[News] Seeing Police Brutality Then and Now

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Thu Jun 18 13:59:36 EDT 2020


https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/seeing-police-brutality-then-and-nowSeeing
Police Brutality Then and Now
*We still haven’t fully recognized the art made by twentieth-century black
artists.*

By Nell Painter <https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/nell-painter> -
June 18, 2020
[image: Cops depicted as pigs]
Images, like Emory Douglas’s depictions of cops as pigs, were central to
the Black Panther Party’s self-fashioning and mark its place in history.Art
work by Emory Douglas / ARS / Art Resource

*We can see by now that the anti-police-brutality protests of 2020 differ
profoundly from those of the nineteen-sixties. And I do mean see. We’re
seeing many protesters who are not black and marches in more places: large,
small, urban, rural. These are protests ignited by seeing, seeing horrific
videos of criminal acts again and again and again.*

The very fact of the sameness of police brutality then and police brutality
now intensifies an anger that remains totally justified. In the sixties,
the Black Panther Party arose to confront police brutality, and the
Panthers created a visual archive of justified outrage. Today’s protesters
know that their actions and the images they create will enter the political
history of confronting injustice. This has not been the case for
anti-police-brutality imagery created a half century ago. We still haven’t
fully seen the art made by those twentieth-century angry black artists.

Back then, in California’s Bay Area
<https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/what-to-stream-james-baldwins-tour-of-black-san-francisco-in-take-this-hammer>,
where I grew up, police violence, including the killing of an unarmed black
teen-ager in San Francisco, prompted the organization, in October, 1966, of
the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The late Huey P. Newton and Bobby
Seale, students at Merritt College, in Oakland, bonded in reaction to an
exclusionary version of California history that was being taught at the
school. Then, as now, lily-white history was a part of the ideology
supporting white-supremacist police.

I belong to Newton and Seale’s generation, and I supported the B.P.P.’s
denunciation of brutal police. But I never joined up, for reasons
geographical (I lived in Temescal, in North Oakland, next to Berkeley,
where Kamala Harris grew up) and gendered (the B.P.P.’s gun-toting,
masculinist self-fashioning). When the Panthers moved into community
service and focussed on programs such as free breakfasts for children and
public health, women like Ericka Huggins came to the fore. Today’s
anti-racist activism, led by women, is beautifully feminist and eschews
macho posturing.

The B.P.P. announced a Ten-Point Program of goals for social and economic
justice, which surely inspired Black Lives Matter’s six-point platform of
demands half a century later, and, as it matured, adopted an anti-colonial,
internationalist stance. Nonetheless, armed opposition to police brutality
remained the Panthers’ heart and soul, the mission that attracted thousands
into their ranks. Social and economic justice and the Panthers’ (legally
carried) guns sounded like communism to J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., which
soon designated the B.P.P. a threat to national security. F.B.I.
surveillance and infiltration, together with killings at the hands of the
local police, helped destroy the organization by the early
nineteen-eighties.
[image: Two men in black berets and leather jackets with long guns and
bullet bandoliers standing outside the Black Panther...]
Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton at the Black Panther Party headquarters, in
Oakland.Photograph from Alamy

Images were central to the Black Panther Party’s self-fashioning and mark
its place in history. One of the best known is a photograph of Seale and
Newton in black berets and leather jackets, carrying guns, standing outside
the Black Panther Party storefront headquarters in Oakland. A group of
Panthers had been photographed carrying guns into the California state
capitol building, in Sacramento, to protest gun-control measures attempting
to curb their then existing right to carry arms openly. It is likely that
Howard L. Bingham took this photo, which served as a recruiting poster,
because he took many other photographs of the Black Panthers. (In 2009, he
published a collection of these photos titled “Howard L. Bingham’s Black
Panthers 1968.” Bingham died in 2016.) The image of black men enacting
armed self-defense now resonates as a counterweight to heavily armed white
nationalists around the U.S.A. demanding an end to public-health
regulations meant to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Bingham’s photographs capture Panther activities in a documentary spirit.
More intriguing to me now is the agitprop artwork of Emory Douglas, the
B.P.P. Minister of Culture, which was published in the *The* *Black Panther*
newspaper and plastered around the Bay Area as posters. Week after week,
Douglas’s searing wit visualized the urgency for action, such as this image
of children carrying photographs, one that shows police victimizing a child:
[image: Two children holding up newspapers that show police brutality]
A drawing by Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture, shows
children demanding an end to police brutality.Art work by Emory Douglas

Armed women and mothers appeared frequently in Douglas’s work, protecting
their children and wearing natural hair. In this drawing, the police are
shown as agents of an unjust system of property owning:
[image: A woman holding a child with a gun in her hand]
An Emory Douglas poster shows a mother holding her child, and a gun.Art
work by Emory Douglas

Inspired by graphic design, woodcuts in particular, Douglas used bold black
lines and often just one color. He combined patterns like Ben-Day dots and
parallel lines, and added shading and layers to flattened images.
Video From The New Yorker
George Floyd’s Death Sets Off a Wave of Protests
<https://www.newyorker.com/video/watch/george-floyds-death-sets-off-a-wave-of-protests>

Douglas also popularized “pigs” as the epithet for policemen, and he would
show “pigs” singularly or in twos or threes, to represent not only local
police but also the economic and political forces of war, Nixon,
capitalism, and colonialism. The big-bellied “pig” character was often
drunken and banged up, an emblem of the abuse of power; one image defined
him as “a low natured beast that has no regard for law, justice, or the
rights of people . . . a foul, depraved traducer, usually found
masquerading as the victim of an unprovoked attack.”

