Offensive BLM melodrama in the NYT: A "superhero” Black Lives Matter protester faced down “storm troopers” in a showdown compared to the Tiananmen Square massacre, according to the latest New York Times Magazine. Magazine photography critic Teju Cole compared a widely-circulated photo of a confrontation between police and BLM protester Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge to the unknown “Tank Man” of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.
To be fair, he’s far from the first to make the offensive comparisons, as this earlier Newsbusters piece shows. But its prominent appearance near the front of the NYT’s Sunday Magazine will help such comparisons obtain the imprimatur of legitimacy (and provide useful propaganda for China’s state-run press).
There were a few subtle differences, of course. The June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre by the authoritarian Communist Chinese government resulted in the death of perhaps over 2,000 Chinese civilians, mass repression, the censoring of the atrocity from official accounts, and the likely demise of the unknown man in the picture. Evans spent the night in jail for obstruction of a highway, and upon release spoke freely to American journalists, who were also free to cover the story from every angle.
The magazine's sub-head read: “Against the grim footage of unjust deaths, a few iconic images of Black Lives Matter evoke the power – and visual language – of superheroes.”
As soon as the photograph of Ieshia Evans began to circulate online, people said she looked like a superhero. There she stands, slim and straight, on a street in Baton Rouge. Her dress, abstractly patterned in black and white, swirls around her. She seems almost to be levitating. Opposite her are the cops, clad in black. They are only two, walking ahead of a phalanx of more than a dozen others. But because of the storm-trooper get-up -- the shoulder pads, helmets and what look like rocket-booster backpacks -- the two seem like three or four. Their legs advance while their upper bodies lean back, as though recoiling from an unseen force. She is unarmed and unafraid (the open space behind her emphasizes her singularity); they are militarized and unindividuated. The image told such an apparently clear story that when it hit social media, it went viral.
Black Lives Matter photographs also have a deeper genealogy. In their basic trope of the individual confronting terrible power, one of their most striking antecedents is “Tank Man,” from June 5, 1989, near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. These images (there are at least four variants, in addition to video footage), of an unknown solitary protester standing in the way of advancing tanks, encapsulate the plight but also the greatness of an individual taking extreme personal risk. But unlike the photos of Evans and others from Black Lives Matter, there’s an air of gloom around Tank Man. Given what we know happened in Tiananmen Square, we presume he was doomed in some way. A closer emotional comparison to the pictures from Black Lives Matter might be found in certain images of the civil rights movement, like Fred Ward’s photograph of the activist Gloria Richardson pushing her way past a National Guardsman’s bayonet in Cambridge, Md., in 1963. But even there, the mood is of dignity intruded upon rather than of outright victory.
Cole really laid it on:
Images trigger our memory of the history of images. Ieshia Evans, standing full-length, in profile, calm, carrying something, her robes billowing from an unseen gust, reiterates almost perfectly the form of a nymph that the early-20th-century scholar Aby Warburg described in his “Mnemosyne Atlas.” Warburg, undertaking a historical study of repeated forms, showed that figures matching this description were present in works by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Raphael, as well as in Roman bas-reliefs. The immediate legibility of images like those of Evans cannot be separated from the way their dynamism, evocative of ancient painting and sculpture, honors the black body.
Black Lives Matter as a movement originated in images: the video clips showing the extrajudicial killing of black people. The “superhero” photographs of protesters, with their classic form and triumphal tone, are engaged in a labor of redress. They bring a counterweight to the archive. Against death and helplessness, they project power and agency.
Cole had qualms about the anti-police tone of his Times essay after three officers were killed in Baton Rouge...but kept it unchanged.
....one morning in mid-July, news began to filter in of an attack on police officers in Baton Rouge. Three officers were killed. I was stunned, but also startled: I had just finished the latest draft of my essay, which read essentially as it appears above. Surely, following this horrific news, I would have to pull it.
I called my editor. Looking at the line of cops in the picture featuring Ieshia Evans, I now saw them differently. Perhaps among them were those who were to die just days after that picture. The image was now doubly shadowed by death: Alton Sterling’s, as well as that of the officers. Any reading of the image would be affected by this double shadow, which I didn’t see coming and which my argument had not accounted for. My editor understood my conundrum, but she didn’t think the essay should be pulled. She asked me to think of a solution.
The easy thing would have been to fix it: put in a sentence here or there, take out the unfriendly term “storm trooper,” adjust the essay’s tone to make it more sympathetic to the plight of the police. But I did not want to smooth away what was now an interesting problem. I decided instead to leave the essay as it was, but to write, below it, about this question of reception.
Paper’s fashion critic Vanessa Friedman also threw in the offensive comparisons to Tiananmen and “storm troopers” in her July 18 essay, “A Sundress in an Age of Riot Gear.”