LOS ANGELES — It was the summer of 1981 and Carol Wells, a Cal State Fullerton professor of medieval history, was in war-torn Nicaragua looking for posters for a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. At the time, posters weren’t on the radar of the medievalist. But in Nicaragua, that changed.
According to Wells, a good poster disrupts your concentration. “Everybody has this bubble around themselves and a poster has the ability to break through that bubble and grab your attention and make you look at the world differently than you did before,” she said during a phone interview with Hyperallergic.
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That’s what happened to Wells in 1981 Nicaragua, where political posters on police violence, war, and revolution were everywhere. “I’m not exaggerating, a poster changed my life,” she said. “I put aside the 12th century and jumped into the 20th.” Ultimately, Wells walked away from a dissertation on the middle ages that was three-quarters of the way finished to focus on posters.
In 1988, Wells founded the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), an organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting posters. For decades, she tried to do an exhibit centered on police violence but she couldn’t find a gallery for the idea until about four years ago, when CSPG received a generous donation from the Mike Kelley Foundation. Wells recalled, “They asked me, ‘what’s an idea that you’ve always had but could never get funding for?’” She didn’t even have to think about the question before answering.
After years of searching for a home, the poster exhibition To Protect & Serve? first premiered at a former jail in Venice, California. Next, it moved to a food court in South Los Angeles, and this summer it landed at 18th Street Arts Center, a former hangar across from the Santa Monica Airport. Co-curated by Wells and Sherry Frumpkin, the show features over 50 years of political posters from Los Angeles, New York, Europe, and Africa, all centered on police violence.
The exhibition is divided into sections that highlight various forms of police violence, from the militarization of police to gender profiling and sexual violence. The posters date from the mid-1960s up until a few years ago, drawing connections between the past and the present.
“There’s a story behind every poster.”
The Battle of City Hall
As a kid growing up in Baldwin Hills, Wells recalls watching the news one day and seeing an image that stuck with her for over 35 years. “I happened to walk by when they showed the police hosing down teenagers down a very steep flight of stairs, and they were not much older than me,” Wells told Hyperallergic. At the time she didn’t know where the incident occurred, or what was happening, but it was a powerful enough experience to “sear” the image in her head for decades. As a kid, Wells wondered what sort of cause would lead people to put their lives at risk.
Thirty-nine years later, the CSPG was celebrating its 10th anniversary and each curator was tasked with picking one of their favorite posters from the collection. Frank Wilkinson, an activist and friend of Wells, helped curate the show and picked “The Battle of City Hall.” The poster illustrated what Wells saw 40 years earlier — hundreds of mostly college students being violently hosed and dragged down a marble staircase while peacefully protesting “communist subversion” hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in San Francisco. “Why would young people intentionally put their lives in danger for an idea? It took me 40 years to answer the question about that particular image,” Wells said.
In August, Angelenos reflected on the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium and the death of Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar. Salazar was fatally shot in the head with a tear gas canister at the Silver Dollar Bar and Cafe by LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Wilson. Earlier that day, Salazar had been covering the Moratorium, a march against the Vietnam War that took place on August 29, 1970 in East Los Angeles.
Wells took issue with some of the recent stories about Salazar. “What’s interesting to me is how the story is still being reinterpreted,” she said. Wells cited one story in particular that described Salazar as taking a break from the protest to get a beer. According to her and other reports, there were two parts to the protest: there was the march that ended in Laguna Park and then a small family-oriented gathering in the park. Wells says that’s when Salazar left. “He figured the protest was over. He didn’t leave to take a break,” Wells adamantly stated over the phone.
Protect & Serve features a poster of Salazar with a screen printed collage of Salazar in the foreground and sheriffs deputies in the background, as well as a quote from Rudolfo Acuna, “What were the standing orders of the deputy Thomas Wilson, who shot the grenade that killed Ruben Salazar?” Deputy Thomas Wilson was the acting sergeant of a scene that Sheriff’s deputies described as rioting and looting.
“Why was he executed upon returning from Vietnam?”
Produced by Vermont S. Galloway, one of the few Black print shop owners that printed posters, Wells said, “Not long after he did this poster he was killed by the police.”
The Murder of Betty Duren Scott
Betty Duren Scott, a 30-year-old Black woman, was murdered by a California Highway Patrol officer outside of Oakland on September 20, 1975. Since Scott was killed 45 years ago we’ve seen countless tragic examples of Black people being murdered or brutalized by law enforcement during traffic stops. From Rodney King to Sandra Bland, to most recently Jacob Blake. “These posters, they tell these horrific stories that keep happening,” Wells said while discussing Betty Duren Scott. Scott’s brother was reportedly a member of the Black Panthers. “There’s a story behind every poster that we could only scratch the surface of.”
To Protect & Serve? Five Decades of Posters Protesting Police Violence continues at the 18th Street Arts Center (1639 18th St, Santa Monica) through October 2. The exhibition is viewable online and by appointment.