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Artist Dread Scott on police killings, Carmelo Anthony, and why he makes the work he makes

Installation and performance artist Dread Scott has been stirring up the world with his radical, impolite, political art for more than 25 years, and he’s still doing it.

Following the April 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Dread Scott created a flag in response. Inspired by a flag that hung outside of New York City’s NAACP headquarters during the 1920s and ’30s that read “A man was lynched today,” Scott used the same white-on-black color scheme and typeface to create a flag that read “A man was lynched by police today.”

After the shooting deaths this summer of Philando Castile by police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Scott offered the flag to the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. Scott was already participating in the gallery’s For Freedoms exhibition, conceived by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman with the hope of using art to inspire political engagement in this year’s presidential election. It went up July 8 outside the gallery, but the gallery’s landlord insisted that the flag be moved inside. The gallery began receiving threatening emails and phone calls after Fox News ran a story about Scott’s flag.

Scott’s work has long been colored by a sense of urgency. Many know Scott, 51, best for his 1988 What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?

"What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?" Installation: Silver gelatin print, books, pens, shelf, active audience, US flag, 80" x 28" x 12", 1988.

What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? Installation: Silver gelatin print, books, pens, shelf, active audience, US flag, 80 inches by 28 inches by 12 inches, 1988.

Courtesy of Dread Scott

The installation included an American flag placed on the floor of the gallery at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Above it was an open, empty book and pens placed on a wall-mounted shelf. At eye level was a photograph of flag-draped coffins. Viewers were invited to answer the question what is the proper way to display a U.S. flag?, by writing their answers in the book. In order to write comfortably, they would have to step on the flag, which many participants did. The work was condemned by President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. Senate.

Scott is also the artist behind Dread Scott: Decision, a performance piece that included nude black men being accosted by leashed German shepherds, and The Blue Wall of Violence, an installation that includes FBI silhouettes that have been fashioned to include an arm. In the hand of each arm rests the object that later became the justification for a police shooting — the object, such as a wallet or house keys, was said to have been mistaken for a gun.

I spoke to Scott earlier this summer about the deaths of Sterling and Castile, and police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What’s been the response to the flag?

This work was a last-minute addition to [For Freedoms]. When the world saw the videos of the police murder of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I asked [the Jack Shainman Gallery], ‘Can we include this,’ and their response was basically, ‘Get in the cab. How quickly can you get the flag down here?’ That was really right on the money. That’s how people should be responding, but that’s extremely unusual. Galleries don’t add works after a show is hung, and so it was a very intentional reaction to the moment that we’re living in, and a very good reaction that people should have.

Before it was hung, we went down to one of the demonstrations at Union Square for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and people there wanted to pose with it, so this had a lot of support. In response to that, Fox News tried to foment a controversy. They basically questioned why the gallery would show the work, especially after cops were killed in Dallas, as if that completely unrelated event is a reason that artists and people of conscience in galleries should not raise big questions and make art talking about this epidemic of murder by police.

In the days following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, it seems like the conversation that we have about these two things together is very muddled. Why do you think there’s such a zero-sum reaction when these things have occurred and the way we talk about them?

The thing is the police last year killed over eleven hundred people, and it’s disproportionately black and Latino people, and, fortunately, many of them have been caught on videos. The two killings, Castile and Sterling, happened just coincidentally separated by about 36 hours or something like that. They didn’t have to happen that way, and each of the videos is heartbreaking.

Then these cops got killed, and, frankly, the system is trying to get people to stop the protesting. They’ve slandered the Black Lives Matter movement. They’ve slandered people who are protesting. There is this situation where people, for the first time, starting actually really with the death of Mike Brown, are starting to say we can no longer be targets. We can’t be used for target practice. We can’t be choked to death. We can’t be tasered to death. We can’t be beaten to death. We can’t be shot to death, and it has to stop, and particularly these two recent deaths are something that people are in the streets about and very courageous, and all sorts of musicians, and artists, and athletes have decided that we’re going to draw the line here. Carmelo Anthony has been very bold calling on people to act with courage, sort of in the spirit of Muhammad Ali.

I think the system, including Fox News and others, are trying to change the channel and say let’s not talk about that, or let’s equate these two deaths as if the deaths of a few cops is the same as this epidemic of government agencies, who are supposedly sworn to serve and protect the people, murdering them in unspeakable numbers.

When you say “the system,” what exactly do you mean?

This is a country that was founded on slavery and genocide, and the subjugation of black people and the ideology of white supremacy is woven into the fabric of this country. Read the Constitution. You get literally three paragraphs in, and it’s talking about giving disproportionate voting rights to people who own slaves. I mean disproportionate representation in the federal government to states with slavery.

There is a system in place that does these murders, and then protects the cops. With Freddie Gray, you could see he’s on video basically fine before the cops encounter him. Yet, after three trials, no cop, nobody is held responsible. Freddie Gray didn’t kill himself, but then there’s a system that works with the police, the prosecutors, the judges, and the media to get these people off and to keep this continual epidemic rolling.

You see these actions as embedded very deeply in the history of America. Contrast that with public statements by politicians, where there is an emphasis on things being better than they used to be, which President Obama said at his latest town hall. Does that feel disingenuous to you?

Well, short answer, yes. I think, particularly with that town hall, Erica Garner called out Obama for what he was doing. He was just trying to use her and people like her, victims and some of the people in the Black Lives Matter movement, people whose family member had been killed by police, to chill things out. When Mike Brown was killed, Obama actually said things are getting better. We have to let the Justice Department play out. Keep calm. He has been trying to actually paper over this fault line question in society that is causing unspeakable suffering, and people are seeing it, and to say things have gotten better, yes, it’s true that lynch mobs don’t exist anymore, but, quite honestly, the police are killing people at about five times the rate that people were killed during the height of lynch mob terror.

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I’m wondering if you watched the Republican National Convention. They were very deliberate about scheduling black men to speak during prime time. One was the Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who got up to the podium and said, “blue lives matter.” One of your pieces is literally entitled The Blue Wall of Violence.

Yeah. First off, it’s shameful that anybody should be a cop, but certainly black people should really — I mean I think a lot of guys do go in thinking serve and protect and they want to do that, but that’s not what the police do. The police are there to enforce relations of exploitation and oppression. The cops that aren’t willing to go along with the torture and brutality and murder, they don’t stay cops. They are forced to quit.

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These are not easy things to dwell in on a daily basis, much less for years, which you have with your work. You sound like a perfectly normal, happy person. That’s something that’s common for black people in this country: This is the atmosphere around us, but at the same time, we still have to find a way to just not collapse. How do you do that?

I guess it’s like you look at somebody like Richard Pryor or Chris Rock when he’s at his best. They talk about some of the most painful subjects around in ways that are actually funny. I mean Richard Pryor has a scene where he talks about now I’m reaching for my wallet, because he’s talking to a cop, “because I don’t want to be no m—-f—— accident.” This is 1970 or something he’s saying this.

I think, for me, I can’t stand the world the way it is. I wake up and it is a horror for the great majority of humanity — not just for black people. The people running the world today are not fit to do so, and it’s causing tremendous harm, and we need revolution — and that’s why I make the work I do … I feel a real responsibility.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.