You Can’t Say That in America!

Written by Brian James Spies



The practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts.

On July 11 Fox News published an article criticizing the artist Dread Scott’s update of the iconic anti-lynching banner from the early part of the 20th century (A Man Was Lynched Yesterday) and its display outside of the Jack Shainman Gallery. In response to the police murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina last year, Scott updated the banner to reflect our current climate of state-sanctioned lynchings, adding the text “By The Police”. In the ensuing days, the gallery and Mr. Scott would be bombarded with vitriolic hate mail and threats of violence. Ultimately, the gallery was forced to remove the banner at the insistence of its landlord who claimed that the manner in which it was mounted onto the building could undermine the space’s structural integrity and thus was in violation of the terms of their lease.

Assuming that, for the sake of argument, the banner’s removal was rooted in nothing more than what has been presented to us, a case of a simple minor violation of the terms of a standard lease agreement, it’s still worth examining the question of free speech. In a Facebook post, Scott described the situation immediately following the removal of the banner as an act of censorship. His frustration was palpable and altogether entirely within reason. That said, traditionally censorship has been understood as an official government action, an effort by the state to suppress ideas or speech that it feels undermines its authority or legitimacy. However, if it was a business decision motivated by commercial and security concerns between two private business entities, a gallery, and its landlord, is this thereby tantamount to the kind of state-sponsored suppression that we usually associate with totalitarian regimes?

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday. Flag flying above Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1938. Copyprint. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-4734/LC-USZ62-33793 (6-10b) Courtesy of the NAACP

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday. Flag flying above Fifth Avenue, New York City, ca. 1938. Curtesy NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division 

Looking at what distinguishes a democracy from an authoritarian government I think it is important to examine the everyday lived reality of people existing under the thumb of the state from our own supposed freedoms. In history class, Americans are indoctrinated with the ideas of our founders. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, justice, and freedom for all. What do these concepts mean, though? We are often told, especially by those on the far right, that our system is one of law and order. This can seem like lip service paid to the criminal justice system, and although it often is, it’s still an important point. In theory, America’s democracy is based almost entirely upon the rule of law. The legal system, at its best, acts as the great equalizer; if I wrong you the state acts on your behalf to offer recompense. Unfortunately, more often than not the lived reality is quite different. Recent history is littered with examples of the state’s inability to either protect its citizens or to offer justice after the fact. Because of its structure, too often the scales of justice are weighted in the favor of whoever has the greater access to resources. A wealthy defendant can outspend the state, buying their freedom and conversely the state can outspend a poor defendant, making a conviction a certainty. As a result, many segments of society feel powerless in their attempts to exercise that freedom guaranteed them “under the law”. In this way, the reality for this portion of our fellow Americans isn’t really all that different from that of those living in a totalitarian state. When you feel powerless and when the criminal justice system has consistently failed to live up to its obligations, who are you to turn to in times of trouble?

DREAD SCOTT, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015 nylon, 84 x 52 1/2 inches ©Dread Scott. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015, nylon, 84 x 52 1/2 inches, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I’m reminded of a well-known Joseph Heller quote, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” For many people, the unending parade of failures of the criminal justice to protect their concerns and too often, their lives, means that in spite of all the talk of freedom and justice their reality isn’t all that different from those living in an authoritarian country. As a result, without the recompense supposedly provided under the law, many segments of our society, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, feel it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that they have no voice. Without a voice, all speech is suppressed. Ironically, the NAACP was forced by its landlord, under threat of eviction, in 1938 to discontinue the practice of hanging the banner which inspired Mr. Scott’s own piece of art in the first place.

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