Revolution #245, September 11, 2011
"Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War" Project—September 2001
In the days after September 11, 2001, as the rubble of southern Manhattan still glowed and smoked, the eyes of the world were on the people of New York. There were gatherings throughout the city, in the streets, in Union Square—as people tried to sort out what had happened, and what would come next. Groups of artists decided to act, together. They stood, silently, dressed in black, in formation, wearing dust masks, nearly 100 of them—carrying stark, identical signs that said "Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War." These performances were powerful and courageous, as art should be. And they were sorely needed. In the following interview for Revolution, Andy Zee talks to artist Dread Scott about the project.
The Revolution Interview is a special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.
Andy Zee: One of the first public mass protests to take place in the wake of September 11, 2001 was the project "Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War," which involved about 100 artists and others on September 22, 2001 in Union Square, followed soon after by an even larger protest. Could you paint a picture of that event—what was the scene in Union Square that day and what happened?
Dread Scott: First off, it certainly was a protest, but it was also an art work, and the art work was called "Our grief is not a cry for war." The piece was about 90 or 95 artists, all dressed in black, all wearing dust masks, which was the sign of living in New York at the time, because all the people that were working down at Ground Zero and everywhere in New York were trying to protect themselves from all the toxic burning bones and concrete and computers. The artists all had signs that said "Our grief is not a cry for war," and we stood silent and motionless for one hour at the bottom of Union Square, which was the furthest point south people could go in New York because the police and government had cordoned off all areas south of there. You couldn't go there unless you lived, or in some cases, worked below that. The park itself became sort of a scene where people gathered. People left memorials that were ostensibly people looking for their loved ones. They were "missing [person]" signs—they were generally Xeroxed on 8.5 x 11 paper. They would have a photograph of the person and a description, asking if you had seen them to contact so and so. But they were really kind of memorials to people who had been killed. There were people coming to sing songs, there were people coming to ask questions. A common question was why do "they" hate "us"?—whoever "they" is. But people who really hadn't thought so much about what the U.S. does to people around the world really were wanting to know why would anyone get into a plane and fly it into a building. And there were a lot of debates, and it was one of the most amazing areas I'd ever been in.
And so this piece comes into it, where people—it really intervened in that space and put a different spin on it, articulating what the artists who created the work were thinking. You were seeing in the news Bush say things with the message "Our grief has turned to anger, our anger to resolve, and we're just going to go bomb someone." They hadn't announced at that point who they were going to go kill. But they had basically very, very quickly determined and announced that they were going to utilize this incident to wage war on somebody—both as revenge but also to tell the world that anybody who dares mess with the U.S., we're gonna come retaliate. But also it was a much more strategic calculation for conducting imperialist aims for what they had planned and were planning.
So that was what was being promoted by Bush around the country. It's not so much that that was what you were hearing from people, but that's what media pundits were saying and repeating. And yet in New York when you were talking to people, that was not the feeling that I or the other artists were hearing. In addition to what we individually might have felt, there was much more determination that what happened to people in New York and the loss of life that had happened here not happen to other people, and not be used as a justification to bring death and destruction and murder down on other people.
[In] Union Square there were all sorts of people there grappling with what this meant, [for example] some Buddhists were there and they were chanting. And then here comes our piece and it froze everything. People didn't know what we were gonna do. We knew what we intended to do but we didn't know how this piece was going to be perceived. And people just stared back at us, and some people cried, not most people, but several people cried. It really set a tone for both a morality and a view that the people of the world are not our enemy. We wanted to communicate with people around the world. We were hoping to get news of this stance from people in New York who ostensibly were the reason and justification that the U.S. was going to wage war on somebody—we wanted the people of the world to know that we did not agree with what this government was saying and going to do. And we had hoped that people would see these images everywhere from Iraq to England to Sudan—just all over. But particularly knowing that they were going to ratchet things up and blame people in the Middle East, we hoped that this view connected and resonated there.
AZ: You mentioned that people were frozen where they were standing, just watching this silent vigil which was very striking. One thing you began to capture was how the entire park was just covered with pieces of paper from people searching for loved ones, but also signs and comments and poems and school kids' drawings, and lots of tears. I remember people would be singing John Lennon's "Imagine" over and over again. It became sort of the soundtrack for one section of people, and there was also a lot of patriotism.
