A protester is carried away during an ACT-UP Stop the Church direct action at St. Patrick's Cathedral on December 10th, 1989. Photography © Brian Palmer

capturing 20 years of new york city activism, from aids to police brutality

‘Whose Streets? Our Streets!’, a new photography exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center, chronicles the urgent protest movements that unfolded in New York City’s streets between 1980 and 2000.

by Emily Manning
16 January 2017, 10:15pm

A protester is carried away during an ACT-UP Stop the Church direct action at St. Patrick's Cathedral on December 10th, 1989. Photography © Brian Palmer

On the morning of December 10, 1989, thousands of ACT-UP AIDS activists bombarded St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Many stood outside the church chanting, while others lay down in the street to block traffic along 5th Avenue. Still others rushed into the 10:15 mass, a direct action against then Cardinal John O'Connor, who preached against homosexuality and advocated against the use of condoms throughout the AIDS crisis. "Some of the protesters chained themselves to pews inside the cathedral, while others shouted or lay in aisles," reported the New York Times. "Many of the protesters were carried out on stretchers after refusing to stand up." That's precisely what photojournalist Brian Palmer captured when he documented the St. Patrick's protest: a young ACT-UP activist being hauled out of mass on a stretcher by NYPD officers. This image — along with others chronicling pro-choice rallies and police brutality demonstrations — features in the Bronx Documentary Center's powerful new photo show, 'Whose Streets? Our Streets!' New York City: 1980-2000

A woman walks by a line of police during the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn. This was a three-day racial riot that occurred from August 19 to 21 and pitted African American and Caribbean Americans against Jewish residents. Brooklyn, 1991. Photography © Mark Peterson

Collecting work by 38 independent photojournalists, Whose Streets? is a unique record of New York City. The arresting images, which have never before been exhibited together, capture moments in modern history when New Yorkers were united in the streets they share — whether at Tompkins Square Park or in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

The causes of the riots, rallies, and resistance actions reported in Whose Streets'? photographs range in motivation. This is perhaps because the show was curated by New Yorkers with varied perspectives and expertise: Meg Handler, former photo editor of The Village Voice; Tamar Carroll, historian and author of Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism; and Mike Kamber, Bronx Documentary Center founder. 

Pro-choice rally. NYC 1992. Photography © Sandra Lee Phipps

Some images depict coordinated protest efforts. ACT-UP's large network of full-time activists created highly visible, jarring demonstrations — such as the St. Patrick's protest, or others involving painted tombstones marked "Killed by Bigotry." Whose Streets? shows actions like these, as well as spontaneous, urgent responses to instances of police brutality (such as the shooting of unarmed 23-year-old Amadou Diallo), and contentious Supreme Court rulings (such as the Webster decision in 1989, which limited Roe v. Wade). 

A group called "Women in Mourning and Outrage" hold up photographs of Amadou Diallo during a rally in front of the United Nations. The rally was held after the acquittal of four New York City police officers involved in the shooting of Mr. Diallo, who was unarmed. February 27, 2000. Photography © Ricky Flores 

Yet while Whose Streets? presents a powerful portrait of these confrontational, sometimes violent public clashes, it also shines light on the private struggles on the other side of these volatile periods. In addition to the traffic-stopping ACT-UP protests, which drew thousands of activists to the front lines, the photographs also depict funerals, hospital rooms, families, and friends embracing. The exhibition is an on-the-ground record of a city in flux during two of the most turbulent, transformative decades of the 20th century. It shows New Yorkers from all walks of life speaking up about what they feel is wrong, and standing up for what they feel is right. And at a moment like ours — when one of history's most controversial New Yorkers is about to become the world's most powerful leader — Whose Streets? couldn't feel more urgent, heartbreaking, and motivating.

'Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City: 1980-2000' is on view at Bronx Documentary Center through March 5, 2017. More information here. 

ACT-UP political funeral for Jon Greenberg, who died of AIDS. East Village, July 1993. Photography © Donna Binder

Squatters attempt to defend their building by blocking the street with overturned cars and trash before an expected attack by the police on East 13th Street, 1995. Photography © Andrew Lichtenstein

ACT-UP demonstration calling for fair housing for people with AIDS. Bronx, 1992. Photography © Meg Handler

NYC protesters take to the streets in response to the acquittal of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. Some Asian-owned groceries such as this one were vandalized. April 1992. Photography © Linda Rosier 

Demonstration on Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange calling for the indictment of the four policemen who shot and killed Amadou Diallo. Manhattan, March 1999. Photography © Frank Fournier/ Contact Press Images

Pro-choice demonstrators in downtown Manhattan protest the July 3rd, 1989 Supreme Court Webster decision which limited Roe V Wade. This was a turning point in the pro-choice movement. 24 were arrested, including activist Mary Lou Greenberg, as they stormed the Brooklyn Bridge. Photography © Nina Berman 

Day of Outrage demonstration at the Jay Street-Borough Hall subway station following the Howard Beach verdict on December 21, 1987 in which three defendants were found guilty of manslaughter in the death of Michael Griffith who was beaten and chased by a white mob onto a highway where he was struck by a car. Photography © Ricky Flores

Friends consoling one another at the political funeral for Jon Greenberg, who died from AIDS on July 12, 1993. Photography © Thomas McGovern


Text Emily Manning

whose streets
bronx documentary center
whose streets? our streets! new york city 1980-2000
our streets
whose streets? our streets