Field Notes from ‘In America, how could this happen…’

On November 23, 2020, I attended the In America installation by artist Suzanne Firstenberg. At a park in front of the RFK Memorial Stadium and the DC National Guard Armory, Suzanne and a team of volunteers had planted one white flag for each victim of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. At the installation’s entrance stood a large sign with the title of the piece and large numbers counting the number of victims and, thus, how many flags. At the time of my visit, the number was 256,837.

Photo of large red and white sign that reads "In America, how could this happen" and includes the number 256, 837. Underneath the sign are rows of white flags planted in the ground.

One of my first observations was the installation’s specific location. It stood at the end of East Capitol Street and, while it couldn’t be seen over the hills, the sign counting the rising death toll directly faced the US Capitol. Additionally, the installation is located in front of RFK Stadium, a memorial site of its own. The DC National Guard Armory was a few feet away. As Suzanne explained to me, it served as a base from which the National Guard mobilized during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.

Rows of small white flags planted in the ground.

The flags and their positioning invoked the image of the white gravestones of Arlington National Cemetery. The white also gave people the opportunity to write short epitaphs, either in person or by sending a request to Suzanne. Most are names, some stylized after formal gravestones with dates, while others include brief obituaries with phrases such as we will miss you and thank you. Other messages strive to communicate more collective sentiments: rest in peace everyone. Most but certainly not all are written in English.

A pair of signs bookmark the two ends of the installation. One is an advertisement for the National Guard, the other an insurance ad. In a way, these two signs create a moment of ironic condemnation. These are two institutions toward which many Americans look for safety and yet suspended between them is a representation of a quarter-million deceased citizens.

All photos and text by Geoff Horvath.