Protests, Looting and the Media Gaze

It seems having a camera is as essential to a modern protest as the bongo drum probably was at my father’s protests in the 60’s (sorry dad, was that a low blow?). Independent media is the glue of a movement and in some cases – a moment.

In memory of Oscar Grant

Last Friday in the aftermath of the Johannes Mehserle trial Oakland Local, The Bay Citizen and myself (representing met up at Tech Liminal to cover Oakland’s reaction.

Tech Liminal is great. Susan Mernit and I have used it several times now for various events. It is located just 3-4 blocks away from where protesters were gathering after the verdict was announced. There is lots to write about this from the perspective of new media. It was an adrenaline filled night where various organizations and groups working together to produced fantastic coverage. I played the smallest of roles, but was honored to be there.

But that’s not what I want to write about here. Instead, I want to write about the ethos of the event itself. About race, riots and the media.

Before 8:00pm the event was very safe. There were people of all ages – children and the elderly. There was tension, to say the least, but it was maintained.
I am Oscar Grant
Police line

After 8:00pm the demographics and mood shifted. After the sun went down, that shift became more radical.

At the same time, however, I could not (and will not) refer to it as a “riot,” although that might be a technical term to describe it. When I picture I riot, I imagine utter chaos. Physical danger in every direction and no group cohesion. I picture a large and sprawling bar fight. April 29th – 1992 in Los Angeles (where I grew up) was a riot. But what happened last weekend was not a riot. It was much too civil and directed.

At no time did I feel threatened by looters. I’m not complaining about this – just noting it. There was anger and there were acts of violence – but they were not chaotic. They were directed at either local businesses or the police. While this may seem obvious – you must consider the potential chaos that could erupt at a protest-turned-looting. If two of the wrong people bump into each other – it could easily turn into a riot. At least – that’s how I imagine soccer match riots start. But even at this scene I don’t think any two participants could have bumped into each other to cause a fight – except a protester and a police officer. All bystanders had peaceful relations with all other bystanders.

Which brings us to the awkward media gaze. This was not a chaotic event – it was staged. As one friend put it – this was a flash mob of violence. The protesters played their role. The police knew their lines and the looters knew their ques. And the whole thing was staged for the media.

“Media” of course is broadly understood. It was interesting to see the blurred lines between protester and media producer. Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, had a recording device of some sort.  It seems having a camera is as essential to a modern protest as the bongo drum probably was at my father’s protests in the 60’s (sorry dad, was that a low blow?). Media is the glue of a movement and in this case – the glue of a moment.

The best existential moment for me was when a trash can was set on fire. At that time a dozen photographers, including myself, moved in to take pictures. The trash can was the celebrity of the night and we were no better than paparazzi capturing a photograph of Brittany Spears with a shaved head.
Trash Can on Fire

The arsonist knew this would grab attention and photos. I suspect this is part of the reason it was done. And let’s be honest – part of the reason so many media folks were there was to capture that photo (and others).

The whole thing wreaked of a cycle that did not lead to anything other than insurance claims and extra hits on a website.

As one protester put it to me in the later hours of the night, after everything calmed down – “we are like analog watches in a digital age.” The looting is an act of protest and violence – but even those participating know it is not lashing out at those people the protesters wanted to reach. I would be hard pressed to find a community activist who would argue that the best use of somebody’s night during the protest would be to set a trash can on fire or loot the Footlocker. Nor do I believe the looters thought this.

There is no conclusion to this post. No great revelation – just an observation and an ugly feeling that is left in my gut when I think about this event.

Perhaps some day I should write a longer post about race and my relationship to what is arguably the defining conversation of our country. I went to public schools in Los Angeles where being white made me a minority. It was an eye opening experience and one that, now in my late 20’s, I want to take the time to reflect on.

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