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Born: November 27, 1932; Philadelphia; Arrested July 30, 1961; Train station, Jackson; Then: Student, Santa Monica City College; Since then: Arts administrator, now retired; Then and Now: Marrried to Robert Singleton; Photographed: August 24, 2005; Los Angeles. © Eric Etheridge

I’ve been meaning to write about Eric Etheridge’s project Breach of Peace for too long. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders and their key 1961 victory for civil rights.

Today, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther Kings 1968 assassination, is an appropriate moment.

Firstly, a brief history of the Freedom Riders, as told by Etheridge:

In the spring and summer of 1961, several hundred Americans — blacks and whites, men and women — entered Southern bus and train stations to challenge the segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters and bathrooms. The Supreme Court had ruled that such segregation was illegal, and the Riders were trying to force the federal government to enforce that decision.

Though there were Freedom Rides across the South, Jackson soon became the campaign’s primary focus. More than 300 Riders were arrested there and quickly convicted of breach of peace — a law many Southern states and cities had put on the books for just such an occasion. The Riders then compounded their protest by refusing bail. “Flll the jails!” was their cry, and they soon did. Mississippi responded by transferring them to Parchman, the state’s infamous Delta prison farm, for the remainder of their time behind bars, usually about six weeks.

A few days after the last group of Riders were arrested in Jackson, on September 13, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued new regulations, mandating an end to segregation in all bus and train stations.

Etheridge’s book Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders features his new portraits of 80 Riders and the mug shots of all 328 Riders arrested in Jackson that year, along with excerpts of interviews with the featured Riders. (See the Breach of Peace archives here)

The Mississippi Museum of Art is showing the mugshots of all 329 Riders arrested in Jackson as a giant, 54′ long mural, along with 20 of Etheridge’s portraits (March 19 – June 12). Free to the public.

Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Freedom Riders installation, Mississippi Museum of Art, March 2011

Etheridge’s work is a continuing multi-year effort. Through interviews and his camera, Etheridge gives his subject the opportunity to return to their political heroics. For those alive in the sixties, Etheridge’s work is an antidote to historical amnesia and for those who weren’t it’s an education.

KING’S GIFT TO HISTORY; A POLITICAL PHILOSOSPHY NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN, ALWAYS TO BE ACTED UPON

And so to King, whose politics are as relevant today as they were 43 years ago. As Jim Johnson reminds us, at the time of his assassination, King was in Memphis in solidarity with sanitation workers, who were striking the city not just for decent pay and working conditions but for recognition of their right to form a union. In light of the concerted, ongoing campaign by Republicans to subvert unions, it surely is plausible to wonder how far we remain from the promised land.

History is very important. Despite their self-label, progressives look back in time as readily as conservatives to pinpoint historical moments to justify their politics. Progressives look to the golden era of people power and the Peace Movement, conservatives hark back to the space-race and Reaganomics.

When history is at our backs, we must choose to leave it behind or let it propel us forward. In the case of the Civil Rights movement, its lessons should be forever in America’s conscience. The work toward social and economic equality is not yet complete, not by a long distance.

We have choices to make and a society to shape.

Which brings me to this potent image of the back of James Earl Ray, who was Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassin.

While hundreds of thousands were marching on the streets and millions across America swelled the turning political tides, James Earl Ray choose a different worldview.

Regardless of colour or creed, Martin Luther King’s promised land was for all … and for a better America. No doubt James Earl Ray was a troubled man but his rejection of America’s sea-change thrust him only in the direction of a dead-end.

James Earl Ray  facing the wall at Shelby County Jail. Photo by Gil Michael/Shelby County Sheriff’s Office

As Etheridge explains this is not an act of defiance. Shoved into a Shelby County Jail cell, Ray faces the reality upon him; the physical finality of confinement with nowhere to go. As he abandoned history, so history moved on without him.

TO END ON A GOOD NOTE

REMEMBER.

INSPIRATION, LOVE AND GOOD HEARTS ARE NOT FORGOTTEN BY HISTORY

Two stories that broke this week demonstrate the levels to which everything is never as it seems.

The New York Observer describes links between Leslie Deak and funders of the controversial mosque, the CIA and U.S. military establishment have gone unacknowledged.

Meanwhile, The Commercial Appeal in Tennessee reports famed and revered Civil Rights Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement.

Democracy now states, “Withers’s alleged involvement was revealed because the FBI forgot to redact his name in declassified records discussing his collaboration.”

Withers died in 2007.

Thanks to Stan for the tip off.

"New Orleans, Louisiana," 1965, by Leonard Freed. © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, Inc. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Kristina Feliciano interviewed Brett Abbott, curator of photography at the Getty, about their summer show Engaged Observers

Abbott succeeds in saying not a lot (it is a brief interview). Abbott lists the exhibit’s famous photographers and recounts the Getty mantra on commitment financial muscle to support acquire documentary photography.

