When The Cameras Leave

wpid-20150311_183636.jpgThis past Tuesday I attended a protest rally in Decatur, GA for Anthony Hill, a young man shot and killed by DeKalb County Police while outside, naked, in the middle of a bipolar episode. He was an artist, a veteran. His Facebook and Twitter posts reveal him to be a sensitive, socially aware, idealistic man. He was buried yesterday. His is the latest hashtagged name in the long, sad litany of black males killed in confrontations with police. There were a few hundred people there, gathered to celebrate Anthony Hill’s life and the tragic way it was taken. There were impassioned speeches, followed by a march and some tension when protesters took over a busy intersection.

There were also cameras. Lots of cameras. Bloggers like myself, mobile news trucks, writers and reporters were filming, recording, and livestreaming every step of the march. It could be said that the proliferation of cameras and smartphones and social networks is why the movement against police brutality is ongoing, but I couldn’t help thinking, how many of us will stay, not just in Decatur, but everywhere across America where people are fighting this new civil rights battle, when the cameras are gone?

Last Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the town swelled with politicians, celebrities, and elders of the civil rights movement gathered to commemorate the fateful day at Edmund Pettus bridge that arguably sparked nationwide support of the civil rights movement. That support happened because the brutality of Jim Crow law enforcement was televised to a shocked outside world. But the work that ended Jim Crow was done by unsung, dedicated fighters who battled in courtrooms and city halls as well as in the streets when cameras weren’t always watching.

The mainstream media is a machine that feeds on novelty. It is never satisfied, and it never stops consuming. The attention it can garner for causes is invaluable, but it’s only loyalty is to it’s own appetite. That same attention will also attract huge numbers of people which can also be good for a cause. But it would be a mistake to believe everybody who shows up will stay to help do the heavy lifting and thankless work necessary to repair a community. Some will, of course. Tragedy and injustice are powerful motivators that always move people to fight them. The desire to be seen is just as powerful, if not more so, and there’s always a possibility that a social movement can be co-opted by those just wanting to be seen.

Eventually the names of Ferguson, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Anthony Hill will fade from the news cycle. The media will pack up their equipment and move on to the next story. A lot of people who claim to be down for the cause will move on too. All that will be left is the void caused by their deaths in the souls of those who knew and loved them. Their larger legacy will be in the laws enacted to prevent atrocities like the ones that ended their lives and by punishing those who took them. As far as who will keep the pressure on and work to see that happen away from the spotlights, only time will tell.

American Booty

A funny thing happened in the Atlanta suburbs last week.

Well, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word. A woman in the affluent Johns Creek area was arrested for running a prostitution ring. It gets worse. One of the girls she pimped out was her stepdaughter. Within an hour of the story breaking, local message boards were filling up with comments saying that the women involved weren’t hurting anybody and that the police were persecuting people for “victimless” crimes. I won’t get into the argument about whether prostitution should be legalized or not, but I was intrigued by how many people rushed to this woman’s defense. I also wondered how sympathetic some of these same people would be if this bust has taken place in Bankhead instead of Johns Creek.

For those of you outside the Atlanta area, Johns Creek is one of the wealthiest suburbs in Atlanta, with an average household income of over $135K. Bankhead is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Atlanta, which you already know if you’re a fan of ATL hip-hop. In the collective psyche of the Suburban Atlantan mind and local TV news, Bankhead conjures up images of dreadlocked, gold-front wearing corner dealers holding AK’s and shooting at each other like rival militias in Beirut.

It is fascinating to me how forgiving of crime suburbanites can be when the criminals look like them. A prostitution raid eerily similar to this one happened a few years ago and prompted some of the same calls for leniency. In fact, one of the residents said that this sort of behavioiur “doesn’t happen here,” implying that it’s expected to occur in other parts of the city.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on there. It overlaps with the double standard and perceptions of white and black crime that the Twitter hashtag #crimingwhilewhite and the recent release of the Ferguson Report make clear. There is a definite double standard to how laws are enforced. White people, especially wealthy white people, are given the benefit of the doubt by police and the general public.

Back in 1996, PBS filmed a documentary about an underworld of unprotected group sex, drug use, and binge drinking among teen and preteen kids in Rockdale County, another affluent Atlanta suburb. When the documentary aired, there was the same disbelief and cries of “not my little angel” that most parents everywhere say when their kids get caught up in mischief. The problem occurs when local media and residents in the neighborhoods agree with that mentality and turn a blind eye to the delinquents on their block to condemn delinquents across town that they never see.

Whenever something happens in poor communities, the entire communty falls under a cloud, not just the parties involved. The usual cultural and racial indictments begin, the kids affected don’t receive the same level of empathy, and definitely not the same calls for therapy and treatmen. The only “remedy” they receive is jail time.
People are going to do dumb shit. That is almost the human default. But some people get to have their mistakes, and their deliberate actions excused while other people’s mistakes follow them for life.

You can find decent people in the poorest communities. You can find low-lifes in the wealthiest ones. Being born well off isn’t a guarantee you will be well raised but it will afford you infinite chances to get away with not being so.

The Big Black Wolf

By now, most of the country has seen the video of a young woman being catcalled and followed by men on the streets of NYC┬áproduced by an organization called Hollaback! to draw attention to the sexual objectification women are subjected to when out alone in city streets. It’s a worthy cause; I have heard far too many stories from different women over the years about dealing with creepy or disrespectful men to doubt the necessity of calling attention to the issue of street harassment. My only problem with the video, and its creators, is their use of Black and Brown Boogeymen to literally scare up attention.

Whether by accident or by design, the makers of the video, Rob Bliss Creative, edited out all the white male catcallers. The end result is footage of a girl menaced by men who are all Black and Hispanic. The images play on the stereotypes of men of color being hyperagressive sexual beasts that Birth of A Nation made overtly and King Kong alluded to with slightly more subtlety. It’s a stereotype that, historically, countless numbers of black men paid for with their freedom and their lives.

According to the director there was 10 hours of footage shot and edited down to make the video that went out. During the editing process, no one, not the producers, or the organization for which it was made, had a problem with the white guys, of which there were many, being deleted from the final reel. When called out on the disparity, Rob Bliss gave an explanation that might have been plausible, if editing software that you can download to your smartphone for free wasn’t available to a professional filmmaker in far better quality. Needless to say, misogynists and racists have flocked to leave hateful comments on sites hosting the clip.

There’s a case to be made for the honesty of the video creators when they say the removal of white catcallers was unintentional. In America there has always been a tendency to overlook, excuse, or explain away the social transgressions of white males. It’s a tendency so ingrained in American society that people do it subconsciously. Even people dedicated to raising awareness of male privilege can be blind to how they inadvertently reinforce white male privilege.

Ensuring the freedom of women to go about their business in public spaces without being made to feel in danger of their safety is absolutely an issue that needs to be addressed. No sane person would deny that. But so is the demonizing of men of color. It’s a shame is that a very necessary national conversation about the objectification and reduction to body parts that millions of women deal with has been sidetracked because of it. And it’s sad that Hollaback! and Rob Bliss chose to combat sexism by reinforcing racism.