The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This rippling field of flags in D.C. shows covid-19’s scale

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg sets up white flags representing each life lost to covid-19 in the United States.
Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg sets up white flags representing each life lost to covid-19 in the United States. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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As you approach, it looks like a blanket of fresh snow — a startling expanse of white.

But closer, the snow melts into little white flags. One for each of the more than 220,000 Americans who have died of covid-19.

In a breeze, the ankle-high flags ripple, rise and flap, each in its own way.

“Like souls,” said Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, 61, the artist behind the growing, powerful commemoration she’s building outside RFK Stadium, at the edge of D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

How do you explain the scope of this outrageous death toll? More than eight months since the United States saw its first case, how can anyone possibly imagine what over 220,000 deaths look like in a nation of millions?

You can tell the individual stories of whom the novel coronavirus took: the matriarch, the war veteran, the legendary musician, the young teacher, the child.

You can compare the death tolls to other mass human tragedies: It’s like 9/11 happening 74 times. It’s like the American casualties of almost four Vietnam Wars. It’s nearly the entire population of Richmond.

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Or you can create a huge, rippling field of white, like Arlington Cemetery in miniature.

Its scale has some of the audacity of Christo, the Bulgarian conceptual artist known for huge stunts like wrapping the Reichstag in fabric.

“How can you not stop and look?” said Kenneth Nguyen, 31, as he pulled over his motorcycle Thursday at the edge of the installation and began taking pictures. His cousin survived the virus. But it was rough.

“You just imagine every flag has a scenario,” he said. “It’s just amazing to see it all out here.”

This is what Firstenberg, a visual artist from Bethesda, Md., was hoping would happen once the flags began sprouting from the ground on Monday: that people would be struck by the scope.

“They honk, maybe stop and roll the window down, take a picture,” Firstenberg said. “Some people come and just stand and look, their mouths agape.”

Firstenberg has been simmering for months about how our leaders have handled the pandemic. As early as March, when Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) suggested that older Americans should sacrifice their lives to the virus for the sake of the economy, she knew the result would be devastating. She’s volunteered in hospice care for decades.

“My hospice patients and their families taught me the importance of dignity,” she said. And as the pandemic restrictions left seniors dying alone and families unable to gather and grieve, and with the numbers of the dead mounting beyond anything our nation has seen, she struggled with a way to explain the scope of the indignity and tragedy.

“Words no longer matter,” she said in the early-morning fog Thursday when she resumed the flag planting at daybreak. “I had to find a way for people to get a better perspective.”

She decided on white flags to represent the innocence of victims. And she bought more than 200,000 at a dime a piece. (Materials aren’t cheap for this one.)

When she called Ruppert Landscape asking for the bizarre estimate — “How much would it cost to plant 215,000 white flags?” — the owner was so impressed with the project that he offered the labor free.

A week ago, she got permission from Events DC to use the federal land outside the Armory that is leased to the city.

For the two weeks of the installation, visitors will have benches where they can rest and contemplate.

Anyone who has lost a loved one to covid-19 is encouraged to inscribe one of the flags with a name or a message. (Bring a Sharpie).

“This is communal,” Firstenberg said. “This is creating a space for mourning.”

A webcam will be tracking the progress as more flags get planted (unfortunately, the death toll keeps growing).

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Beyond the visual impact and the emotional devastation, there is a message of outrage.

A giant billboard at the head of the installation reads: “In America. How could this happen . . . ” — the only words in the piece. And below those words, changeable panels of numbers representing the rising death toll.

Below that are two small groups of flags. On the right is a small, five-by-five square — 25 flags. “That’s New Zealand’s death toll,” she said.

On the left is a larger grouping — 1,675. That represents the number of people, accounting for the difference in population, who would’ve died of covid-19 in the United States if we had New Zealand’s death rate.

“This represents leadership,” Firstenberg said, sweeping her hand across that tiny plot of flags. And then she jogs over to the thousands upon thousands of fluttering flags. “This? This is not okay.”

When I got there just after dawn Thursday morning, the death toll on the billboard was 221,247.

Halfway through our conversation, Firstenberg’s husband, Doug Firstenberg, came striding through the wet grass toward us, holding his phone up. More deaths, as reported by Johns Hopkins University.

“We have a new number. We’re going to need a lot of twos,” he told her. Then he turned to me. “She hates doing this part the most.”

Together, the Firstenbergs changed it to include the deaths overnight. 222,220.

By the time you read this, it will be higher.

Twitter: @petulad

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