" made to "propel history forward." Even his name, a reference to Dred Scott — the slave who famously lost a suit against the U.S. for his freedom in 1857 — makes a statement.
Your piece "A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday" got a lot of attention after it went up outside the Jack Shainman Gallery. Could you tell me about its genesis and significance to you?
It was made in 2015, after the police killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina. I'd been thinking a lot about police repression, police brutality, mass incarceration, and how the police are just getting away with murder after murder after murder. I made some work about that [in the past] but this was something that I felt required a new sort of response. The piece is an update of an NAACP banner that flew in the 1920s and ‘30s out front of their New York headquarters. They were trying to organize an anti-lynching campaign to stop the scourge of lynching, which, from the 1860s, was terrorizing the black community. Most black people weren't lynched, but every black person knew that they could be lynched for any reason or no reason whatsoever.
Seeing how the police have been caught time and time again — now on cell phone video — just murdering people and getting away with it, I felt that it would be appropriate to talk about how this scourge from the past is sort of existing in the present in a new form. The police have actually, across the country, been killing people at probably five to six times the rate that people were lynched at the height of lynching in the decade between 1885 and 1894. And it's disproportionately black and Latino people: you’re anywhere between four to seven times as likely to get killed by the police if you're black, as to if you're white.
So there’s this symmetry of the past stalking people in the present, but also of building resistance. One of the things that the NAACP was doing with their flag was not just marking a horror but actually trying to organize people to stop it. While they were, and are, a civil rights organization, I'm an artist and this piece is being shown in largely an art context. But it actually is, I think, resonating far beyond an art venue in getting out to society; it is still putting the ideas out there at a moment where people are in the street and disrupting society and disrupting traffic and demanding to be treated like human beings. It is part of [a broader] resistance which is urgently needed to stop the police from killing people, again and again and again and again.
What do you think it is about invoking language like “lynching” that is particularly resonant?
The thing is [that] people think of lynching as something that's from a barbaric past. Again, most black people are not being hung from trees or set on fire in front of crowds. But if the mayor of New York has a black child, which he does, and has to have a conversation with him about how to survive an encounter with the police, that tells you how pervasive the threat is. People don’t spontaneously think, "Oh, the cops are lynchers." But if the mayor of the most significant, major metropolitan city in the country has to have that talk with his son and he can't protect his son, what can ordinary people do? What can the Freddie Grays of the world and the Walter Scotts of the world do? What can the Tamir Rices of the world and their parents do to protect them? [Police killings] are different than lynching but they play the same role in terms of terrorizing a community.
I thought the language of the piece was both strong but absolutely appropriate, and I challenge anybody to say that's actually not the case. How is it that the police are actually different from the lynch mob? How is it that they're different when they get literally caught on film, where there are eyewitnesses to the crime, where there's video evidence of the crime, and yet, much like the ‘20s and ‘30s 40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, that counts for nothing? When Emmett Till was lynched, everybody knew in that courtroom who the lynchers were. And it was extremely rare that lynchers were prosecuted or brought to trial. And in that case, the judge greeted the African-American community that came to the courtroom by saying, "Hello, niggers!” There was photograph after photograph after photograph of lynch mobs, yet they were never tried, never prosecuted, never convicted. This situation exists today. We all saw five cops choke Eric Garner to death. We saw that video; not one of them faced prosecution. We saw video of Tamir Rice getting shot; there was no indictment. We saw Freddie Gray encounter the police, perfectly healthy, and then a week later, dead; the only people who encountered him in [that time] were the police. There were three trials, all of them would end in acquittal. Cops don't go to jail for murder.
“[Police killings] are different than lynching but they play the same role in terms of terrorizing a community.”
You've been making art in this vein for a while now. How do you stay committed to making revolutionary work while witnessing these sort of things, which don’t seem to ever end?
This society is based on oppression and exploitation and it's outmoded and it doesn't have to be that way. Capitalism in particular is a disaster for humanity and for black people in this country. It was founded on slavery and genocide. And it’s not only that it affects black people but if you look at the position of black people in this society, you can see what a nightmare and disaster [capitalism] is for everybody. So I firmly believe that people can make a radically different, far better world. But to do that will actually take revolution. And that's not just a wish or belief; it is actually based on studying this society, how it got to be the way that it is, and looking at past societies and how they changed. People can make revolution; they have in various parts of the world across history and that will happen again. My commitment is based on finding the world as it is completely intolerable and absolutely unnecessary.
A lot of your work is about challenging symbols of modern America — the flag, money, etc. What is the significance of that?
