We’ve been asked several times why Global Voices is holding a summit in Cebu, the second-largest city in the Philippines. That’s a pretty easy answer: Nini Cabaero of the Sun Sentinel, a former student of mine at MIT, made a great case for the friendliness of the Cebuano people and argued that we would get a richer picture of the Philippines if we met outside the highly globalized and cosmopolitan capital. (She’s right – it’s been a fantastic introduction to the diversity of the Philippines, a nation of 7000 islands, and of many different languages and cultures.)
But why the Philippines? Global Voices holds our meetings in countries that do not censor the Internet, and in Southeast Asia, internet censorship is quite widespread. But the Philippines is also attractive as it is a hotbed for social media. Leading Filipino media expert Tonyo Cruz tells us that of the 100 million Filipino people, 44 million have access to the internet at home, via business, school, or smartphones. 40m are users of social media, a remarkable percentage. Evidence suggests that Filipinos are the most voracious users of the internet, spending an average of six hours a day online. Fleire Castro, a blogger and relief work activist, suggests that this may be because the internet is so slow – it’s possible that those six hours are spent loading a single viral video.
Tonyo Cruz notes that there are thriving blogging communities in Cebu, Mindanao, Luzon, throughout the Visayas, as well as in Manila. Bloggers are now widely recognized as members of the media. Some bloggers have graduated into business as social media managers. While some of this media is personal and silly – the Philippines is now known as the selfie capital of the world – bloggers are also becoming journalists, wittingly or unwittingly. A project called Blogwatch encouraged citizens to use online media to document and protect their votes in 2010. Bloggers rented a cable television station and held a show on election day, offering blow by blow reports.
Social media is also a tool for social change outside the electoral system. Hashtag campaigns like #rescueph, #reliefph have raised money for typhoon relief. A crowdsourced “magna carta” for internet freedom has been central to a movement for online rights. And recently, a million person march organized online took on the pork barrel system in Congress, Cruz tells us.
These campaigns unfold largely on Facebook, the most popular network in the Philippines, but also on Skype, Google+, Twitter and Viber. Blogs remain powerful, though, especially as a way of speaking out against media misrepresentations. Ruben Licera, a longtime blogger and social media expert, tells us the story of a campaign by a Cebuano blogger to combat an ad campaign featuring and misrepresenting indigenous Cebuano hero Lapu-Lapu to sell diapers. His blog, amplified by Licera and others, gathered thousands to the cause and through viral spread, forced EQ Diaper to pull the ad. Another blog campaign debunked a story about a Filipino politician being banned from entering an airbase because the UN demanded that Filipinos not touch UN aid goods. This image and the accompanying story spread widely online, until a blogger researched the imagine and revealed that it was actually of a Filipino politician being warmly greeted by a US commodore. This campaign points to the dangers and power of social media, especially when accounts spread without being checked.
There’s great civic promise for social media in the Philippines. Fleire Castro, who is active in relief efforts, tells us about #oneforiligan, a campaign to support the victims of the Sendong typhoon in Iligan. It urged people to donate at least one dollar to fund relief efforts. Since the campaign was basically a hashtag and instructions to donate to the Iligan Bloggers Society, it was easy for dozens of microorganizations to join in the movement. Ultimately, it raised 1 million pesos (roughly $25,000) in small donations, plus donated goods, which the blogger group delivered for typhoon aid.
Tonyo Cruz points out that there could be greater social impact from digital media if not for the digital divide. During the most recent set of typhoons, Filipinos were expecting to hear damage reports from far flung areas, but no reports came. This has to do with infrastructure issues – these areas are very poor, and connectivity is limited, if not non-existent. “The digital divide blunts the effectiveness of data for social good.”
On the positive side, Cruz believes that bloggers are challenging a problem with Filipino media: credulity. There’s no local culture of factchecking, he explains. “When the president gives a state of the union address, the reporting focuses more on what people wear, what they ate, than on checking the President’s claims.” Social media is making it possible to check these assertions.
The panelists agree on two steps the blogger community should take in the Philippines – they should start holding local blogger conferences, inspired by Global Voices, and they might agree to a general code of conduct: “Bloggers should be honest, fair, accountable and minimize harm.” As bloggers ask to be taken seriously as journalists, it may be appropriate for them to be held to these basic ethical standards.
