Mel D. Cole: American Protest, Photographs 2020–2021

Mel D. Cole, New York, NY 5.30.20, 2020.
Mel D. Cole, New York, NY 5.30.20, 2020.

IN DECEMBER 1964, the activist Fannie Lou Hamer stood beside Malcolm X in Harlem during a rally. Hamer described how, while once traveling to a voter-education workshop, she was arrested and beaten with a blackjack. Facing her listeners in Harlem, Hamer spoke of how that experience led her to the point of no return: “I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change.”

And here we are still. Starting in the spring of 2020, the world witnessed an overwhelming expression of people of color being “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” when the largest protest movement in US history burst forth after Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd on May 25, and continued through the trauma of the (unprosecuted) murder of Breonna Taylor. Self-taught photographer Mel D. Cole witnessed actions in New York, DC, Richmond, Houston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and several other US cities, and his American Protest abounds with necessary reflections of this agonized political moment.

Cole’s book opens with a shot of New York officers taking down a Black man who struggles in their grasp, his mouth open as he yells his dissent. The next page reveals a protester cupping his face with both hands in an eloquent gesture of grief.

Rage and history are everywhere in American Protest. In one shot taken in New York on the Fourth of July, a woman wearing cutoffs and a baseball cap gets ready to set an American flag on fire, a photograph that calls to mind Fred W. McDarrah’s 1966 Jose Rodriguez-Soltero Burned a Flag in a New York Happening. In July 2020, Cole took a picture of a woman cocking back her fist to punch a policeman as he fumbles to get her into custody, offering a kinetic modern pendant to Bruce Davidson’s 1963 photo of student Mattie Howard, who stood firm, wary, and tense as officers grabbed hold of her during a Children’s Crusade demonstration.

Cole does not just fill his collection with pictures of the Black body in torment. Alongside the fury, the protests’ ebullient side is richly depicted. Two people dance in front of a smiling crowd at a Black Trans Lives Matter gathering. A group of grade- and middle-schoolers march down a sidewalk, drumming, with one student holding a flower-bedecked sign that says BLACK GIRL JOY. Still, the exhaustion and mourning that Fannie Lou Hamer described remain an ingrained part of US culture, and in American Protest they do not lift, even in the midst of these celebrations. Cole suggests as much in a May 2020 photo he took in New York. A woman stands with her back to a line of police, assuming a pose that looks like both a swan dive and a crucifixion. GEORGE FLOYD is written on her forearms, and she tosses her head back, her mouth wide open and her eyes closed. She could be either singing or screaming.