If you look at the arc of my work as a whole, I'm taking on a lot of cohering values of American society, from patriotism and the flag as a unifying symbol to capitalism. It really is trying to take on, in various different projects, the whole of what's wrong capitalism, generally, and as embodied in America in particular. I don't only talk about America and it’s not like there's nothing [happening in] Germany or Iran or Pakistan or any of these countries. But I happen to live in the belly of one of the worst empires around. I do try to go beyond just looking narrowly at America because that ends up reinforcing the notion that American lives are more important than other people's lives, and that's very much what I'm trying to get beyond.
There's always been a pervasive sense of linking patriotism with morality. But it's in the national conversation right now more than ever.
Right on to Colin Kaepernick! Why would anybody be patriotic for a country that treats black people the way this country does? Right on for having the courage to dissent on one of the biggest stages and posing it as a moral question for people. It's like, “Well, do you want to live in a world where black people are shot and the police get away with murder. I can't sit silently by and just go along with the program.” I think he's inspired all sorts of people, including many in the NFL. It's a very good thing when people are calling into question the symbols and ideas of America and are willing to risk something, much the way Muhammad Ali was willing to risk everything in order to fight for justice. I'm glad that well known artists and athletes are stepping up in that vein.
“Hopefully people can look back on this time and say that this was the beginning of the downfall of this empire.”
Do you have a sense that, because things are documented on the internet, it will help our collective memory, as opposed to when you were making your work beginning 30 years ago?
A bit, yeah. But I also think there are better ways in which people remembered things in the past. In terms of people's capacity to rapidly spread information that might be overlooked by mainstream news outlets, it's the plethora of videos of police killings [that has shifted things]; police have been killing black people ever since police have been in this country. We know that. With Rodney King, it was the first time where black people were able to go up to white people and say, “Look, this is what we've been talking about for a couple of decades. You have it on video, you have to actually believe us, and this time we'll get justice.” It didn't quite work out that way but nonetheless it did sort of shift things, and it was because of the existence of video.
But we're only seeing the murders. The way the ordinary kid in the hood gets jacked up by the police every fucking day is not what's being shown. We're seeing the excessive tip of how the police interact with these communities. I think it's not so much that it's helping collective memory necessarily, but it's helping people have a collective understanding. I mean, I'm fairly convinced the police killed just as many people five years ago on average, give or take 10 percent, as they did this year and last year. But now there's a national conversation because of two things: one, there is video evidence, and two, people are standing up. It was particularly the people in Ferguson who said, “Mike Brown is not going to be just yet another black boy who's been killed by the police.” And there actually wasn't video in that case; it was that the people of Ferguson were really courageous and stood up to tear gas and rubber bullets and wooden bullets and lying politicians, including President Obama. They were profoundly courageous in the face of all these attempts to just say, “This is how we do things in America, just go back to sleep.” And they said no, and that's why we're having the conversation we're having today.
There’s a more perceptible willingness, or ability even, to call things “murder” and not euphemisms like "fatal police encounter." At the same time, people are trying to reconcile the need for change with living day-to-day and earning their livelihoods. Where does revolution fit into that?
I see two hopes. One is that people are most active and combative in questioning a lot of things than they have been since the late 1960s or early 1970s — the resistance is out there now. I don't know where all this is going to go but it [feels like] there is definitely something coming. There is definitely a movement that's building and growing and intersecting lots of different societies; there’s the spontaneous sort of understanding of people, as well as the organized expression that that's taken root. Whether people can go from a relatively small group determined to enable people to make revolution to actually succeeding, I don't know. But I do know that this sort of linking between people being pissed off and not wanting to take it anymore — including people like Beyoncé and Colin Kaepernick, as well as other people — that's a potentially volatile mix.
George Jackson, the Panther leader from prison, wrote an interesting thing in Blood in My Eye. He said he felt very responsible, his generation felt very responsible, to make revolution so that the next generation doesn't have to curse his generation the way he cursed his parents' generation for leaving the world in a mess. He was really grappling with, “America has taught us time and again, decade after decade, that it can't actually bring any sort of justice or meet people's needs. Why didn't my parents' generation get rid of this monster? I'm going to make sure I do everything possible so that the people in the '80s or '90s or aughties aren't fighting the same battle.” And it didn't work out that way, but people like George Jackson and the Panthers gave what they could. This generation needs to try and fight with everything it has so that we aren't in 2035 saying, “Oh man, the teens were a great period but we didn't break through.” Hopefully people can look back on this time and say that this was the beginning of the downfall of this empire.