One of the more remarkable efforts Global Voices is engaged with is Rising Voices, a mentoring and microgranting project that calls attention to stories from marginalized people and groups around the world. One of the projects were are currently supporting is “Our Voices, Ourselves”, a project focused on girls’ rights in Kyrgyzstan. It’s represented by Dariya Kasmamytova and Aishoola Aisaeva in Cebu, both under 21 years old. They are leading a campaign that is helping young women talk about the barriers and persecution they experience in their daily lives.
Dariya tells us the story of a 15 year old girl, abandoned by her stepfather and left at a government shelter. She was bullied and abused, then kidnapped, forced into child marriage, and locked in the home of her husband, where she was treated like a slave and like an object, not like a human being. She identifies two problems: the government is not correctly protecting vulnerable children, and there are cultural barriers to full protection of Kyrgyz girls. There’s a culture of “uyat” – shame. Your body is a shame and you cannot talk about it. The culture encourages boys to be violent and protect themselves, and to keep girls at a lower social status than boys.
The women are opening a club for girls in Kyrgyzstan, to give a space of support and understanding, free of the threat of violence. They have been provoking debate and promoting the work using an online video campaign titled What Girls are Silent About”. Over images of Kyrgyz girls sitting in silence, young women talk about girls being forced into marriage, told they cannot study math or science, told that their place is in the home. Another striking video shows a Kyrgyz girl singing in the style of Manas, a traditional Kyrgyz epic, which is traditionally only sung by men. The message: we have voices too and are ready to act. We are part of our society, we are part of the power of the people.
You can follow the project on Twitter at @girlactivist_kg or read the stories at
devochkiaktivistki.kloop.kg. This is an amazing project, and exactly what I’ve always hoped Global Voices can do to support important projects around the world.
Every two years, Global Voices comes together for a community meeting. Over a hundred of our authors, translators, editors and management have been meeting this week in Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines. For two days of our meeting, we’re opening our discussions to the Filipino public, hosting a public gathering at the provincial capitol of Cebu. The discussions are streamed online, and more than two hundred of our members as well as local and international activists and media figures are here with us.
The main theme for our conference is the obligation of those of us who participate in citizen media to protect and defend the open internet. With this in mind, the event begins with a solemn ritual. Eight Global Voices contributors read the names of bloggers and writers who are imprisoned by their governments or extremist forces for their online writing. They read dozens of names, from Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cuba, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Israel, Kuwait, Macedonia, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the USA and Vietnam. The names include members of our community like Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fatah, and the Zone9 bloggers collective from Ethiopia, where four Global Voices bloggers are imprisoned. Barret Brown, recently sentenced to a lengthy prison term for linking to an online document represents the US on this shameful list. The Global Voices statement demands that governments fulfill their duties to the universal declaration of human rights, noting “We cannot remain silent and you should not either.”
The first panel, hosted by Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Lokman Tsui, is titled “Protecting the Open Internet is Everyone’s Business”. As someone with his historical roots in the Netherlands and in Hong Kong, Lokman identifies his home country as “the internet” and notes that protecting the open internet is literally protecting our home. He introduces Nani Jansen, legal director of Media Legal Defense Initiative in London, which is managing more than 100 cases around the world including many threats to freedom of expression. She is therefore in a terrific position to offer an overview of threats to freedom of expression around the world. Internet specific legislation like Act 66A in India, which makes it a punishable crime to “cause annoyance or inconvenience to another with online posts or email”, is a great example of a chilling law. With people facing three year sentences for these vague crimes, the law is often used to surpress political speech. In the Philippines, a recent cybercrime law has extended criminal libel laws onto the internet, now offering up to six years for online defamation. Azerbaijan was promising to decriminalize defamation in 2006, but now extends those laws to the internet, offering up to three years in prison.