That said, his analysis of Leonard Freed’s image (below) is pause for thought.

KF. What are some of your personal favorites of the photos on view in the show?
BA: Leonard Freed’s picture of two men passing one another on the street in Washington D.C.:  Freed’s protagonists face off, their noses nearly touching on the two dimensional surface of the print.  The older white gentleman occupies a commanding presence in the center of the photograph, but it is the African American on the right who is in focus.  Within the context of Freed’s larger project on racial tension in America in the 1960s, they can be seen as representing basic and opposing forces of the civil rights movement: white and black, the old generation and the new, center stage and marginalized, present and future.  Indeed, the two play out this dialectic beneath a balcony clearly marked as belonging to the house where Lincoln died.

"Washington, D.C., 1963" Leonard Freed (American, 1929 – 2006) © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos, Inc. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

BLACK AND WHITE IN AMERICA

Leonard Freed observed race in America throughout the sixties; this work eventually taking him to the prisons of Louisiana. Before we get to that, here’s how Magnum describes Freed’s best known work:

In 1962 Leonard Freed went to Berlin to shoot the wall being erected. There he saw an African American soldier standing in front of the wall and it struck him; that at home in the US, African Americans were struggling for civil rights, and here in Germany an African American soldier was ready to defend the USA. This prompted a lengthy examination by Freed of the plight of the African Americans at home in the United States. Freed traveled to New York, Washington, D.C. and all throughout the South, capturing images of a segregated and racially-entrenched society. The photos taken at that time were then published in 1968 in “Black in White America“.

The images below are from prisons within the same state, Louisiana.

New Orleans, Louisiana. 1963. City prison. Image Reference: NYC21690 © Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

Freed’s documents of the New Orlean’s City Prison are galling. The mood and theatre played out by these women (inmates? nurses? orderlies?) in the “white female quarters” as compared to the claustrophobia and groping along the “colored tier” is confusing, appalling.

I am at pains to know what scene Freed is capturing here in the “white female” section.

The screengrab (below) is taken from the first of two online videos – here and here – in which Freed talks about contact sheets; money and its’ substitute; motivations; and of course, race.

Freed discusses his experience on the “colored tier” from 4:36 to 6:00.

The attitude of the guards is beyond disgusting, “If we desegregate this place there will be blood. Mixing white men with animals. Can’t make us do that.”

If we take Freed at his word, and there is no reason not to, the portrait he paints of Angola was a place where Black men were willingly left to stew; a place where overcrowding was used as a disciplinary tactic, and a place in which racism was the unifying policy. Foul, totally foul.

YESTERYEAR / TODAY

That Freed should have visited a prison in the South as part of his survey on race in America was logical, for perhaps in prisons – more than anywhere else – the least tolerant and most simple interpretations on race existed.

Even today, prisons perpetuate cycles of poverty in minority groups. Furthermore, prison facilities only harden the tensions and misgivings between different racial groups of the prison population.

Freed went to Louisiana, but prisons across the South during the sixties were much of a muchness; they were borne from the same structures that had informed slavery. Robert Perkinson is perhaps the best historian to map this institutional-metamorphoses. In it’s basic premise, his recent book Texas Tough, can apply to prison management not only in Texas, but right across the South.

I highly recommend Marie Gottschalk’s review of Perkinson’s book which summarises his key positions, and is shocking enough in and of itself.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

ENGAGED OBSERVERS

PhotoInduced just reviewed Engaged Observers.

NPR ran a gallery pertaining specifically to the Engaged Observers exhibition.

FREED

Bruce Silverstein and Lee Gallery present Freed’s works online.

Happy Birthday America.

Precisely because “The Land of the Free” is a term now inseparable from rhetoric and politicking from any and all quarters, I’ll keep this brief.

America, like every nation on this earth, is and continues to be a work in progress. “Freedom” is a relative term, and if photographers in America do some things well, one of them is to remind us that by law (until very recently) some were freer than others.

I am always happy to promote socially-conscious photography that deals with racial injustices of the past and our need to address those injustices still. Furthermore, there are many good photographers who are working on inequalities today, based not in law, but in attitudes. Again, we are all works in progress, right?

WENDEL WHITE

Wendel White‘s Schools For The Colored depicts the landscape and architecture of historically segregated schools in northern states.

London Metropolitan Police Anti-Photography Propaganda Campaign Poster

London Metropolitan Police Anti-Photography Propaganda Campaign Poster

When I began writing this blog, it was meant as a vehicle to display the documentary work of photographers working in sites of incarceration and to generally expound the stories touched upon. It was also meant to deconstruct some of the persistent myths surrounding prisons and prison populations and how visual culture has played its part in weaving some of those myths.

