Inside the Movement for Black Lives’ first permanent exhibit in New York City


NEW YORK — It’s a quietly kept secret that the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of grassroots activist groups associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, has been part of a permanent museum exhibit in New York City since early summer.

The Museum of the City of New York and movement organizers intend to let that secret out, in new efforts to showcase the history of the BLM movement and its Big Apple footprint.

“What we’re trying to achieve here is a deeper understanding of what the movement is, why it’s important and how it fits into a larger trajectory of organizing and activism in New York City,” Christopher Paul Harris, BLM exhibit co-curator said in a recent interview at the museum.

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Titled “Racial Justice Today: The Movement for Black Lives, 2012 to 2017,” the exhibit includes photographs, flyers, protest art and clothing that represent crucial movement milestones. If it’s not the first of its kind, it is the first exhibit that seeks to tell the story of the movement and its growth beyond street protests, Harris said. The exhibit is also an acknowledgment that New York City is an organizing hub in the BLM movement.

In February 2012, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, hoodie-wearing black teenager killed by a vigilante in Florida, garnered a response from activists in New York. The Million Hoodies Movement for Justice formed out of the idea that young men of color wearing hooded sweatshirts should not be marked for suspicion or violence. The Million Hoodies rally in Union Square on March 21, 2012, drew Martin’s parents to the Big Apple. Two years later, massive demonstrations over the NYPD-involved deaths of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley solidified New York City as a flashpoint of the BLM movement.

Harris, who is also a New York City chapter organizer with Black Youth Project 100, is set to moderate a panel Tuesday on the current state of the movement, headlined by New York City-based activists, journalists and academics. The event is free but requires pre-registration, according to the museum’s website.

The exhibit

The movement’s items sit within the larger “Activist New York” exhibition. It covers civil rights, wage, sexual orientation, religious freedom and other causes of social activism in New York City, through 14 case studies that date back to the 17th century. The exhibition first opened in 2012.

The BLM display, which was added to the exhibition in June by Harris and “Activist New York” curator Sarah Seidman, is positioned next to a floor-to-ceiling sized photograph. It’s of a young black woman holding a neon green sign that reads, “I hope I don’t get killed for being black today.”

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“Of all the images that we had to choose from for this [exhibit], this one seemed to be the one that spoke most directly to the stakes,” Harris said. “If we live in a world where someone could stand in the middle of [New York City’s] Union Square unironically, with a sign like that and really mean it — we can look at that and say, ‘I know exactly what she is talking about.’”

Movement posters, pamphlets, photographs and other paraphernalia are divided between two glass display cases and a floating gallery wall. The exhibit also includes a video monitor looping clips from a major demonstration sparked by Garner and Gurley’s deaths.

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One item, not easily decipherable, was lent by the anonymous activist collective Never 21. It’s a double pocket menu, which members of the collective handed out to patrons of Manhattan’s 21 Club restaurant, while dressed as waiters. Instead of listing dinner options, the menus list the names of black people under the age of 21 who died during interactions with law enforcement.

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Other items represent movement issues that don’t directly touch on police violence: a “Swipe It Forward” campaign flyer, from a direct action meant to call out the criminalization of poverty on the subway system; a copy of the historic black tabloid, Amsterdam News, the cover story exploring controversy and dialogue around the #BlackLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter hashtags after the ambush of two NYPD officers in 2014; and a self-care and healing manual, made for activists who routinely make sacrifices in service to the movement.

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These items will also be accessible through an online portal, museum spokesman Jacob Tugendrajch said. Harris recently drafted lesson plans to aid K-12 teachers who want to introduce BLM movement history into their curriculum.

BLM in museums

Since the hashtag emerged in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement has been part of countless temporary museum exhibits and art gallery shows. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to the public in 2016, features a cotton BLM T-shirt and a protest sign from the Ferguson Uprising as part of the “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond” exhibition.

In 2015, NMAAHC director Lonnie Bunch said he instructed the museum’s curators to document BLM through the collection of artifacts that represent the movement, according to Smithsonian magazine. Curators of the New York City exhibit took a different approach, Harris said.

“What I’ve understood about what they [the Smithsonian] do is that it’s more tangential,” Harris said. “What we’re trying to do here is be at the forefront of cultural institutions and museums that seek to tell a story specifically about the movement, that doesn’t concentrate that story in the form of protest, exclusively.”

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Today, the Movement for Black Lives is a national coalition of 50 organizations, including the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Color of Change, BYP100 and Southerners on New Ground. In August 2016, the coalition released “A Vision for Black Lives,” its first policy platform offering solutions to institutionalized forms of anti-black racism that go beyond law enforcement. That platform is also on display in the New York exhibit.

But much of the movement’s work has been understood through anti-police brutality protests, particularly events that took place in New York City in 2014 and 2015. The exhibit should help change the public’s narrow perception, Harris said.

“New York has been an incubator for movement work,” he said. “Some of the biggest campaigns have been waged through New York. People can recognize [BLM], not just as a movement that they see on TV or read about in whatever way they read about it, but as something happening in their backyard.”

Correction: Sept. 22, 2017