Photo: Exterior exhibition photograph ©Meg Handler (detail)
As we enter a brave new world filled with threats unfolding against the citizens of this nation by the very hand of the government it purports to serve, we can look to the recent past to find inspiration in the power of the people and their will to speak truth to power by any means necessary.
From race relations, policy brutality, and war to gay rights, abortion, and housing, ever issue facing the common man and woman was addressed by organizers who understood the power of mass protests. Civil disobedience, a term coined by no less that Henry David Thoreau in an essay of the same name penned in 1849, takes the high road of political activism. Grounded in the moral welfare of the people, it is a practice that is American at its core, for this country was founded upon the refusal to accept state-sanctioned abuse that openly violated human rights.
For more than 150 years, civil disobedience has been practiced by peoples around the world to throw off the yoke of oppression and demand that civil rights be recognized for all people, no matter what race, creed, class, gender, or sexuality. Civil disobedience is a symbolic violation of certain laws in order to show the power structure that injustice cannot and will not stand.
Eighteen months ago, a seed was planted in the minds of Meg Handler, former photo editor of The Village Voice and historian Tamar Carroll, author of Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty and Feminist Activism (University of North Carolina Press). They saw an opportunity to collaborate with a vast roster of contemporary photojournalists to tell the story of the protest movement in New York City during the period of 1980 and 2000—before 9/11 changed everything.
Handler reveals that they immediately recognized the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) as the perfect home for the show, given the BDC’s strong tradition of using photography to advocate for the people. Founded in 2011 by Michael Kamber, the BDC is a nonprofit gallery and education center in the hub of the South Bronx. Kamber came on board, and the result is Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City, 1980-2000, a phenomenal exhibition on view now through March 5, 2017. The exhibition is accompanied by an education curriculum and interactive website.
Whose Streets?: Our Streets! features never-before-exhibited work by more than 38 independent photojournalists including Nina Berman, Donna Binder, Donna DeCesare, Ricky Flores, David Gonzalez, Lisa Kahane, Edwin Pagán, Clayton Patterson, Mark Peterson, Sylvia Plachy, and Q. Sakamaki, each of whom got deep into the thick of things. The website offers background information and video testimonials that provide valuable context for each of these historic movements.
Photography has always played a pivotal role in the protest movement as it brings the intensity and immediacy of the moment to the public at large. Photographers put themselves in harms way to document the scene, subject to arrest and imprisonment, such as the case of Clayton Patterson during the Tompkins Square Riots in 1988. Others put their bodies on the line, taking shots to get the shot, with the possibility of it being published—or not.
Handler, who has a wealth of dynamic contacts throughout the photography industry, explained that the process for curating the show was complex given the fact that they were required to find photographs taken in each of the give boroughs representing a diverse array of demographic groups—but more than this, they wanted compelling photographs of the many ways the protest movement used action to shut down the system in order to draw attention to the problems at hand. “We didn’t want just pictures of signs; we wanted to show street theater, mass protests, and various acts of civil disobedience,” she explains.
As the exhibition reveals, the protestors used a panoply of tactics to make their voices heard and in doing so it brings together older and newer generations together to share information and pass down knowledge. Handler reflects upon the January 15 “Cough In” action organized by Rise & Resist, where protesters descended upon the flagship restaurant of Jea-Georges at Trump Tower to fight the repeat of the Affordable Care Act. “They are taking what they learned from the past (how to do the actions), and doing it in a way that is current, creating a video and posting it to social media. It’s an inspiration for people to take to the streets.”
Whose Streets? Our Streets! unites the present with the past so that we can work together to secure a positive future for our nation. One of the saving graces of America is its resistance to tyranny, as made manifest in the First Amendment, which authorizes freedom of speech, assembly, protest, and the press. The beauty of the protest movement is the way in which it walks the walk espoused by the Pledge of Allegiance, believing that “Freedom and justice for all” is not mere rhetoric—it is our birthright.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.