Not once did I envisage the current situation whereby the act of photography could bring about the threat of detention and imprisonment. Such impingement on basic rights of expression has been known in some of the dictatorial and despotic regimes of modern history … but not so much in the West, right? The times they are achangin’.

Photo: Liam Oliver Newton Craik-Horan. http://www.flickr.com/photos/liamch/3423810669/

Photo: Liam Oliver Newton Craik-Horan. http://www.flickr.com/photos/liamch/3423810669/

When my brother visited from the UK last month he couldn’t stress enough how much of a police state it has become. We reasoned that the fingerprints taken by US homeland security are know also the possession of the UK government. It used to be the case that fingerprints were only taken and kept on file in the UK if you had been convicted for a crime. How things change.

A few months ago I signed up as a member of ACLU, the decisive moment was when the ACLU representative said to me, “You don’t want the US turning out like Britain with all those cameras and surveillance do you?”

Britain really is a country that has got itself on edge; it’s culture promoting men and women in all guises of security to exert illegitimate power and enforce ludicrous policy. Unfortunately, this robotic application of rules has infected even our art galleries, as the venerable John Berger discovered.

This past months have seen a slew of stories coming out of Britain regarding the rights of photographers in public spaces. All these are in response to a slew of legislation to slowly whittle down the rights of photographers; the rights of UK citizens.

On 16th February, the Counter Terrorism act came into effect making it illegal to photograph a police officer or “elicit information” about them. The British Journal of Photography has the details.

After the disgust at such brazen restriction of rights, the response by the photographic community in London was to go to Scotland Yard, headquarters of the Metropolitan police, and in an act of mass civil disobedience take lots of photographs of lots of officers.

The Guardian UK has been the mainstream print media that has really pursued this topic, reminding us all of what we have just lost. They broke the story that Kent police monitored members of the press during an environment protest, for which the Kent constabulary have apologized.

The Press Gazette explained this tactic and the associated tension between police and photographers.

David Hoffman, a photographer with 32 years’ experience, said he now carries shinpads in his bag, claiming he had been kicked by police officers at protests.

“The police today [NUJ Protest] have been beautiful – but that isn’t always the case,” he said. “Recent protests have been very bad. The worst was October last year, at the Climate Rush demo. One copper spent his time kicking my leg. Stood there with his steel toe caps kicking away – and me, a silver-haired man. I’ve still got chunks missing from my legs five months on. They want you to think: I won’t cover it next time. They have been using FIT [Forward Intelligence Teams, who use cameras], they have been using intimidation.”

Hoffman added, “It’s important the police know they’re being watched and observed. If you don’t see what’s going on, your society’s less democratic.”

It is almost like the lines have been drawn so indelibly, people are having to pick a side. It is sad to see but the police fall in line with the government and the majority sympathise with the press. This has led to a conflation of stories involving the G20 protests, police misconduct, and the death of (and vigil for) Ian Tomlinson. Judging by the Guardian’s recent coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking that London was on the edge of civic breakdown.

I think the media and the Guardian in particular are taking a principled stance here and just reminding the Met at every opportunity that they are watched and the press will not be cowed. I think most of us realise that with millions of people in possession of recording equipment it is unenforceable to stop people from documenting the streets.

Ian Tomlinson’s death received a lot of coverage and rightly so, but I shall wait for the inquiry ruling before making a call, despite the early damning evidence. We, however, in the business of images know that they can never tell the full story. This is now an investigation of excessive force by the police and distinct from the main issue of photographers/civil rights.

Yesterday, the Guardian published this footage of the police threatening photographers with arrest if they did not move. Again, later the force apologized. But what is interesting here is the Guardian‘s decision to line up video footage of various scenes of confrontation from different days in the right hand nav bar. It is a dossier of police activity and unlike anything I have seen in mainstream media.

Photo: Roger Lancefield. The protesters stickers read "I am not a Terrorist, I am a Photographer". http://www.flickr.com/photos/rlancefield/3285904973/in/set-72157613975803636/

Photo: Roger Lancefield. The protesters stickers read "I am not a Terrorist, I am a Photographer". http://www.flickr.com/photos/rlancefield/3285904973/in/set-72157613975803636/

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the Guardian showed that front-line press aren’t the only ones under scrutiny. Metropolitan police deleted a tourist’s photographs this week to “prevent terrorism”. Klaus Matzka, the tourist involved summed his experience up as such:

“I’ve never had these experiences anywhere, never in the world, not even in Communist countries.”

So, at best you are harassed for your photographic activity and at worst, if thought to hold sinister motives, arrested and face a 10 year sentence.

Before all this gets to any court, however, the clashes are felt on the street, on the shins and in the constantly diminished rights to freedom of expression. Where citizen photographers may feel powerless, it seems the press – and the Guardian in particular – are just getting powered up.

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Thanks to all the Flickr users credited above for their images, but more importantly their acts of documentation in the face of legislation to prevent such freedoms. I hope we all stay out of prison.

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