It has been a while since I scanned through the FBI’s most-wanted list. Perhaps the last time was in the mid or late 90s when domestic terrorism was defined by Oklahoma City, Atlanta, or that estranged MIT Professor in some Montana cabin. This was from the time when lists were published and put on the wall calendar style in local Postal Offices. Being active in DIY music at a young age, I was always in and out of the post office sending off tapes and homemade demos to trade with pen pals from all over the world. It was a different time.
Now that I am in my adult life and just watched a presidential term end in what seemed like an endless faux-authoritarian regime, I am noticing that the FBI lists are back again. The only difference between then and now is that then, the fugitives terrorized a society against a President, this time (and perhaps the first time) the faces on the wanted list are for a President. A failed one. One that had no experience relevant to the role, one that quickly summoned his inner adversary when challenged — unable to demonstrate emotional control or any form of cognizance of problem-solving for our country or the world in which we are a member. Naturally, this person failed to retain office. Just over four years ago after each and every press outlet gave him the role through the 24 advertising cycle we accept as news, it seemed that every day we woke up to another minefield of gas-lighting, alternate realities based on feelings void of facts and petty bullying which deserves no fulfillment of any position, especially one of leadership in a stable society. As a result, a combustible level of social toxins rose to the surface and fringe elements spawned that I don’t think any of us were equipped to deal with. The invasive species of outdated and unhealthy ideas found a canopy to flourish ans spread, like a pandemic, under and day-after-fucking-day it seemed we were faced with a new alt-Right conspiratorial narrative where they claim, just like the fugitives on the list, they are the victim and we (who often work and vote for higher standards of living) are the oppressor. We found out quickly that we live in a different paradigm, far from those that seek to hurt us. Symbols of failed states and ideologies from other times in Western history returned since 2016 and on January 6th 2021 the bearers of these symbols gathered to destroy the capital of the country, unmasked, unhinged and on camera.
Of the largely self-taken photos that quickly found their way on fbi.gov, one stood out the strongest to me: Photograph #30. An individual, with poor posture, sunken cheeks and a dead, aimless gaze as if he were lost in the time-space continuum was carrying a Confederate flag drifting through the gallery of the Senate. For obvious reasons, the image was disturbing as even during the Civil War that flag did not enter the Capitol. That was kind of the point. This time, it seemed to have walked right in where after 156 years it was having its undeserved moment of contemplative vengeance, re-animated back from a chapter in history when the Civil War was waged so that symbols like that and their deepest intentions never enter (and fly through or over) our institutions. For nearly a week this avatar went unfound and it began to seem that this was the Ghost of Abominations Past had come back to haunt us, making its way into daylight through the broken doors, broken glass and life that was lost in this insurrection. Of all the images where the homogeneous mob crowded tightly together, this image was different as the person had no peer and the listless stare revealed a lack of compass in his whereabouts, perhaps lost from the group like a stray tourist on a field trip. In the picture, the individual bearing the symbol of defeat was like a messenger sent from a former century to remind us his presence is only possible because of an unsealed portal, like a draft in an old house bleeding the heat. If any image represented the end of a failed administration that embraced violence and empathized with our past enemies and insurrections, it was this one.
The second face in Photograph #30 is the portrait appearing to face the flag bearer. It is an important and striking contrast. The portrait is of Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts, painted by Walter Ingalls in 1873. Seventeen years before the completion of this commission, Sumner gave his “Crimes Against Kansas” Speech to the Senate where it was reported that he called out other Senators over their positions for and against Slavery. In the days after his speech, he was severely attacked by a member of the House of Representatives with a cane in the Senate Chamber. After the attack, which nearly left him dead, Sumner worked in Foreign Affairs with Lincoln to ensure that outside influence (then the British and French) was prevented from intervening on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the War, he worked to block ex-Confederates from power so they would not be able to reverse gains made from the Union’s victory. Sumner opposed the Kansas Nebraska Act — the bill that mandated popular sovereignty repealing the Missouri Compromise which led to a violent uprising known as “Bleeding Kansas,” between pro and anti-slavery activists. I mention all of this because of the historic significance of the individual in the portrait and how the last time there was blood shed in the senate was over this very issue. If people want to fly that flag then I guess we are still going to need to discuss the issue. Something tells me that the animate figure in the photo had little to no awareness of any of this and was potentially as lightly informed (to put it politely) as the President who sent him there to “fight like hell.”
