Two Photos, Two Decades, One Ongoing Fight
This weekend this image, captured by freelance photographer Jonathan Bachman on behalf of Reuters, went viral. It offers a clarity of vision at the end of a week full of confusion, tension, and re-aggravated wounds: a well-supplied and well-armed law enforcement organization aligned against an individual protester defended only by the belief she has in herself.
For those without the details (reports of police brutality situations are now so common that we each have our own regional ones that block awareness of others happening farther away), in Baton Rouge there are ongoing protests after two officers approached and killed an African-American man outside a convenience store. The officers were responding to a 911 call that the man, Alton Sterling, had shown another man who begged him for money a gun he was carrying in his waistband. The two officers tackled Sterling, and one officer chose to shoot him at least five times in the chest while straddling him.
We don’t know yet what the officially presented explanation of why this officer decided to unload his gun into a person who was already restrained on the ground, but if the Baton Rouge Police Department’s response in the days since are any indication—confiscating security footage without a warrant, taking a citizen who filmed the situation on his phone into custody for questioning, and meeting protests with all the outward expectations of quelling a dangerous riot—they are clearly in a defensive mindset and reinforcing the familiar narrative that blacks are dangerous and unpredictable and can’t be trusted as individuals, let alone assembled in large groups.
So far the Baton Rouge cops, the Louisiana State Police, and supporting officers from other parishes across Louisiana have lined up against peaceful protesters armed with tear gas, have deployed long range acoustic device trucks (the kind that play unbearable noises to compel crowds to disperse), and have armored themselves down to their toes with pads and shields, as shown in Bachman’s photo.
This shot is almost unbelievably good, catching the protester in complete profile with her dress billowing right as one trooper is about to clap down on her arm and the other is about to reinforce his partner’s grasp, burdened by what looks to be at least fifty pounds of padding. She is protecting the screen of her phone, her access point to the entire world, but her face is straightforward, serious, and prepared.
The clearly unbalanced implication of force and institutional power symbolized in Bachman’s photo reminded me of another image. Last year I visited Memphis for the first time, and, like I always do when I go to a new city, I made time to visit the art museum. At the time the Brooks Museum of Art hosted an exhibit that had been traveling the country, This Light of Ours, comprised of photos taken by activist photographers documenting the voter registration drives, Freedom Rides, and other progressive actions taking place in the sixties in the Deep South.
In a long chain of profound photos, this was the one that broke me down, even more than the ones of marchers in Selma, destined to get their heads knocked while genteel citizens played cheerleader for the state police in a historic melee.
Photographer Matt Herron got three shots of this little boy outside the Mississippi Governor’s mansion in Jackson in 1965, accompanying his mother in protest of the election of men to the state legislature in counties where blacks were not allowed to vote. In one shot he is sitting on the steps, waving one of those American flags attached to a dowel-thick stick. In the other two, taken in quick succession, a Mississippi Highway Patrolman is attempting to wrestle that flag out of his hands. The cop’s face is contorted with the effort. He lifts the boy off the ground. He’s already confiscated the poster board sign the boy’s mother held earlier that reads NO MORE POLICE BRUTALITY. He’s unaware that he’ll represent the abuse of force for the rest of history.
I thought I had a neat little thing to say about who deserves to wave the flag, who deserves full access to the freedoms of our ideal United States, but in reading about Herron’s image, I found out that to certain people at this certain time the American flag was perceived as an insult, a symbol of integration and federal intervention, and the Confederate flag was enjoying a resurgence in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana as a result. A black person bearing an American flag wasn’t misappropriating it: they were waving it in the face of those who were accustomed to having all the control, hinting at the power of a unified nation to override local laws and social preferences.
That cop wasn’t trying to take the flag back for him and his kind. He obviously didn't take the fact that the person waving it was a child into any meaningful consideration. All he saw was the symbol, and he reacted according to his own internal set of laws.
People are drawing comparisons to the sixties right now, the sixties being where we have successfully sequestered the idea of justified protests in their black and white poignancy, accompanied by the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," or similar songs. These two images taken 50 years apart do both convey white men imbued with historical righteousness unleashing the strength of their bodies on opponents way below their weight class, but the woman who arrived in a breezy summer dress and flats to protest outside the Baton Rouge Police Headquarters wasn’t acting out an anachronistic fantasy, she was reacting to our own contemporary situation.
We are still living within spitting distance of enthusiastic cheerleaders eager to see black people intimidated back into “their place.”
These people are ready to accept that this large congregation of black people—the organized groups brave enough to block off interstates, bridges, and boulevards primarily with one simple request: please acknowledge that this keeps happening to us over and over—are the actual threat to the block, the town, the state, and the nation. These people have a large gap in experience that powerful visuals like Bachmann’s and Herron’s somehow don’t bridge. They are the ones committed to hoarding an inheritance that the entire nation has received but that us Southerners have gotten a double portion of: the ability to reject black autonomy without even trying.
The people who think this way did not go away in the sixties, or the seventies, or the eighties, or the nineties. Theirs is not an attitude that will one day just die of old age, leaving all of us who are younger and enlightened unburdened by their hatred. We need to actively counteract it.
Unfortunately, even with all the recent clamor it seems that many people are committed to recognizing and denouncing only the most overt types of racism. They’ll use the term white supremacy when describing a dogma that veers toward genocide or expulsion but are uncomfortable thinking those words are appropriately applied to the very real, very persistent notion that there is a “right way” of doing things in this country, that anyone who chooses an alternate behavior (voluntarily or not) simply doesn’t have as much credibility or worth as those exercising the status quo.
I don’t have a comprehensive solution for solving our nation’s problems, but I do believe that black lives matter, that black experiences are valid, and that expressions of black lifestyles shouldn’t be avoided or merely tolerated. If you are white, any increase in your daily exposure to the lives of black people is a positive thing. Listen to your friends and acquaintances without being defensive. Follow artists and musicians on social media. Check out a blog, a website, a magazine or a podcast created by African-Americans on almost any topic. Don’t do it as a sociological experiment, do it for yourself in order to fill the gaps in your knowledge.
Here are a handful of people I follow on Instagram who have been influential and inspirational to me:
- Artist, activist, and teacher Brandan “BMike” Odums
- Painter Kristen Downing
- Photographer Patrick Melon
- Renata Cherlise’s Blvck Vrchives project
Feel free to share others with me.