Despite being geographically separated by thousands of miles, the movements sparked by events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Gaza Strip are closer than one might think. In the new exhibit at the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco, the work of renowned photojournalist Jeffrey Blankfort explores the connection between the two efforts.
Aptly titled “Fight the Power!,” the exhibit features images from the past that still speak to the struggles that continue today, encouraging visitors to consider the contemporary circumstances reflected in the photographs of the Black Panther Party and the Palestinian resistance during the 1960s and 1970s.
Hanging on unadorned, white gallery walls, the 39 black-and-white photographs portray a world that is anything but clear cut. Beginning with an image from 1964, the exhibit introduces the resounding statement echoed throughout the rest of the images — to “Fight the Power!” The focal point of this first photograph taken outside of San Francisco’s city hall is the man on the right who holds a sign that reads, “LET U.S. HAVE JUSTICE.”
With this notion in mind, visitors bear witness to a visual chronicle of the people connected to the Black Panther party and their endeavors. A particularly poignant photograph features a mirror shattered by bullet holes in party member Bobby Hutton’s house, where he was killed by Oakland police April 7, 1968. Two neighbors — whose appearances are eerily incomplete as a result of the cracked reflective surface — add a human presence to the otherwise tragically uninhabited room.
“The exhibit to me is a walk through my past,” said former Black Panther and founder of It’s About Time BPP, Billy X. Jennings. “When I look at Jeffrey’s photography, it reminds me of all the hard work, all the people from the Black Panther party, all the community members, all the students, all the people that went to jail, all the political prisoners that are in prison right now, and the twenty party members that were murdered by state, local, and federal government agencies. … I see people that I know, people who were part of the struggle.”
At the other end of the gallery, the first picture of the Palestinian portion of the exhibit showcases a farm worker at a cholera clinic at the Baqa’a Refugee Camp in Jordan in August 1970. Hand upon her chest, eyes alight, the woman’s smile emits so much warmth amidst the less than favorable conditions. Yet this effusive emotion gives way to more somber figures, for just two images away resides arguably one of the most powerful in the collection: The photo portrays a line of young women with guns at the Schneller Refugee Camp in Amman, Jordan, on July 7, 1970 — a rather stark contrast to its neighbor. Perhaps more than any other, the photograph evokes what Blankfort identifies as the fuel of the ongoing resistance: samud, which is Arabic for steadfastness.
As the past and present ideologically come together, so too do the two movements. In August, Blankfort recalled, people gathered at the West Oakland BART station intending to march down to the port and protest against the Israeli ZIM ship coming to dock. At the same time and place, others were protesting against what was happening in Ferguson.
“You had people protesting what was happening in Gaza and what was going on in Ferguson, marching together, shouting the same slogans because they saw it as the same struggle,” Blankfort said to The Daily Californian, citing such similarities in circumstances as the inspiration for the exhibit. “These pictures were taken at a certain period of the struggles of both peoples where rebellion was in the air. Things have changed in terms of the struggles but the problems remain the same, if not worse.”
With photographs as relevant today as they were when Blankfort first took them, “Fight the Power!” draws together two time periods, two peoples and two movements in a collection that is as visually captivating as it is mentally and emotionally stimulating.
“Fight the Power” will be on view in AAACC’s Sargent Johnson Gallery until Feb. 28, 2015.