This image of an abolitionist vs. a carrier of the flag (that the abolitionist fought and legislated to permanently defeat) almost reveals the arc of the struggle in our society between oppression and freedom. For a second, this moment captured a figure representing our better selves made permanent in oil on canvas against the living, passing reality of those that would undermine and upend the ideal of the Union at the beat of a drum. The image also frames the moment of vulnerability where a disgruntled actor, separated from the seditionist mob had an instant to graze vengefully among the busts and portraits of those that fought and won to ultimately devalue his flag to remain its place in society as a novelty belt buckle or a vanity plate for a rusty domestic automobile. The image also made me think that We of the North may have won the War and our turning point to press reset from colonialist origins began at this moment, but We as a Nation have never confronted the original sin of slavery to where it can be truly recognized and resolved as a collective society. The cut in the hillside grew into a scar in the mountain, however, metaphorically, the vista is wide open around us and there is space (and the opportunity of this moment) to reconcile. As a progressive, (as perhaps you) gravitate towards constructive thoughts and plans forward as otherwise the ghosts of our past will continue to meet with the monsters of our present and will become the demons of our future.
As a society, we have the resources and the blueprint, but judging by the law enforcement response suggest clearly that we have a long way to go. Compare the Summer of 2020 to the Winter of 2021. One group demanded equality based on Constitutional truths and the other unleashed pure lawlessness based on entitlement, vague conspiracies and loyalty not to a country or rule of law, but to a game show host who casts an evangelical level of influence over them, enough so that they traded their country for a red hat, as said before. One side demonstrated, unarmed, against state violence and murder while the other side only intends to destroy institutions and ironically, in turn, spared no weapon to violently turn on the police. With the state showing empathy to the aggressor that holds no value of human life as a force incapable of being reasoned with, it is easy for the banners of past evils to drift into our institutions and take residence. The gates to this untreated past are still cracked open and if we do not set out a course this ghost will continue to haunt us and these type of photographs and the grave actions that follow will, unfortunately, become common. We were attacked from within, and we were attacked by a group of individuals who promised to come back, like a stalker in a nightmare. The vowed, on record, to tear our institutions down, “brick by brick.” Before our Liberal minds duck and cover under the word “healing” we should truly get to understand who and what we are up against. They promise and advertise Civil War. We can will it away with good old-fashioned American optimism, but without a structured plan to finally recognize the fundamental repugnance of crimes past, we will not have a solid platform on which to influence public opinion.
One could see the the pre-meditated coup (as we are finding out with each federal arrest) as a theater production with a premiere on January 6th in DC. It is a story of what happens when a generation is engineered to live with suppressed wages, busted labor unions, dismantled education and diminished access to healthcare. I make no excuses for these people, but the obvious level of disenfranchisement by many of these actors should be obvious and story in itself. The closing act came within 100 feet of being successful in destroying a peaceful and democratic transfer of power, aided by several (Alt-R) Congresspeople that we know of so far. Without a proactive plan of influencing public favor based on our democratic framework, the obscene will be accepted as the norm and these cancerous cells will continue to steal oxygen from the body. Don’t expect the demon to surrender politely when we ask it to leave our house next time.
Thank you for hearing me out.
Related art: I put my thoughts towards the work Ancestor (2007 – 2009) on this project in 2007 with this theme in mind. I wanted to work with my dark premonitions about this country and these ideas, unfortunately came to life in recent days:
(A painting about invasive species)