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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Text Emily Manning