Sawyer Seminar Session Two

Public Spheres and Popular Memories


  • David Fresko

Gibney’s expansive understanding of human rights media and Sauper’s investment in a dialogical relay between spectators and filmmaker compels us to inquire more deeply into how films and other media participate in the public sphere and the formation of popular memory. The photographs discussed by Regina Austin and marshaled by Stanley Nelson and Ray Arsenault’s Freedom Riders demonstrate visual media’s centrality in publicizing the civil rights movement and its prolongation into the present. Austin’s comparative analysis of the visual strategies employed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party (BPP) was especially topical given the parallels drawn by today’s media between the visual iconography of postwar black liberation and contemporary protests against racial oppression. What value do we impart these images today? Where and how do they appear? And is their use-value clear? In short, as Austin pointedly asked, does the circulation of Civil Rights era imagery help or hinder contemporary political action and the social imaginaries to which it aspires?

Documentary film and photography profoundly shaped how Americans understood the Civil Rights Movement. Iconic images resonate to this day—Emmett Till’s disfigured body resting in its casket at the behest of his mother in 1955; Elizabeth Eckford jeered by white mobs while integrating Little Rock Central High in 1957; dogs mauling black youths in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963; black students assaulted by whites during sit-ins at segregated department store lunch counters throughout the early ’60s; voting rights activists repulsed by police batons, tear gas, and mounted police upon the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965; striking sanitation workers in Memphis carrying signs stating “I AM A MAN.” Such images continue to circulate on the walls of galleries and on the pages of elegantly produced catalogs, in historical documentaries like Eyes on the Prize (1987/1990/2016) and Nelson’s many films on the movement, as web-interactives, and source-material for docudramatic recreation like Selma (2014, dir. Ava DuVernay).

Civil rights photography had multiple purposes: it was a documentary tool to mark the movement’s place in history, a means of self-expression, and a way to broadcast the movement through the mass media and thus to a public that extended beyond the scenes of immediate struggle. SNCC’s photo agency, for instance, publicized the movement through the creation and distribution of a variety of visual materials, including posters, pamphlets, picture books, calendars, film strips and the like. But SNCC’s “media consciousness” encompassed more than the creation of literal images. In fact, the tactic of non-violence, as Caddoo argued, was a sophisticated visual strategy that exceeded the simple logics of “exposure = change.” In Freedom Riders, Julian Bond explained the paradox of non-violent protest: “On the one hand, it’s non-violent… On the other hand, they’re really courting violence in order to attract publicity… And so you have these mixed motives: Let’s hope nothing happens, nobody’s hurt. On the other hand, suppose something does happen. Wouldn’t that, in an ironic way, be good for us?”

Black liberation’s relationship with the mass media, however, was vexed, and evinced what the art historian Leigh Raiford describes in her book, Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare, as “the unfixed yet situated relationship between mass movements and mass media.” This evolving and unruly pas-de-deux is indicative of a negotiation over the ways in which forms of political action and social difference are produced and represented under the spectacle of late capitalism. No organization better illustrates such conflicts than the Black Panther Party. Through their attractively illustrated and nationally distributed newspaper, “The Black Panther Community News Service,” and collaborations with alternative media organizations such as the San Francisco and Los Angeles chapters of Newsreel, the radical New Left filmmaking collective, the Panthers publicized their community service, which included police patrols, free breakfast programs for schoolchildren, the administration of health clinics, as well as distribution of food to the needy, and the aesthetics of black empowerment.

The mass media capitalized on the public’s fascination with what Nikhil Pal Singh in Black is a Country describes as the Panthers’ “insurgent visibility” in two ways. On the one hand, they charged the group with politically naïve, revolutionary posturing. On the other hand, they overstated their threat to the state to justify their violent repression. The famous images of the Panther’s Oakland office’s bullet-riddled windows (photographed independently by Stephen Shames, Agnès Varda, and SF Newsreel) summarize this complicated interplay of violence, vision, and political speech.

On September 10, 1968 at 1:30 AM, some thirty hours after Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton was convicted of killing a member of the Oakland Police Department, two members of the force reportedly fired more than a dozen bullets at the Panther’s Oakland headquarters, seeming to take deliberate aim at posters depicting Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Hutton, who earlier had been killed by the police in April. An act of iconoclasm in which party leaders and those who follow are “killed,” the hole in Cleaver’s mouth also “silences” the Panther message. Cleaver’s image, moreover, appears above a bumper sticker advertising his candidacy for President of the United States on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket; his iconographic eradication thus forecloses participation in normative frameworks of political action.