Right now, we are angry because police brutality and racism are so old, and
they keep on happening. Art history needs to help us remember that our
anger is not new, that half a century ago an organization and its artist
confronted racial injustice resolutely.

Douglas’s work belongs to American political history, but it should also
figure in the history of twentieth-century American art. His body of work
is one of several oeuvres needlessly missing from the art-history canon.
Among the missing, Charles White comes to mind immediately. My own
narrative history, “Creating Black Americans: African-American History and
Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present
<https://www.amazon.com/Creating-Black-Americans-African-American-Meanings/dp/0195137566?ots=1&tag=thneyo0f-20&linkCode=w50>,”
is not an art history but contains a great deal of black art. Looking
there, I find other vital works by Elizabeth Catlett, Jeff Donaldson, and
Pat Ward Williams. The work of Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, and Howardena
Pindell, artists now in their deep maturity, who are also in “Creating
Black Americans,” is only now becoming widely visible.

Here is the art history for the moment that we are in, work that addresses
themes of anti-black violence and armed self-defense. Once this moment
passes, we will need an accessible art history of righteous anger, as
opposed to one that exiles these images to the margins. Why aren’t these
works part of the art-history canon? Some of the answer lies in the
definitions of fine art that prevailed during the twentieth century, when
this art was made. A pertinent example is the cranky, conservative,
influential *Times* art critic Hilton Kramer, who called black art merely
“social history” lacking “stringent esthetic criteria.” When I was a
student in art school, in the early two-thousands, I still encountered such
judgments. Art was supposed to be “autonomous,” speaking only to itself;
engaged, activist art was dismissed as mere illustration.

Right now, the art-history canon presents the nineteen-sixties as Abstract
Expressionism and Pop Art, in images that depict an America without racial
conflict and that celebrate consumer capitalism. Angry art inhabits a
peculiar category of the art of protest, one peripheral to the history of
American art. Let us recuperate the art that testifies to a long-standing,
uncompromising opposition to police brutality. This furious art belongs not
only to anti-racist heritage but also in the center of American art.

The nineteen-sixties art world, like American society at large, was so
segregated that the absence of black artists in galleries and museums was
business as usual. That color bar gave rise to anti-racist art
organizations like Spiral, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, and the
Studio Museum in Harlem, in New York, and the National Center of
Afro-American Artists, in Boston, all intended to lower racial barriers.
The hard work of these institutions has weakened art-world exclusion and
discredited the outmoded distinction between art and social criticism.
Today, the work of younger black and engaged artists has been widely
appreciated as art history. But the twentieth-century anti-racist art by
Emory Douglas and others inspired by the Black Panther Party and Black
Power has hardly been rediscovered. It has not made its way into the
art-historical canon, which conveys both monetary and cultural value.
Douglas’s work is more easily found on tote bags being sold on behalf of
Black Lives Matter than in the high-priced galleries and auctions that
still decree which art matters.

In the half century between these two eras of rebellion, between the
sixties and 2020, the color bar and sexism in American society weakened, as
we see in the diverse nature of the present uprisings. Today, women are at
the forefront, and many non-black people are in the streets. But more work
remains to be done, specifically in the realm of images. If today’s
anti-racist awakening is to resonate culturally and art-historically, the
art world still has a big job left to do: to dismantle the color bar
against twentieth-century black artists. Let us recuperate the art that
testifies to a long-standing, uncompromising opposition to police
brutality. This furious art belongs not only to the anti-racist heritage
but also in the center of American art.

Why, you may ask, am I talking about cultural history in a moment of
soaring passion? Isn’t art history a matter for later on, for museums and
universities, when what we need now is action? True, art history is a
cultural matter, but it is a keeper of popular memory, a version of how we
see our past. American art history needs to acknowledge the art made by
angry black artists—as art. As American art.
Nell Painter <https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/nell-painter> is an
artist and the author of “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over
<https://www.amazon.com/Old-Art-School-Memoir-Starting/dp/1640090614?ots=1&tag=thneyo0f-20&linkCode=w50>”
and “The History of White People
<https://www.amazon.com/History-White-People-Irvin-Painter/dp/0393339742?ots=1&tag=thneyo0f-20&linkCode=w50>”
and other books of history.
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