A demonstrator against the capitol punishment of Mumia Abu Jamal.

Iconic Photos of an NYC in Turmoil

A demonstrator against the capitol punishment of Mumia Abu Jamal. © Sylvia Plachy

The 80s and 90s were some of the most turbulent decades in NYC’s history, with widespread social changes leading to heated protests throughout the city.

Race relations, police brutality, LGBT rights, the AIDS crisis, abortion rights and housing were the most intensely debated topics, which spilt over into the streets and often times violence, in order to make voices and injustices heard. Whose Streets? Our Streets! is a collection of works from photographers who had never previously exhibited together before, but have shared their pivotal protest photos for this inspiring and also disturbing collection—photos which perhaps have even more relevance today. Although the exhibition held at Bronx Documentary Center has now closed, the entire collection now lives online here, and it’s well worth a look if you want to see more from an incredible time in recent history.

Squatters attempt to defend their building by blocking the street with overturned cars and trash before an expected attack by the police on East 13th Street. © Andrew Lichtenstein
Tomkins Square Park riot, New York City, 1988. © James Hamilton


Housing (and the lack thereof) was a massive social issue in 80s/90s NYC, leading to widespread protests and clashes between citizens and the police. Due to a loss of jobs in the manufacturing industry, and many landlords abandoning their buildings, there was widespread arson in many residences which lead to an extreme shortage of affordable housing.

Add this to rising rent prices and the gradual gentrification of traditionally low-income neighbourhoods like South Bronx, East Harlem, Brooklyn and Bushwick, and New York City started to see record levels of homelessness. Tompkins Square Park, a large homeless tent encampment and an open-air drug market, was at the centre of many protests as many neighbourhood residents, evicted squatters, housing activists, journalists and homeless people were violently charged by police officers trying to impose a curfew on the area. Find out more about it here.

Manhttan, March, 1999. Demonstration in front of the New York Stock Exchange to demand the indictment of the four policemen who killed Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old unarmed immigrant from Guinea. © Frank Fournier
NYC protesters take to the streets in response to the acquittal of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. Some Asian-owned groceries such as this one were vandalized. April 1992. © Linda Rosier
Brooklyn, 1991. A woman walks by a line of police during the Crown Heights race riots in Brooklyn. This was a three-day racial riot that occurred from August 19th to 21st and pitted African American and Caribbean Americans against Jewish residents. © Mark Peterson

Race Relations

Racial tensions spilled over in the 80s and 90s, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations often ending in violence. After three black youths were killed at the hands of white mobs, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton led a protest through Italian-American neighbourhood Bensonhurst, while white residents stood roadside screaming racist slurs and throwing watermelons at protestors, as a symbol of racism. Tensions between the black community and Jewish community began to mount when members of both communities were killed by the other, there were Puerto Rican nationalist movements, Asian American civil rights marches and more—it seemed that everyone was involved in some way. You can find out more here.

Bensonhurst residents hold up watermelons to mock African American protestors who took to the streets of the largely Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn following the acquittal of Bensonhurst resident Keith Mondello in the shooting death of 16-year-old African American Yusef Hawkins on May 19, 1990. Hawkins, who had gone to the neighborhood to look at a used car, was met by a white mob and shot to death. © Ricky Flores
A group called “Women in Mourning and Outrage” hold up photographs of Amadou Diallo during a rally in front of the United Nations. The rally was held after the acquittal of four New York City police officers involved in the shooting of Mr. Diallo, who was unarmed. February 27, 2000. © Ricky Flores
Day of Outrage demonstration at the Jay Street-Borough Hall subway station following the Howard Beach verdict on December 21, 1987 in which three defendants were found guilty of manslaughter in the death of Michael Griffith who was beaten and chased by a white mob onto a highway where he was struck by a car. © Ricky Flores

Police Brutality

Excessive use of force on people of colour lead to extreme racial unrest and protest in NYC, after a string of deaths in minority communities at the hands of police. One such case was Amadou Diallo, a 22-year old Guinean immigrant who was killed in 1999 when he was shot by police as he stood in the doorway to his Bronx apartment. 41 shots were fired by police, 19 of which hit Diallo. Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton was a figurehead for ensuing protests and calls for justice, with thousands of people taking to the streets, and even subway tracks, to demonstrate against police brutality and racial injustice. 

Demonstrations were held daily outside police headquarters, and police officers and detectives demonstrated themselves by standing outside the court house in support of the four officers involved. Protests were also held against Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s unwavering support for the NYC police, and this implantation of the ‘stop and frisk policy’ which was later ruled unconstitutional due to its unfair targeting of African American and Latino men. Learn more here.

Pro-choice rally. NYC 1992 © Sandra Lee Phipps

Abortion Rights

Scarily close to decisions being made in the Trump government at present, abortion rights were a huge social issue in 1980s New York. Despite being a traditionally progressive state when it came to women’s rights and abortion, increased efforts from the Roman Catholic church in funding pro-life groups and ensuring that Catholic hospitals refused to undertake abortion procedures meant that it was a topic of increasing contention during the late 80s.

Anti-abortion activists Operation Rescue began chaining themselves to entrances of abortion clinics and a Supreme Court decision to restrict abortion rights had thousands come out in force to protest at Union Square Park. Both sides of the argument used graphic images of coat hanger abortions and dead foetuses to get their point across, with protests even held against Domino’s Pizza for giving financial support to groups of anti-abortion activists. Read more here.

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