A few weeks ago, Jelani Cobb predicted that democracy would come back to the streets in the Trump era. A new exhibition, “Whose Streets? Our Streets!,” on view at the Bronx Documentary Center until March 5, 2017, and ongoing online, shows us just what that looks like—and emphasizes the long tradition of this kind of democracy in action. Activists and photographers taking to the streets will not be new in the Trump era. But this exhibition pushes us to keep doing it.
“Whose Streets” features the work of thirty-eight independent photojournalists who documented—and participated in—protests in New York from 1980-2000. The issues ranged from housing, abortion rights, housing, queer activism, AIDS, education and labor, police brutality, race relations, the war and environment—there were a lot, and historians have barely begun to document them. The cascade of photos both online and formatted in a grid across the walls of the Bronx Documentary Center give a sense of the numbers of people, the momentum, the movement—literally—of politics in action. For so many activists these were life-or-death issues, not abstract principles or ideological platforms. AIDS protests often featured people lying on the ground, or in coffins, to make clear the life they were fighting for. But photos of police brutality or race relations or abortion reflect that this was consistent across movements: bodies were on the line.
The exhibition grew out of historian Tamar Carroll’s acclaimed book, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty and Feminist Activism (2015). Carroll is a co-curator along with Meg Handler, one of the photographers featured; Josh Meltzer, responsible for website design and development; and Michael Kamber, who founded the Bronx Documentary Center. Carroll’s book is a rich study of these social movements that emphasizes their intersection and the coalitions built across issues. The presentation of the photographs in the gallery relay that argument as well. There is basically no explanatory text about the protests we see on the walls; the grid format encourages the eye to look up, down, diagonally. The issues are not as clear as the power and presence of protest itself.
For those who want more conventional argument, the curators have chosen nine issues that organize the presentation of the photographs on the website. There is a written overview of each theme that highlights key moments of protest, and many also feature a short video of a photographer whose work is featured. The videos make clear that these photographers were activists too, choosing an issue that impacted them personally. All of them see their photographs as part of these movements, or what artist Thomas McGovern calls “my street work.” One of them, Ricky Flores, laments the disconnect between photographers and protest now, which contributes to an ignorance of the long history of many contemporary struggles. They all hope that the photographs not only matter as historical documentation but as a prod to get activists back onto the streets.
In her book, Carroll makes the point that the streets of New York are stages that perform to the world. What happens in New York gets covered more often by media; the density and the diversity of the city give rise to a variety of political debates and action. But, for New Yorkers, the city’s streets have been fought over, not just fought on. It is here that cars dramatically transformed not only the landscape of the city but its politics, a struggle epitomized by the authoritarian power of Robert Moses and the grassroots activism of Jane Jacobs. And they primarily fought to possess the streets themselves—who owns them in practice, and in policy. Jacobs famously argued that the very vitality of the city depends on the answer to that question. This exhibition wants to support Jacobs’ position: that the streets are “ours.” But it’s still not clear exactly who “we” are. The photographs suggest that the streets belong to leftist activists, rarely to conservative ones. Possession of the streets, they argue, causes policy change. And yet gentrification has whitewashed streets in Harlem, in Brooklyn, making them almost unrecognizable from the neighborhoods of the 1980s, and policy changes in many issues has been politically uneven at best.
Are protests in the street still an effective venue for action? 9/11 rendered street action as mourning; Occupy Wall Street found its power in encampment. Even more, are the streets of action now the channels of YouTube and the storms of Twitter? What the Trump era may indeed reveal is whether protests in the streets still matter: we will know more about that in the coming days.
(This review appears on Public Seminar.)