Governments also continue to block internet content without court order, Ms. Jansen explains. The Zambian Watchdog, one of the country’s few critical media sites, was blocked within Zambia since 2013. The site was accessible externally, but the block locally was a key restriction on speech, and when Reporters without Borders mirrored the site and had their mirror blocked as well. In Pakistan, YouTube was blocked for almost two years. Jansen explains that there’s no basis in law for these blocks – any ministry can simply contact the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority and demand a site be blocked. Intermediary liability, holding a site responsible for the actions of a commenter or poster, is another form of online control. The extension of traditional media laws to online content can have a chilling effect as well. In Russia, the new blogger’s law turns online publications into traditional publications, which adds onerous new administrative requirements to online speech, causing some blogs to shut down. In Italy, it’s difficult to force removal of content via libel laws, so copyright laws are often abused to bully sites into compliance. Protecting online speech involves being vigilant on all these fronts simultaneously.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn from Prachatai, a leading activist and citizen media site, talks about resistance online and offline to media blackouts after the May 22 coup. International news stations were blocked on television, and viewers who wanted to see BBC or CNN saw a screen with the logos of the coup government. Subway stations were preemptively closed in the fear that they would be locations for protests. In response, Thai activists and citizens found ways to protest creatively, online and offline. The three finger salute from the Hunger Games has become a popular sign of protest, and the coup government has responded by detaining those who display the signal for up to a week for “attitude adjustment”.
The three finger salute has also moved online, and into stickers and graffiti, as this symbol: .|||. Another popular sticker is 2+2=4. It’s a reference to a viral video of a teacher who was trying to teach students that 2+2=5. It’s become a symbol of disobedience and resistance. Thai citizens have been remarkable in using digital media as a space for protest. When a group of high school girls were forced to walk a long distance on their knees on cement as a form of collective punishment for being late to school, the girls documented the wounds to their knees by publishing the photos online. The accompanying hashtag campaign went viral and proved extremely embarrassing for the school.
Premchaiporn makes the point that people who live in countries with no offline freedom feel more freedom online. But she warns that the authorities will eventually come for you online as well. It’s a cat and mouse game – hundreds of Facebook users have been arrested for lege mageste in military courts. We need friends who live in freer areas to ask their government to stand firm and resist censorship, and ask the companies we use for online services to protect their users.
Al Alegre from the Foundation for Media Alternatives reminds us that Cebu has several special significances for Filipino activists. It is the home of Lapu Lapu, a brave Cebuano who resisted colonization in the 1600s. It’s also the place where the Philippines were first connected to the internet in 1994. Alegre offers a quick tour of global threats to privacy: mobile phone surveillance; using backdoors of coercion, cooperation and corruption to gain information from telephone companies; backdoors in critical tools like Skype; key internet companies giving user information to governments. The Snowden revelations are only the latest bad news in a long, ugly story. And even the good guys have their dark sides, argues Alegre. Google has been good about revealing information they’ve been forced to give to governments, but has violated privacy with their Street View cameras. He encourages us to read the UN report from Frank LaRue, crediting it as “probably the most comprehensive report on how privacy and surveillance has impacted human rights.”
Alegre warns that we are likely to see more requests for surveillance in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. It’s not just direct surveillance of communications, but surveillance of transaction records – when we shop, make a phone call, or move around the world. He reminds us that “if the product is free, we are the product”. Why should we worry about digital surveillance? Isn’t privacy a shield for corruption?
He argues that we need to build a link between online privacy and other rights. We need to consider complementary rights in the human right regime and need to protect rights equally, indivisibly. He closes with a horrific Filipino story about the importance of surveillance. On November 23, 2009, 63 people, including 31 media practitioners, were killed in an act of political violence called the Ampatuan massacre. The people were surveilled and ambushed on a ridge as a mayoral candidate attempted to register his election papers. No one has been convicted. He asks us to #endimpunity, and to demand that human rights include a right to be free of surveillance.
This has been an ugly week.
On Wednesday, two Islamic extremists assassinated 12 people in the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The next day, a police officer was killed by a pair of gunmen in another corner of Paris in an apparently related incident. Today, French authorities faced hostage crises at a kosher supermarket in the city, and at a printing plant outside the city. By the end of the week, the death toll was up to twenty – 17 victims and 3 perpetrators – in an tragic week people are starting to call France’s 9/11.
The violence in Paris demands – and has received – widespread media attention. But it has overshadowed some of the other events of an ugly, dispiriting week.
On Tuesday morning, a homemade explosive blew up outside the Colorado Springs office of the NAACP, one of the US’s leading civil rights organizations. The bombing – which the FBI has declared deliberate – evoked memories of the darkest days of the civil rights struggle, where activists were the victims of bomb attacks. The NAACP bombing received little mainstream media attention, leading to a twitter campaign demanding coverage of the attack, and sparking discussion about a media tendency to dismiss white terrorists as disturbed, lone-wolf individuals, while seeing other terrorists as representing their race or religion.
