Imagine New York City gripped by demonstrations occurring every week or even every single day. And at those rallies are seasoned activists, but also individuals moved to act in the face of intolerable injustice. These protestors wield signs stamped “my body, my choice.” They are lifelong New Yorkers chanting “hell no, we won’t go” in the face of development and gentrification. Or they are students from the City University of New York (CUNY) standing up to budget cuts to the institution.
This picture is of New York almost two decades ago. If the descriptions ring true in the present, it is because issues of freedom of choice, public education, LGBTQ rights, gentrification, and racism—among many others—still animate activists across the political spectrum today.
An exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center
(BCD), titled “Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City: 1980–2000
,” brings together the work of 38 photographers (some of them who were also activists) whose dramatic images captured the struggles of this era in New York. They are required viewing for those who feel compelled by contemporary politics to step into the streets and make their voices heard.
“I’ve always felt good journalism and good information is the foundation of our democracy,” said co-curator and BDC co-founder Michael Kamber, who witnessed and photographed many of the protests firsthand. The show organizes the photographs into different themes, including protests over police brutality, AIDS, abortion rights, and culture wars—events that have been largely obscured by history. Today, they’re reminder of how bad things can get, and how people can come together to fight back.