In the center of a Bronx gallery’s north wall is an image of a man bleeding from his head in Tompkins Square Park, following the violence between homeless residents of the park and the police who tried to evict them. He’s standing with his back to the camera, and a cop to his right stares straight ahead, the barest hint of a smirk on his lips. A few rows down, in an image by Andrew Lichtenstein, a man stands on top of an overturned car outside a boarded-up tenement on the Lower East Side. The car itself has its own slogan of a sort: “Hello, I am here to save no one,” scrawled in black marker. The captions reveal that the man is in fact trying to save something: his home, likely from demolition, as many buildings in the neighborhood were seized by the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These are just two of the powerful images from Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City: 1980–2000, now on view at the Bronx Documentary Center. The show collects 20 years of protest photography in New York City, providing plenty of inspiration for those of us agonizing over the efficacy of pink hats and our ability to incorporate demonstrating into our everyday lives, as well as how we document it.
The exhibit is arranged along three walls of the storefront space, with an extra display of newspaper clippings hanging diagonally across giving historical context for why it was such a protest-filled time in New York City. A silent, fatal disease was draining the life out of the city’s gay community, and it took years before the government gave it a name — AIDS — or any resources to fight it. In 1980, New York was also just coming out of bankruptcy, but the recovery was astonishingly uneven, and as investment bankers cheered their millions, countless New Yorkers were fighting homelessness and gentrification. In the years to follow, there were stock market crashes, police brutality, economic crises, and multiple wars. There was, in short, a lot to protest.
The volume of images in this exhibition compared with the size of the space means the pictures don’t always get room to breathe, or room for captions to be anywhere but on printed fact sheets that viewers must carry around if they want to connect the photographs with their makers. It’s a bit cumbersome to continually match the key with the picture, but perhaps that’s not the point. The images benefit from historical context but are instructive and engaging all on their own.
On a crowded rush-hour subway platform, Ricky Flores captures a man in a baseball cap as he cranes his neck toward the tunnel in a pose straight out of an urban fairytale: Someday my train will come. Below him, scores of New Yorkers fill the tracks, two and three and four across, blocking a Brooklyn subway from entering the station. They look downward and upward, anywhere but toward the camera, as they put their bodies on the line, disrupting train service. Their actions were part of a Day of Outrage in protest of the killing of Michael Griffin, a black man who was hit by a car in Howard Beach, Queens, after being chased by a white mob that objected to his presence in a pizza shop in the early morning of December 20th, 1987.
On a summer night four years later, seven-year-old Gavin Cato was killed in a car accident. Cato was black, the car was driven by Hasidic Jews, and the crash set off three days of riots in Crown Heights, pitting the neighborhood’s Hasidic population against its African American and Caribbean residents — a culmination of long-simmering suspicions that Jewish residents had reserved preferential treatment from the city in many areas, from housing to medical services to police protection.
In a photo by Mark Peterson from just after the riots, a woman in a yellow dress walks by a row of police officers clad blue uniforms, hiding behind clear shields with the word “police” in block letters across them (as if anyone could mistake them for anything else). Peterson captured the woman mid-stride, the color of her dress like defiant sunshine against the uniform darkness of the officers. In another image from the same year by Ricky Flores, an anti-racism march in Canarsie organized by Rev. Al Sharpton was met with mobs of white residents throwing watermelons. In this photo, a man is smoking a cigarette, his eyes closed in seeming ecstasy, as he holds the fruit above his head like a soccer ball.
Photographs like these, which take the viewer underneath, around, and through the protests, challenged my Trump-and-smartphone-camera-era tendency to focus only on signs, particularly those with clever slogans or pictures. Flores, Peterson, Lichtenstein, and others focused on people, on their interactions with fellow protesters, police, onlookers, and the camera itself. The show is not only a crucial visual history lesson covering two decades whose social movements shaped New York, but also a lesson in how to document such movements for lasting impact. Amateur and seasoned photographers alike would do well to visit.