Muslim shooter = entire religion guilty Black shooter = entire race guilty White shooter = mentally troubled lone wolf
— Sally Kohn (@sallykohn) December 21, 2014
Sally Kohn’s tweet from December 21, 2014 is as appropriate now as it was then.
It’s understandable that the tragedy in Paris overshadowed coverage of the NAACP bombing. But it’s harder to explain the scant media attention to another horrific act of terrorism: Boko Haram’s attack on the town of Baga.
Baga is on the border between Nigeria and Chad and has been a key battleground between Boko Haram and Nigerian forces over the few years. In April 2013, the Nigerian army, pursuing Boko Haram killed almost two hundred civilians and burned a substantial portion of the town, leading villagers to flee into the bush. On Saturday, January 3, 2015, Boko Haram seized a military base in Baga, and began launching attacks on townspeople. At least 7,000 refugees have fled into Chad and Niger.
It will likely be weeks until there’s a confirmed death toll from Baga, but Amnesty International’s Nigeria expert believes there may be as many as two thousand dead. The town has apparently been razed to the ground, as http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-wn-boko-haram-baga-20150109-story.html#page=1>Boko Haram forces looted, then burned, houses. Since 2011, Boko Haram has killed 16,000 Nigerians, 11,000 in the past year.
If you haven’t heard about the Baga massacre, that’s not surprising. Most major media outlets have barely covered the story. In the graph above, the orange line is the phrase “Charlie Hebdo”, and the blue is “Baga”. On January 4th, the day after the Nigerian army base fell, the top 25 US mainstream media ran twenty sentences that mentioned Baga. Yesterday, the same news outlets ran 1,100 sentences mentioning Charlie Hebdo. (Today’s count will likely be higher, but Media Cloud is still collecting today’s data, and there’s still four hours in the day.)
My Nigerian friends have commented that the Baga story is not getting much play in Nigerian media either, and the statistics bear that claim out. Orange represents “Charlie Hebdo”, blue represents “Baga” as above, but now we’re looking at a collection of Nigerian newspapers, radio, television and social media. Baga peaks two days after the military base fell, and coverage of the Paris massacre has been stronger the past three days than coverage of the larger domestic tragedy.
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) January 9, 2015
Some commentators note that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed his sympathies to the French government, but not to the people of Borno State killed by Boko Haram. Facing re-election in five weeks, Jonathan is understandably wary of discussing Boko Haram, as it reminds voters that the conflict has erupted under his management and that his government has been unable to subdue the terror group. Jonathan has claimed that a multinational force was combatting Boko Haram, but military sources claim that Nigerois, Chadian and Cameroonian troops have deserted the cause.
Events in Paris have been horrific. But Boko Haram killed up to 2,000 people on Wednesday in Baga, Nigeria: http://t.co/NUvYvt7O91
— Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ) January 9, 2015
I was struck by how little attention the Baga massacre was receiving and tweeted about it earlier today. People have offered helpful speculation on why this is the case. Some theories my correspondents have suggested:
– The victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were journalists, and journalists take special care to cover journalist deaths. (I wish this were true. But the alarmingly common killing of journalists in the Philippines suggests that some journalist deaths are more newsworthy than others.)
– Baga is hard to get to, while Paris is a global media city. Easier access equals more coverage. (Certainly true, and certainly important, but given the death toll in Baga, you might expect at least one global news crew to try to reach the scene. AP’s dateline is from Yola, almost 600km away. Reuters is reporting from Bauchi, a similar distance away.)
– Racism. We care more about the white people killed in France than about black people killed in Nigeria. Or, phrased differently, “a hierarchy of death“, in which some deaths always merit more attention than others.
I think this last theory is on the right track, but I think it’s more complex than just racism (though I believe race plays a significant factor.) When I teach “agenda setting” and “news values” (the ways in which some events become news and some don’t), I turn to a 50 year old paper by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge, “The Structure of Foreign News”. Galtung and Ruge propose a set of twelve principals that they use to explain how events are seen as newsworthy. Four of their rules help me understand the disparities in coverage between the attacks in Paris and in Baga.
