This Is What Protests Looked Like 25 Years Ago In New York

Before Trump, and before social media, resistance was a part of the fabric of American democracy.

Donald Trump’s presidency has fueled a surge of new activists, eager to defend the rights of immigrants, Muslims, women, children, LGBTQ individuals and all who feel threatened by the current administration. Protests have sprung up in cities across the nation since his inauguration, demonstrating that power exists not just in the White House but on the streets.

Images of marches, rallies and demonstrations of all kinds are, today, relentlessly documented and shared on social media, endowing ephemeral happenings with permanent, material form. Yet long before the internet, protests were still part of the fabric of American democracy, and devoted photojournalists ensured that activist uprisings were not easily forgotten. The main difference, however, is that most of these pre-internet photos remain largely unseen. 

An exhibition titled “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” on view at the Bronx Documentary Center honors the legacy of protest photography in New York, zooming in on the years between 1980 and 2000. The show, featuring the work of 37 independent photojournalists, is co-curated by Meg Handler, former photo editor of The Village Voice; historian Tamar Carroll, author of Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty and Feminist Activism; and Michael Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC).

The exhibition picks up in 1980, when New Yorkers were grappling with economic upheaval, shifting demographics, the AIDS crisis, the culture wars, environmental unease, and the ongoing struggle for equal rights. Many of the issues precipitating these images ― from police brutality to gentrification to a woman’s right to choose ― are still being fought out in the streets today. 

“Whose Streets?” features snapshots from a variety of moments, causes and perspectives. The photograph above, for example, shot by Ricky Flores in Brooklyn in 1990, depicts a crowd of predominantly white men deriding a black protest. The demonstration occurred after Bensonhurst resident Keith Mondello, a white man, was acquitted of murder after shooting 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins, who was black.

Hawkins had gone to the mostly Italian Brooklyn neighborhood to look at a used car, and was attacked and shot to death by a mob of eight white men. Although Mondello was considered the ringleader of the group, he did not fire the fatal shot, and thus was convicted only on lesser counts. Black protesters took to the streets in defiance of the verdict, and the photo depicts white Bensonhurst residents mocking the demonstrators, with one man holding a watermelon above his head. 

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Nina Berman’s 1989 photo above depicts pro-choice protestors as they stormed the Brooklyn Bridge on July 3, 1989. The march occurred just after the Supreme Court ruled to “uphold a Missouri state ban on the use of public employees and facilities for performing abortions,” reversing elements of Roe v. Wade. Police arrested 24 pro-choice advocates that day, including activist Mary Lou Greenberg, marking a crucial moment in the battle for reproductive rights.

Certain elements of the featured photos distinguish them from the more contemporary crop scattered across various social media feeds and timelines. The style of police uniforms, outdated haircuts, the overwhelming lack of smartphones being brandished in the air. Yet, for the most part, these scenes could just as well be taking place today, when the majority of social injustices plaguing our country are just as prevalent as they were over 30 years ago. 

For the many people today still learning how to incorporate acts of resistance into their daily lives, head to the Bronx Documentary Center to see how people have been showing up and speaking out for decades. The photographs depict anger, resolution, hope and solidarity, written on the faces and bodies of countless individuals whose names often go unrecognized. The images, however, will ensure they’re not forgotten. 

“Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City: 1980–2000” is on view at the Bronx Documentary Center until March 5, 2017.

Priscilla Frank Arts Writer, The Huffington Post