Though carefully crafted, the Panther image was one that the party struggled against. As Singh argues, “[rather] than seeing the Panthers as the vanguard of a visible, guerilla insurgency in the country, they might be better understood as practitioners of an insurgent form of visibility, a literal-minded and deadly serious kind of guerilla theater, in which militant sloganeering, bodily displays, and spectacular actions simultaneously signified their possession and yet real lack of power” (emphasis mine). In short, writes Raiford, “[their] emergent visibility… represents not only an exhibition of power but a display of a true lack of power as well.” The violence enacted upon the image thus signals less the symbolic displacement of the real violence against the party onto the visual field than its metonymic instantiation. Disproportionate and deceitful, it carried a brutal lesson: only the state can justifiably exercise violence, and only the corporate media can legitimately inform.

The spectacular mediascape that was only coming into mature existence during the postwar period now informs our daily lives. Austin’s provocative question—“whether the impact of such [imagery] is a help or a hindrance to today’s activists”—may thus be expanded to encompass larger questions about the sociopolitical “visible.” To wit, groups like SNCC and the BPP evinced a visual sophistication that proves their conscious exploitation of political spectacle, however limited its ultimate impact may have been. They mobilized not only bodies on streets and helped build communities of self-empowerment, but did so within a swiftly changing public sphere characterized by mass mediation’s global reach. For Caddoo, this form of “media consciousness” constituted “their awareness of their positionality and place in a political and representational landscape that extended far beyond the borders of the United States.” Indeed, understanding political struggle and solidarity to be born of the interstices between nations and peoples and the ability of images to simultaneously overcome and acknowledge those very distances may be one of the most lasting legacies of postwar liberation movements.

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSH3XR

That said, the contingent, unstable nature of the digital image threatens to void Civil Rights era film and photography’s iconographic ballast. Austin is right to point to images such as Iesha Evans’ confrontation with absurdly armored police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as exemplifying a potent form of #blacklivesmatter visuality, one that links, Teju Cole argues in the Times, to a history of political obstinacy from Gloria Richardson to Tiananmen Square’s Tank Man. Such images share an iconography with contemporary Hollywood, and they may even awe, but they pale in comparison to the wild, unruly, and decidedly lo-fi videos of police brutality that demonstrate with exacting precision how little black lives actually matter. Feidin Santana’s phone footage of Watlter Scott shot five times in the back in North Carolina, the surveillance camera that captured Tamir Rice’s death in Cleveland, Ohio, and Ramsey Orta’s video of Eric Garner’s suffocation at the hands of New York City police on Staten Island, among many others, are images of ruthless, racialized injustice seared into the public consciousness. Their contingency, crudity, and cruelty give them a credibility otherwise forsaken by empowering displays of agency.

As images and sounds of such atrocities proliferate, their evidentiary values prove increasingly important to formal legal processes, which more and more rely on such media. In this context, organizations such as WITNESS play a crucial role in not only training citizen activists in the proper use of new media to expose abuse and advocate for change. Orta’s four-year prison sentence for crimes unrelated to his capture of Garner’s death on video is but one particularly egregious example of the legal battles such witnesses may face after the fact and points to the necessity of WITNESS’ initiatives. Creating and sustaining stronger networks that coordinate between media activists, lawyers, and NGOs is one way to ensure more safety, exposure, and, ultimately, justice. As WITNESS’ Deputy Program Director Tanya Karanasios epigrammatically argued, in the fight for human rights, “more video = more rights.”

While it is imperative to create networks of support and distribution for such imagery, as WITNESS advocates, we must likewise be mindful of the limitations of this visibility. In fact, a paradox endures: how do you depict people of color as agents of empowerment, of political change, and at the same time as the victims of institutionalized racial violence?

We have an investment in the real and its representation that assumes that if people witness an atrocity, they will act on this knowledge and demand its curtailment. But images are ambiguous. Their meanings are mutable. And they never speak “for themselves.” One beholder’s barbarity is another’s civility. The most compelling of images refuse interpretive stability. Of course, this is why they are political.

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