Meaningfulness: The central metaphor of Galtung and Ruge’s paper is a shortwave radio – of all the signals we tune into on the radio dial, we are most likely to tune into those that have meaning for us, say a human voice speaking in a language we understand. Meaningfulness includes cultural proximity: we are more likely to pay attention to events that affect people who live lives similar to our own. It’s hard for most of us to imagine living in a fishing village on the shores of Lake Chad and being forced to flee a rebel army. It’s easier to imagine masked gunmen entering our workplace (especially for Americans, where workplace shootings have become tragically common.) Once we’ve placed ourselves in the shoes of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, the police protecting them, or the grocery shoppers, the story becomes personally relevant.
Consonance: While news is usually a surprise – a natural disaster, an unanticipated death – Galtung and Ruge argue that we like our surprises to be consonant with narratives we already know and understand. The attack on a major city by violent extremists is a tragically familiar one over the past decade, a story that feels like a continuation of attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Boston.
Unambiguity: We like stories that are easy to understand and interpret – nuanced and complex events are harder to cover than unambiguous ones. A brutal attack by a group opposed to western education and most traces of modernity seems unambiguous, until one reads about the abuses the Nigerian army has committed in combatting Boko Haram. There have been two massacres in Baga in the past two years – the 2013 Baga massacre occurred when Nigerian soldiers burned the village, seeking revenge for military officers killed by Boko Haram, killing almost 200 civilians. Were residents of Baga providing support and shelter for Boko Haram in 2013? Why did those same residents become targets for Boko Haram in 2015? These sorts of questions make the massacre in Baga a hard story to understand and a harder one to tell.
Stories about people: Stories need heroes and villains. Coverage of the Paris attacks has focused on Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier and his willingness to “die standing than live on my knees”, and the long histories of the radicalization of Cherif and Said Kouachi. In Baga, we know neither the names or the stories of the victims or the attackers – it is possible that the attack was led by Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, but no one has confirmed, and stories tend to focus on Boko Haram as a mass, rather than on the individual leaders of the movement.
The one campaign that has successfully called international attention to Boko Haram’s abuses is the Chibok Girls campaign, which demanded international attention for 200 girls abducted from a school in Chibok, in southern Borno state. The parents of the abducted girls have made countless media appearances, reminding Nigerian and global audiences of their absence.
If Galtung and Ruge’s principles hold, we shouldn’t expect attention to the Baga massacre to increase in the next few days. It’s too distant, physically and culturally, too complex and devoid of the personal narratives journalists use to draw audiences to complex stories. But it’s critically important that we understand what happened in Baga, not just to understand the challenges Nigeria faces from Boko Haram, but to understand who religious extremism affects.
Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) January 10, 2015
Retweeted for illustrative purposes. Fuck Rupert Murdoch.
The brutal attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s staff reinforce a “clash of civilizations” narrative, in which Western secular values (freedom of expression, humor, critique) are inexorably threatened by fundamentalist religious values. (Teju Cole provocatively notes that the secular West has rarely been as skeptical and rational as it congratulates itself for being.) The implications of this clash of civilizations narrative are predictable and dire: commenters demand that moderate Muslims explicitly dissociate themselves from horrific criminal acts, implying that those who don’t endorse terrorism; right wing politicians suggest closing borders and deporting Muslims; Muslims face revenge attacks.
Violence from Islamic extremism is a real and frightening problem. So, for that matter, is extremist violence associated with other religions. (See Myanmar for evidence that Buddhists can be violent extremists, or review the 2002 riots in Gujarat for an introduction to Hindu extremism. Or consider Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose Christian fundamentalism is as foreign and offensive to most Christians as Al Qaeda’s theology is to most Muslims.) But the majority of the victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims. According to a 2011 report from the US National Counter Terrorism Center “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.” In other words, attacks like the one in Baga, where extremists killed their co-religionists are far more common than attacks like the ones in Paris, where extremists targeted people of other faiths.
Following the “clash of civilization” narrative leads to demonization of 1.6 billion people, 23% of the world’s population. Understanding that terror disproportionately impacts Muslims makes it clear that terrorism is a tactic, a political and military strategy, not a feature of Islam or any other religion. By mourning the dead both in Paris and Baga, we take a step towards understanding that the enemy is extremism, not Islam.
