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One Million Bones on the National Mall

2013 August 31

Today’s post is the third from our guest writer, Jane McPherson, LCSW, and the second on the “One Million Bones” campaign (see prior post). Jane is a doctoral candidate in social work and human rights at Florida State University, and a  social services consultant with the Torture Abolition & Survivor Support Coalition in Washington, D.C.  Jane is the principal organizer of One Million Bones Florida. She can be reached at janemcphers@gmail.com.

Tourists & Lawmakers Confronted by a
Symbolic Representation of Mass Violence 

Imagine a sea of human bones on the PrepNational Mall, seeming to spill out of the Capitol and stretch as far as the eye can see. This is the sight that greeted — and I hope haunted — visitors to Washington, DC, for three days this past June.

With my family, my students, and at least four thousand other volunteers, I was there to create this symbolic mass grave in our Nation’s Capital. Dressed in white, we gathered at dawn on Saturday, June 8th, to unpack and lay to rest over a million handmade “bones” in front of the Capitol building.  The installation was the culmination of One Million Bones, a global arts and activism initiative that challenged individuals to learn about mass violence and to demonstrate solidarity with the victims and survivors of ongoing conflict in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Syria, the Sudan, and Somalia.  (“Panographer” Jonathan Brack has posted a rather amazing panoramic view of the bones installation.)

The project emerged from the vision of Naomi Natale, its founding artist. Years before we converged on the Mall, Naomi had imagined our Capital’s lawn covered in bones, and it was this powerful image that galvanized organizers and fueled the passion of volunteers around the country and, indeed, the world. The bones, that Natale has called “the art of the uncomfortable and the inconvenient,” were made in each of our 50 United States, as well as in a number of foreign countries (including, remarkably, the Democratic Republic of Congo). Bones were made by the young and the old, by high school students and Holocaust survivors, by refugees and Rotarians. In the process, the project raised $500,000 to help survivors in conflict zones.

Jane&BonesFor the previous 20 months, my own life had been consumed by Bones. As the project organizer in Florida, I threw myself into planning events, recruiting volunteers, speaking to groups, and supervising the making, counting, and firing of over 23,000 bones.  My house became a mausoleum, and we joked that our children lived in an ossuary.

Why did we all feel so passionately about this unlikely vision?  On the simplest level, the spectacle of one million bones on the Mall was meant to be beautiful and arresting. Indeed the sight was breathtakingly beautiful, but it was painful as well. Laid out as they were on our national lawn, the bones were intended to invoke a collective sense of national responsibility. They were meant to provoke questions: To whom do these bones belong? What role does U.S. policy play in the lives and deaths of the individuals represented by these haunting symbols? As citizens and voters in the United States, what is our responsibility to victims of mass violence?  What can I do to help? We knew what we hoped for, but what did we achieve?

  • We helped survivors: Through an incredible partnership with Students Rebuild, a not-for-profit organization that enlists young people to address urgent global issues, each of  the first 500,000 bones we made generated a $1-per-bone donation to CARE International for its work with young people in conflict zones.
  • We made headlines:  The installation was covered by the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, MSNBC, CNN, NBC News, PBS, the Huffington PostMother Jones, and many others.
  • We had political impact: On Monday, June 10th, our volunteers literally carried bones into the halls of Congress as they joined with the Enough Project, a nonprofit that opposes genocide and crimes against humanity, to take a stand on U.S. policy in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other zones of violence. And our voices may have been heard: After these legislative visits, President Obama named Senator Russell Feingold as the first U.S. Special Envoy for Congo; the Senate passed the Sudan Peace and Security Act by unanimous consent (the Act is now waiting on a vote in the House); and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) spoke from the floor of the House of Representatives about One Million Bones and the need for Congress to address genocide.

But what about our larger impact? What about the hearts and minds and voting behavior of the thousands of visitors who viewed the installation? Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to run these questions by Susan McAllister, the Project Manager for One Million Bones and by Myra Dahgaypaw, a survivor of mass violence who is now the Campaign Coordinator for the U.S. Campaign for Burma.Scull Myra’s personal reaction to the Bones remains etched in my heart: She lifted a skull from the multitude of bones and declared, “This is my father.”

Susan and Myra agreed that the full effect of One Million Bones will only be felt over time.  Susan said, “We don’t know how big the impact will be, with all the ripples.” For Myra, the days of the installation were an opportunity to connect with and educate visitors to DC, as well as the general public. “This is what opens people’s eyes,” she said.

Of course, all of us are hoping that the image of the bones was burned into the minds of our visitors and that a critical mass of those viewers will have gone home and become activists —reaching out and educating their families, their networks, and their politicians.  Myra believes that the experience of walking through all those bones was enough to wake people up and realize “I must do something.”  She continued, “We need a lot of voices, for the noise to be as loud as possible. The bones can amplify the message we want to send to Congress and to ordinary people.”

As of today the bones are in storage. We’re looking for a home to create a permanent exhibition, but our responsibility to the victims remains very present. The horror of mass violence continues to terrorize people throughout the world. We believe that the impact of One Million Bones is still being felt.  My students put our sense of accomplishment and concern into words last summer in a collaborative poem:

The clink of fired claybarebones-4a
How many bones will it take?
Arms, legs, ribs, fingers.

How many days will it be
Before these people find peace?

Loss, anger, pain tears.
Will they get a proper place?
Will we change the world?

We must change the world, and we cannot wait for others to do it. Quoting the 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In my view, if we want that arc to be shorter, we need to get in there and bend it ourselves. The impact of One Million Bones is ongoing.  Please join this effort to stop mass violence and protect all people from these grievous human rights abuses.  To get involved, please contact the Enough Project.

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Second photo above, showing the author (foreground) and others organizing the display
on the mall, is by Jennifer MacNeill. All others are courtesy of One Million Bones.
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One comment on “One Million Bones on the National Mall

  1. William McPherson on said:

    Jane McPherson is my daughter but if she were not my daughter I would still be moved by this piece and tremendously impressed by the One Million Bones project. The sight of all those bones on the Mall was a stark reminder of what can happen when governments cater to our ugliest natures instead of encouraging our better selves to come forth. Every one of those bones on the Mall represented the bones of a man or woman who suffered and died in terrible ways. I was going to say “in unimaginable ways,” but unfortunately those ways are all too imaginable to the mind that has started down that road to depravity.

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