You said that this stopped people in their tracks and that those of you who made this work of art and staged it in this setting really wanted to reach out to people in the world, and didn't want the grief that people were feeling to be used for purposes that they didn't agree with, and thought this needed to be spoken. Could you talk a little about—even among the organizers of this—what was the debate around this? What did people think they could say, and what did they want to say, and how did it go in terms of coming up with this?
I recall at the time that people were wanting to do something about this, but that it was really a lot of work to figure out what to do. There was a meeting that the artists had, and it was kind of inconclusive. People really wanted to do something. Some folks like yourself had been out in Union Square and you had to come back again, and there was a lot of wrestling with this. I think our readers, including people who are artists themselves, would really benefit from knowing what was that wrestling? What was pushing that forward and what were you trying to do, give people a sense of the actual struggle to step out and do something that would really matter.
DS: There was a wrestling with what to do, but initially there was a wrestling with what was. Just to understand the situation. And I don't just mean understand did the towers fall or didn't they, but understand the world. In the first meeting, everybody knew about four or five other people but there were like 50 people in the room. So first you are trying to get to know the people but you're all trying to have a conversation about this changed world and trying to understand it. And it was confusing. In a certain sense it was not that confusing. A bunch of innocent people died and the U.S. was trying to use their death as justification for more war. But there was still—it was confusing about how to act, and what was the grief. After the first meeting we said we wanted to meet again in part because we wanted to act, but I felt sort of dissatisfied, not that we hadn't come up with how to act, but that we didn't understand very well what was going on. And this [RCP] statement, "The Horrors That Come from This Horrible System" was really helpful to me in how to look at it in terms of what was at stake for the people of the world, and how important it was to stand with the people of the world, and what was the history of U.S. wars. It really put increased responsibility, as a revolutionary, on what to do with art and ideas—the need, and how to talk about a situation like this.
When the artists got together again, I felt going into that in a better place to, together with other people, sort through what was this new world and what was important to say. If we had the basis to speak to people, which we thought we did, what did we need to say? And how would we do it so we really could speak to hopefully millions. And we came up with a way to do that over the course of three meetings but it really took a lot of wrestling, initially just to come to understand simply what the attack on the World Trade Center meant, but more what was the U.S. going to do, what was that going to do to the people of the world, and then what was our responsibility living here to the people of the world to not let that happen.
AZ: In one sense this was an answer to the question of "why do they hate us so much?"—in terms of flipping the script and saying "our grief is not a cry for war"—it did bring people to confront, it seemed to me, what was now going to be unleashed, which was not that different, and in fact was completely consistent with what the U.S. does around the world.
DS: That first night we didn't come up with anything, but we knew we wanted to meet again. And the second time we got together about three days later, I said the words, "Our grief is not a cry for war." And we thought that was actually pretty good—it concentrated what people were feeling. And we sent it out. Initially, I think we just maybe even just sent the text, and then we made some PDFs, and people responded that that really resonated with what they were thinking, and were starting to make the stickers and post them up.
AZ: What do you mean by PDFs?
DS: We made a computer file that people could easily print that would fit on a piece of sticker paper of a particular size. We wanted people to get this message up and out in the world. At that point we didn't know that it was going to become an art work. We just knew that, for lack of a better description, it was like a slogan or saying or something that we wanted out there. And when we sent it out, it really resonated. People thought that that captured something. But we were mostly artists and we wanted to make some sort of art work. And so we were planning on meeting again, and I'd come up with the concept in talking with some of the other artists there of what if we do this sort of silent thing, standing around all in black, all with dust masks. We didn't feel that we needed to say more. There was a bit of debate but that was kind of the one thing that really—if we said that and only that, in a certain sense, I felt very strongly that that was what would work. With the staging of what it was, that that would be a very powerful piece. And I think that—people agreed with that. So there wasn't a desire to say a lot more on the day. It took time for people to come to accept that, but by the time we were ready to walk into Union Square, people said that's what we were doing.
AZ: As I recall it, people were really being put to the test—especially progressive people, radical people and revolutionaries. Because, where were you gonna stand, who were you gonna stand with, and how were you going to deal with the very deep feelings and emotions that were very, very raw? The city was covered, even up to Union Square, with white dust. Everybody knew somebody who had died. And there were a lot of people saying you can't—this is not the time to speak out. I don't think we should forget this. On the 14th the Revolutionary Communist Party had put out a leaflet, "The Horrors that Come From this Horrible System." And there was a struggle about really getting that out everywhere because lines had to be drawn. And so this statement by the artists, standing in silence at the foot of the park really seemed to have an enormous impact. So maybe you could talk some about that.