In the fall and winter of 2013, the writer Rick Moody experienced a set of events designed to change his life. His priest gave him a book, apparently written decades ago (though actually specially crafted just for him), to read with his daughter. It told the story of a secret room, and soon afterwards, Moody was led by friends to his own secret room, a disused hardware store in Brooklyn, where he encountered objects that evoked moments in his life and in the book. Music he encountered in the secret room reoccurred, when the artists orchestrating these events picked Moody up in New York City, flew him to Regina and drove him to an isolated prairie, where he sat in a pavilion made of hay bales and a cellist performed the composition he had previously heard. As the piece escalated, hundreds of performers followed Moody moved through New York, dancing on subway platforms and surrounding him as costumed fools in Brooklyn’s Metrotech Commons. A photo of Moody surrounded by his hundred fools suggests a moment of transcendent bliss.
Moody was the “participant” in a performance titled “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, created by Odyssey Works, which “makes large scale, durational, interdisciplinary performances customized for one-person audiences.” The company has been making work since 2002, but as less than two dozen people have served as the audiences for these works, it’s not surprising you may not have heard of them. Writing about the company’s work in 2012, Chris Colin wrote about the “beautiful inefficiency” of this method of working, the absurd and beautiful idea of an immense effort deployed to create an emotional response in a single person.
Odyssey Works is not alone in crafting experiences designed for a single person. Colin offers some reference points for contextualizing works like “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”: the immersive theatre experiences of Punchdrunk, the producers of “Sleep No More“; works like “You Me Bum Bum Train” that puts a single audience member at the center of a set of scenes in the work. A set of films called “Experiment Ensam” (Experiment Alone) takes experiences normally experienced in a large group – a comedy club, a karaoke bar – and recreates them for a single person. Recently, Experiment Ensam produced a Bob Dylan concert for a single fan, a brief set with Dylan and his touring band at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The performance was filmed with eight cameras and will be released on YouTube later this month, raising questions about whether the audience was Swedish TV personality Fredrik Wikingsson, who attended the concert, or those of us who will watch it online.
These acts of personalized theatre don’t always go well. Jorge Just produced a memorable story for This American Life about Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based troupe that creates theatrical moments in everyday life. (One of their recurrent projects is the “No Pants Subway Ride”, where subways slowly fill up with passengers who are unremarkable but for the fact that they’ve forgotten their pants.) In the “mission” TAL examines, Improv Everywhere tried to give an unknown indie rock band their best gig ever, recruiting an audience to learn their songs, sing along with the performance and shout out requests for the band’s songs. After the initial elation of playing for a large crowd wore off, the members of the band felt like they had been the butt of an elaborate joke, laughed at by the Improv performers and made fun of online. The tension between Improv Everywhere’s good intentions and the damage it caused the band makes Just’s story striking and poignant. Theatre for one is hard to do well.
Odyssey Works may surprise their participants, but it certainly isn’t ambushing them. Participants are selected through a detailed application process, which begins with an online application that asks about a person’s favorite places in her city of residence and her experiences with pieces of art. The company interviews family and friends, both to recruit them into building the experience for the participant, but also to understand what she is likely to be moved or effected by. In preparing “When I Left the House It Was Still Dark”, the producers read all of Moody’s books, interviewed thirty of his family and friends, and visited him several times before designing the work.
Abraham Burickson, co-founder of Odyssey Works, explains the logic behind this process: it’s about discovering the ideal audience for a piece of art. Artists hope their work moves the audience, but it’s a frustratingly inexact process. Armed with a deep understanding of the participant, the company deploys imagery and ideas designed to evoke a more powerful response than they would in an audience as a whole. “Art that affects you — in any medium — is very specific to you. It’s as if you have a set of subjective protein receptors in your creative-appreciation mind, and the piece is so perfectly engineered to your subjectivity that it can break you open for meaning to flood in. We wanted to see if we could achieve that by crafting an experience that would affect someone even more deeply than a randomly arrived-at occurrence might.”
This working method could be deeply creepy if it weren’t so carefully and lovingly done. Part of experiencing one of these artworks is realizing you’ve been under surveillance for months in advance and that hundreds of people have learned intimate details of your life in order to present this experience to you. In a sense, this is what web advertisers and other purveyors of personalization promise. In this case, it’s done poetically and beautifully. In that sense, it reminds me of Yuletide, in which thousands of authors write custom fan fiction stories carefully tailored for the recipient as an especially personal version of “secret Santa”. Because the Odyssey Works pieces are so immersive, Burickson explains that they tend to create a sense of “pronoia”, an irrational belief that the world is conspiring to do wonderful things on your behalf.
