The “Unlikely Historians” Who Documented America in Protest

A new exhibit showcases photos and films that have long been stowed away in a basement at New York Police Department’s headquarters

Russian Embassy Demonstration, December 20, 1970. In June, 1970, nine Soviet Jews hijacked a plane in an attempt to escape the Soviet Union and settle in Israel. Soviet Jews, known as refuseniks, were seen as traitors and denied visas. The trial of the nine and the anti-refusenik campaign drew international attention. Demonstrators protested the death sentence for two Jews involved with the plot. Unlikely Historians
Woman holding Mao poster, September 21, 1971. As the United Nations General Assembly opened its 26th session, activists took to the UN Plaza and surrounding areas to show support for admitting the People’s Republic of China (PRC). At this time, the US opposed replacing the Taiwan-based Nationalist Republic of China at the UN with the PRC. Unlikely Historians
National Renaissance Party on stage at Wagner High School, March 18, 1966. James Madole, founder of the neo-fascist white supremacist National Renaissance Party, spoke to an audience of about 200. The Board of Education initially denied permission citing the possibility of disorder. But the Corporation Counsel informed the Board that the NRP had a legal right to use the auditorium. Unlikely Historians
Columbia University protests, April 1968. 1968 saw worldwide protests. In NYC, Columbia University students opposed a proposed gym in Morningside Park and the University’s affiliation with a defense industry think tank. The gym, with a back door entrance for Harlem residents was seen as a misuse of public land and an example of urban segregation. Protestors occupied several buildings. There were over 100 arrests and multiple injuries. Construction of the gymnasium was halted. Unlikely Historians
Muhammad Ali Speaks at Muhammad Mosque 7c, April 7, 1968. On June 20, 1967, Muhammad Ali was found guilty of draft evasion for refusing to enlist in the Army. His boxing license was revoked for three years. As a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, Ali spent this time touring the country and speaking in favor of black pride and empowerment. Unlikely Historians
National Renaissance Party before Rhodesian Embassy at 535 Fifth Avenue, April 1, 1972. Demonstrators supported the segregationist government in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that had declared independence from Great Britain. The NYPD arrested Roy Frankhouser for violating a law that forbids wearing Nazi storm trooper attire. Unlikely Historians
C.O.R.E Demonstration for Fair Housing, August 21, 1963. Before the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a practice known as redlining limited loans to owners in minority neighborhoods which contributed to housing decay. Discrimination also prevented minorities from moving into better neighborhoods. A Department of Buildings survey in August 1963 revealed over 16,000 housing violations in a single month. Over 379 cases were turned over to the criminal court for prosecution. Unlikely Historians

From the rise of the Civil Rights Movement to the next wave of the women's movement, to the push of the gay liberation movement, America erupted in political unrest in the 1960s and '70s. Now, reports Colin Moynihan for the New York Times, a new exhibit in New York has captured a compelling picture of the turbulent time using some surprising source material: the New York Police Department's surveillance photos.

Police officers might seem like unlikely historians, but they engaged in extensive surveillance to keep tabs on individuals and organizations whom they classified as dangerous or subversive.

"Beginning in 1904 with the 'Italian Squad’s' focus on anarchists and continuing to the present day, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has conducted surveillance of individuals and infiltrated organizations perceived as enemies of the status quo. At different periods, the focus was on immigrants, labor leaders, Nazi supporters, socialists, anarchists, and communists," a press release for the exhibit, which opened in September, notes.

In the 1960s and '70s, this included infiltrating groups like the Black Panther Party and anti-Vietnam War protestors and keeping tabs on leaders nearly around the clock.

A significant portion of these surveillance activities were limited after 1985 when a class action settlement against the NYPD asserted that its behavior had violated the civil liberties of people expressing their political views. The photos and films ended up stowed away in a basement at NYPD headquarters until 2011, when officers called archivists with the city looking for help disposing of nitrate film, which can be combustible. 

There, curators found more than 150,000 images, some of them on old-fashioned glass plates, dating back to 1897, along with reels of film shot between 1960 and 1980.​ The images had largely not been stored carefully, and archivists worked with old records to connect images to people and events. The exhibit includes 30 of those images taken by NYPD surveillance teams from 1960 to 1975, along with a handful of film segments that illustrate everything from neo-Nazis protests outside an African embassy to the remains of a house accidentally destroyed by members of the Weather Underground.

"It’s the breadth of police surveillance itself, rather than the contents of any specific image here, which is the most revealing," Isaac Kaplan, an associate editor at Artsy, wrote in a review of the exhibit. "Unlike artists, who create work knowing it will be seen by an audience, the NYPD made these images thinking no one was watching. Seeing them provides a rare, if incomplete, glimpse inside a secretive organization."

The exhibit runs until February 28, 2018, at the New York City Municipal Archives in Manhattan's Surrogate's Courthouse.

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