DS: I think the impact was electrifying. I think the point you're making about what the atmosphere was like and what this was going up against—it was very thick but also very weird. The city as you said was covered with dust, everybody knew people. There was a really great artist, Michael Richards, who died in the World Trade Center. He was part of a studio program that was there and he died. There was a tremendous amount of sadness and grief. That's actually in a certain sense—people felt they had a platform to speak on, because Bush was trying to use people's grief, and take that and manipulate it and use it for an imperialist war and a war for empire. And people in New York, despite what may have been felt around the country that people were actually angry at whoever, in New York there was a tremendous amount of grief—there really was. Because so many people were touched by it. And you gotta remember that on the 14th there was still promotion of the idea that there were going to be survivors from the World Trade Center. If the rescue workers kept digging, they would find people. It would be great to go back historically and look at the rhetoric because that was just a lie. If someone falls 100 stories they're not going to live. But there was a very orchestrated campaign to show a particular view of the World Trade Center, of the particular site. Meanwhile, all the doctors and nurses and medical personnel, they were finding corpses, and that wasn't promoted or talked about.
So there was this atmosphere where the people who died have to have justice done. Nobody can offend their deaths, and people should band together behind this country and whatever it's gonna do. But while there was this heavy, thick thing around that—I wouldn't say it was soft-sell, it wasn't initially bloodthirsty. The powers that be were trying to figure out how to craft their message and manipulate people's interests. But there was a thing that any step by anybody could actually go in a lot of different directions. It was a very charged atmosphere. And so there was a real responsibility to get any manifestation of progressive or radical or revolutionary sentiment right. It could galvanize people in a good way and be very strengthening for them and give people a basis to stand with the people of the world and build a movement that doesn't go along with what the U.S. was gonna do. Or it could polarize things in a negative way, and be more fodder for what the U.S. was planning. And so we had a real responsibility to get this right and everybody, I think, was thinking about that, if not articulating it consciously. To be honest, going into this there was a reactionary pole that was being built up around the firefighters, around the cops, and a movement for war. We didn't know if we'd get beat up if we went out there. We were silent with signs, just 100 artists. We didn't talk about it much but that was a real concern. Not that everybody would be against us. We felt very strongly that most people would appreciate what we were doing, but that doesn't mean that everybody would. And we were worried that one or two would just come and take a swing on people—and how would that then go. And so that was the courage with which people were having to decide whether they were going to do this.
AZ: I want to go back to those first days, after the towers drop on September 11, and then later the Pentagon happens, and then immediately people start flooding into Union Square. And then you're describing the place being just turned upside down and being this amazing center of mourning and debate and talking and song and wrangling. The whole world was being discussed there in a very intense atmosphere. And you guys meet three days afterwards and then 10 days after you then have this action. And that artistic action was the first time something had been put out in a public way that was picked up all around the world pretty quickly, that stood against the Bush administration, and let's not forget, America's fucking mayor, Giuliani, trying to set a certain tone of vengeance and reaction. I'd like to come back to what it meant to stand up, and then we can get into how it went from there.
DS: It was the first progressive public action. We knew we were scrambling for time because the longer things sat the more Bush and Giuliani's view was dominating the air waves and molding how people were supposed to think about this, and were thinking about this. There was what people objectively thought before they were told what to think, and then there was what was in their interests, regardless of what they thought spontaneously. Part of why this piece was effective was because it did actually resonate with what a lot of people—at least in Union Square, but I think far beyond that—were thinking. And we knew people wouldn't think that for long if there wasn't anybody standing up to what Bush and Giuliani and media pundits were saying. A lot of people in the press that were progressive writers took really bad positions in their initial op-eds and opinion articles. There was this whole thing we were going up against. But I think what people broadly in New York and around the country thought was that's more up in the air. We felt very much like it was on us to stand up to Bush, basically. He was the main spokesperson for war for empire. First it wasn't fucking true what he was saying about what people were thinking, certainly not in New York. And even to the degree that was what some people were thinking, people needed to get up off that shit because that's not in the interest of humanity. And so we felt that we really had to get this out quickly, in part because this motherfucker was speaking for us supposedly [laughs], and it just wasn't what we the artists but also not what literally millions of people in New York felt.
AZ: Well, how did it resonate—there was this 95 people, almost 100 people standing like this. What was the response in the square, you mentioned people were stunned. What was the response in the media? And what was the response among the artists? And then you went forward from there to continue this on even a larger scale. And there were also repercussions for some of the artists. I think our readers would like to know about that.