For reasons I cannot explain, the images crafted for Moody – particularly that of a cellist performing a composition in a prairie outside Regina, Saskatchewan – are some of the most moving I’ve recently encountered. They make me wonder about the mechanics of this method – am I responding to imagery that Moody and I happen to share? (I resonate with the prairie, but not the idea of the Cloister, the secret room Moody explores, which seems designed to connect with Moody’s Catholic background and doesn’t trigger a similar receptor in me, a fundamentalist Unitarian.) Or are Burickson and colleagues creating powerful images, inspired by Moody, but elegantly crafted to connect with a wide range of receptive audiences? By identifying an image that resonates profoundly for Moody, are they inadvertently creating deeply potent ideas that would resonate for anyone who encountered them?
Since reading about Odyssey Works, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea. I don’t actually want to be a participant in one of these pieces – it’s overwhelming to think about accepting a gift of that magnitude. Instead, I want to understand what Odyssey Works created and what Moody experienced, to the point where I’m thinking about approaching magazine editors to pitch the story so I’d have the chance to interview Moody, Burickson and his collaborators.
It’s as if Burickson and his colleagues have created a work just for me, not a performance, but an impossibly fertile idea of making art that expands beyond the edges of the page and into every aspect of a viewer’s life. For all I know, the few articles I’ve read are part of an elaborate fiction designed to evoke a particular set of reactions in me as part of a carefully crafted artwork I did not consent to, but am enjoying nevertheless.
In 1994, when I was still pretending to be an artist, my art school roommates and I began designing an elaborate, multi-website fantasy, something that would later be described as an alternate reality game. (One of my roommates was filmmaker Jackie Goss, and we were extending a film she’d made about young women growing antlers.) We never progressed beyond sketches, in part because we never could figure out who we wanted to discover these sites and what we hoped they’d make of them. Twenty years later, there’s something lovely about discovering the same idea, done so well and towards such a beautiful goal.
I wasn’t expecting the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. I was disappointed and outraged, but not surprised. Unfortunately, the response of local and state government in Ferguson to the shooting and subsequent protest raised serious doubts about the fairness of those institutions. Furthermore, there’s a dispute at the center of the Michael Brown case as to what happened when Wilson confronted Brown. While I agree with Ezra Klein’s conclusion that Wilson’s story is “literally unbelievable” and find his reading of the testimony of Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown’s friend and witness to his death, more compelling, I find it possible to understand how a grand jury could take Wilson’s word over Johnson’s.
But I was surprised that Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for the death of Eric Garner. I shouldn’t have been. Police officers are very rarely indicted for on-duty shootings (WSJ reference), and only two New York City police officers have been indicted for killing in the line of duty since the 1960s. In addition, Staten Island is whiter, more conservative and more sympathetic to the police than the rest of New York City, suggesting that an indictment was less likely there than in other parts of the city.
Still, there was the video.
There’s not much uncertainty about what happened in the moments before Eric Garner was killed. We’ve seen the argument between Garner and Pantaleo, the group of armed police officers wrestling Garner to the ground, the choke hold Pantaleo performs on Garner, the desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe.” More damning in some ways is the video shot after Garner has been brought to the ground, depicting a group of officers apparently more focused on limiting access to the crime scene than in attempting to save Garner’s life with CPR or another intervention. As Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, told reporters: “I couldn’t see how a grand jury could vote and say there was no probable cause… What were they looking at? Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?”
In 1991, when Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase, a bystander’s video brought the violation of his civil rights to national attention, leading to indictment, prosecution and to rioting when King’s abusers were acquitted. The King video was shaky and blurry, but it was damning, at least in the court of public opinion.
Two decades later, most Americans carry cameras with them all the time, and surveillance cameras are a pervasive feature of the built environment. Video of King’s encounter with the police was unusual at the time. Now, situations like Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, where there is no witness, surveillance or police dash camera video, are becoming the unusual cases.
One of President Obama’s responses to the Ferguson protests has been an announcement that he will seek $75 million in Congressional funding to make 50,000 body cameras available to police forces. Given the massive federal funding that has allowed US police forces to acquire military equipment to wage the putative war on terror, this seems like a step that’s both reasonable and overdue. But given the apparent disconnect between the footage of Garner’s killing and the grand jury’s decision, it’s clear the relationship between cameras and justice is more complicated than it appears at first glance.