DS: The square was an amazing space. There was all this ferment and debate and singing and crying and grappling and wrangling. It was a mix, but it really was a space where people were trying to figure out both what happened and what to do. So in comes this piece which was the first public expression of anything good, and it was electrifying. Literally some people stared at us for an hour in silence. They didn't know whether we were going to stand for five minutes or five days. They didn't know. And yet they wanted to know what this was. I think for a lot of people it really spoke for them. After a few minutes various people in the media started showing up and taking pictures. They were trying to figure out what are they going to do and trying to get interviews. And we wouldn't do any interviews. We just stood and did our piece. That was what we wanted to say. It was complete. But all these crews started coming up and taking pictures.
It got on the front page of Yahoo which was great. This thing gets probably tens of millions of hits each day. And to have this on their front page for a couple hours, it mattered tremendously. It got covered in a few newspapers, just as this thing. As an art work it's something I feel very proud to have been part of conceiving and creating and being part of. It really mattered to people, and I think it changed the people who were part of this piece, but it also sent word out to others in the arts and beyond that it was imperative to not let the U.S. government and the powers that be do what it was going to do unchallenged and unopposed. And if you were strong, there would be people who would support opposing this.
And then as you say, there were repercussions. The artist who designed the sign—these were not handwritten signs, they were all uniform silk-screened signs that he designed, and they were beautiful. They were bold-faced, and very direct in what they said. He worked at the place where he printed them, and largely on technicalities and not because of the actual content of the piece, he was fired because of doing that. He kind of knew going into that he would be, but this was worth the risk. He'd hoped he could resolve it so he wouldn't get fired but the place where he worked, they let him go. It was a small artist-run shop, but they were like "you broke the rules, so you can't work here anymore." But he feels very good, not about getting fired, but about doing the piece.
AZ: You say he wasn't fired because of the content of it?
DS: He knew that this had to happen. And the person who fired him could not be united that this was worth breaking the rules for. He was breaking the rules to print these at this place, but we hoped—
AZ: Because it was a personal project—
DS: Yes, basically. It was sort of jumping the queue. What he did was in technical violation of the policies of where he printed this. He knew that and we felt that we could win over the director, and she couldn't be won over.
AZ: But it seems to me what you're saying is that it was really important that he acted right away, got this printed, no matter what the cost, and then he tried to unite people around him, but he wasn't able to do that. Shortly after these 95-100 artists held this vigil and art performance in Union Square, things took off and the next major manifestation of this was in Times Square. Could you talk about what that was?
DS: Well, there were two more manifestations, each was in Times Square—which was very different. Union Square was a progressive space. People were really honestly grappling and engaging, and not everyone agreed with anything radical, revolutionary or progressive, but there was a lot of initiative in the air in general but also in this location, for people to come out and oppose what the U.S. was doing. Times Square is kind of the heart of America and the image of America. And if you're gonna do something there, it's gonna get noticed but it's not going to have the support. There was not a movement of people singing "Imagine" out on Times Square.
There's a recruiting station with a big old flag on the side of it. It was important to do there. We wanted to see if we could get the people who were not the progressive ones who had traipsed down to Union Square, but people who were just—alright, where media's talking about America and stuff—we wanted to intervene there. It was a very different feel in terms of the aesthetic around it. This was an art work and the aesthetic of having the Dow Jones ticker, the ABC News, all the lights, all the American tourism… and the notion that "America's back, go to Times Square." The famous picture with the GI's coming home from World War 2 was taken there. It's where the ball is dropped on New Year's Eve. This is very much the projection of everything that is wrong with America in a certain sense. So we wanted to go there.
AZ: So did you put out a call for that? How many people came?
DS: About 200 people came. It was organized the same way. People sent it out on their email lists, called some people. Since we had done this once, word went out. This piece had been done once, and at least among the people who received an email to come to a second performance—there was a picture, there was an understanding of how powerful this work was, and also it pointed to the real need to act. That increasingly there was this drive from all areas of the media and government to get people rallying behind whatever war they were going to wage. And I think by the time we did the second piece, they had started the war in Afghanistan. My memory might be off on that but it was pretty fast that they'd drawn up the plans for war. And they'd announced they were going to go bomb somebody. And so increasingly we were up against that. But this was a way—it showed how politically and morally necessary it was to act and it gave people a way to do so. And so, while there were a lot of people who thought "I don't agree with all what Bush is saying, but you can't act," this was like, "no, actually you can and you need to." And so, more people came the second time around even though it was in less friendly territory. But people wanted to be part of this and have their bodies and voices counted as not being with the death and destruction that was being rained on the people of the world in their name and more specifically in the name of the people who were killed at the World Trade Center.