Requiring police to wear body cameras likely has a prophylactic effect. Officers know their actions are being watched and know that disciplinary action (short of having criminal charges filed against them) is more likely to result from abuse than when their actions were unmonitored. complaints against police officers in Rialto, CA fell 88% a year after body cameras were put into use in 2012. Other departments have seen significant decreases in complaints by mandating the use of dashboard cameras in police vehicles. Apparently, the panopticon shapes the behavior of the officers being watched in much the way Foucault predicted: the combination of the perpetual possibility of surveillance and a disciplinary culture shapes behavior. What’s not clear is whether the panopticon still works when surveilled behavior is revealed to be consequence free. (It’s likely that there will be consequences for Pantaleo, as he has been stripped of his badge and faces an internal investigation. Wilson has left the Ferguson police force. Those professional consequences are small consolation to the families of the dead men.)
If pervasive cameras help prevent bad behavior but don’t eliminate it, they have another consequence as well: they make police abuse visible to the general public. Yesterday, I heard a closed-door briefing from Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP’s legal defense and education fund. She began by explaining that we are not experiencing an unusual wave of police abuse. Instead, pervasive cameras and the ability to share stories and mobilize via social media mean that we’re seeing far more of these stories. The last two weeks have added two new names to the vast list of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement: Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy shot by a Cleveland police officer while playing in a park, and Rumain Brisbon, a 34-year old father of four, shot by a Phoenix police officer.
Ifill argues that these incidents have been distressingly common for many years, a contention supported by Pro Publica’s research suggesting that black Americans are more than 20 times more likely to be shot by police than white Americans. (Figures from the FBI suggest, though, that we may be experiencing a higher level of police shooting than in years past.) What’s unusual is that these incidents, which generally receive only local news coverage, are being seen by activists – and increasingly, by the general public – as part of a pattern of racism, implicit bias and over-reliance on violence on the part of law enforcement. The shooting of Tamir Rice would have been a tragedy for the young man’s family and community (and yes, for the officer, who will live with the guilt of killing an innocent young man for the rest of his life); now it is also a rallying point for a national movement demanding justice and change.
It’s possible that Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice, will be indicted, though unlikely. Revelations that Loehmann had been determined to be unfit for duty by another Ohio police department combined with the Justice deparment’s censure of the Cleveland police department might put sufficient pressure on prosecutors to bring Loehmann to trial. But let’s consider what will happen if Loehmann is not indicted. Surveillance video shows that Loehmann shot Rice two seconds after his police cruiser arrived at the park pavilion where Rice was sitting. Much as the video of Garner being choked into submission and death makes Pantaleo’s narrative hard to accept, it is impossible to reconcile the footage of Rice’s shooting with Loehmann’s assertions that Rice was warned before he was shot.
Widespread availability of video footage combined with a legal culture unwilling to indict police officers has a likely outcome: further erosion of trust in law enforcement, the judicial system and other public institutions. Faced with imagery that depicts criminal negligence and a legal system that fails to prosecute these actions, the net effect of this imagery is the (further) loss of face in government institutions. Add to this another factor, documented by Micah Sifry in his new book, “The Big Disconnect”. Social media has demonstrated a great ability to organize challenges to power, as in the Arab Spring, but has been frustratingly ineffective in helping build new systems or reform existing ones. It’s easy to imagine a situation in which imagery erodes trust, mobilizes dissent and does little to channel that dissent into paths towards change.
I desperately wish that body cameras were a single, simple solution to police violence against black men. It’s hugely encouraging that use of force was reduced by 60% in Rialto, CA after cameras were introduced, but that reduction is a tribute not just to the technology but to a departmental commitment to culture change. Eliminating disproportionate violence against black men requires training officers so they don’t fire weapons within seconds of an encounter, addressing the implicit bias that allows an officer like Loehmann to overestimate the age and danger of Tamir Rice, and changing a culture of policing that leads too many officers to view their workplace as a war zone, not a community they live in. It requires reforming a prosecutorial culture that is too comfortable with law enforcement, and finding new ways for oversight over America’s tens of thousands of independent police departments. It requires gun control, so that police officers are not – justifiably – concerned that any encounter with a suspect could end in gunfire.
Sharing images of the unforgivable violence against Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others is a necessary but not sufficient step towards change. At best, the knowledge that the world is watching may help slow the hand of a police officer’s hand and keep a confrontation from turning violent. But the contradiction between these unforgettable images and these unjust institutional responses is infuriating, alienating and socially damaging.