AZ: I agree that the creative way this was done, and the very presence of it, gave people air to breathe and room to move and to stand on principle. And it seemed that after the Times Square protest, this actually began to spread much broader and its impact was far beyond the situation in Union Square. And even at the end of September  there were some anti-IMF, International Monetary Fund, protests in Washington and people carried these [Our Grief Is Not...] signs into that protest along with other slogans opposing what the U.S. was beginning to do. And then it continued to reverberate around the world. And a year later, on the first anniversary, there was a large protest of something like 5,000-10,000 people in Washington Square in the Village where Amy Goodman introduced Democracy Now! saying there was a one-year anniversary around the theme of "Our grief is not a cry for war." So it continued to resonate. Maybe you could talk about what you're aware of about how this played out internationally and in other scenes.
DS: The weird thing is I honestly don't know. I do know it was important for many, many, many people. Emails that I received—people very much appreciated it. And you'd bump into people who—I saw film footage of it—this happened so quickly we didn't arrange to have it videotaped—but other artists knew about it and came and videotaped it, and they told me how meaningful it was. It became part of documentaries that were made. There was a documentary made, interviews with 10 artists—I'm forgetting the name of it—that was made in the thick of it. There was a woman who quickly found people within five or six days of the 11th and started interviewing them. Some were down at Ground Zero. She heard about this and filmed it, and she made this film about artistic responses. The slogan "Our grief is not a cry for war" became part of this art exhibition called Documenta, which is a very important art exhibition that happens every five years in Germany. It's similar to the Venice Biennial only it happens every five years. But there was this photographer who took pictures in Union Square and one of the pictures captures the "Our grief is not a cry for war" sign. So to have it inserted in one of the most significant international art gatherings was important. I know it's in art shows that had AP photographers' photos because they were doing photo-journalism, but it became emblematic. I don't know the real impact. When we talk about the effect on the artists, I can talk about some of the people I knew, but I think this was one of these things that went out and resonated far and wide, and you can't quantify exactly where all this went. And I am sure people know a lot more than I know.
AZ: I think that's undoubtedly true that you can't fully quantify it because it's a qualitative impact this has on people—how people see the world, and what they take responsibility for, and what they can envision that they can do. It did seem that this was the first of one of many artists' endeavors where artists began to use their public platform to speak out. That was one thing that happened. I know artists were prominent among the initial signers of the Not In Our Name Statement of Conscience and many other artists signed it and then people participated in theatrical events like the Evening of Conscience against the war. As the wars were ramping up in 2002, artists made really elaborate things to bring to the marches, and used their artistic skills and talents in that way. Artists developed flags against the war that hung on tens of thousands of houses around the country. And artists also formed groups and created art works and still are doing so, in theater, and in music and in the visual arts. And those works of art, while not always directly in the political arena, have also had a big impact. And there are going to be some shown and some theatrical productions staged in the New York area for this tenth anniversary. So maybe you can talk about that—in terms of the relationship of the artist to the larger political reality, utilizing their public voice, assisting the movement and also using their art to influence people in that way.
DS: That was a very important development. This is one of these questions that could go on and on and go in a lot of directions. There were artists who did find their voice and use their public persona and their art in a lot of ways that hadn't really happened in the recent past, up until that time. There was Artists Against the War that formed in the aftermath of the "Our Grief" piece. It took some time. The "Our Grief" ran its course and then people wanted to continue to do stuff. The war in Afghanistan had happened. There was first a demonstration of 25,000 people that was organized by Not In Our Name in Central Park. And then there was a demonstration of a million people, and millions of people in several cities around the world all at once trying to stop this war. Artists were very much part of that. Very prominent, as well as not so prominent artists were part of the Not In Our Name Statement of Conscience. There were art shows. Artists came together to do spontaneous couple-weeks-only pop-up gallery kind of things of art against the war. And some of the work was very explicitly talking about and directly talking to what it means for the U.S. to wage war on the world, and others was abstraction. But they wanted their name and persona to be part of this—"I do not agree with what the U.S. is doing, and I want that message to go out to the people of the world, including here."
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