A cultural content comparison and analysis, this paper looks at the framing and portrayal of non-routine and violent collective action, comparing and contrasting how they are portrayed in fictional films versus real-life news clips. This includes a discussion of how US culture and society talks about different incidents of rebellion, as well as how it views the use of violence in achieving the goals of a movement. The piece examines how different types of media portray non-routine collective action, and especially, how that might affect the way society responds to these events. In feature films about violent collective action, those using violence to fight against powerful regimes are usually portrayed as heroic, while at the same time, news media depicts people involved in real life action as criminals, with each portrayal affecting how these events are viewed by US society. Such media portrayals results in a disconnect to how US society views fictional rebellion versus when it happens in real life.
From Harlem to Baltimore: The Cycle of Race Riots in American Ghettos
For much of American history, race-related rioting has been a common occurrence in large cities around the country, and especially in Northern cities. In “Race, Space, and Riots,” author Janet T. Abu-Lughod covers six different race-related riots that occurred between the 1960s and the 1990s, examining them in-depth to discuss possible causes and results of the riots, as well as to compare and contrast them. Unsurprisingly, many of her findings can be found in more recent race-related riots, and in particular, in the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. Both in the cases presented by Abu-Lughod and the more recent cases in Ferguson and Baltimore, the riots, while often triggered by instances of police violence against African-Americans, often had underlying causes that societal and governmental parties have seemingly failed to address, therefore resulting in the circular trend that made Ferguson and Baltimore possible so many decades after Watts or Bed-Stuyvesant.
At first glance, the cause of nearly all race-related riots seems to be a simple variation of Breakdown Theory, in which police violence is perpetrated against an African-American (usually male, as incidents involving African-American women tend to receive less attention), usually resulting in death, and in response, the nearby community retaliates in anger and frustration. This appeared to be the case in then Harlem riots in 1964, where the “trigger was an altercation . . . that escalated . . . after an off-duty white policeman shot and killed the youth” (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 24). However, an entire riot cannot be summed up so easily, and in truth, 1960s riots “were not just about police brutality,” usually occurring “in the context of an economic recession whose effects appeared first in black areas” (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 25). In this, the riots of the 60s, while perhaps set off by police violence, were often a culmination of poor conditions, with goals larger than mere accountability and police reform.
In the incidents explored in Abu-Lughod’s book, all of the riots took place in “’ghettos’” that “exploded in anger and frustration in the 1960s,” with the ghettos of course being impoverished and usually overpopulated city areas of segregated African-American communities (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 23). This statement touches upon the fact that each of these incidents of non-routine collective action occurred not within a vacuum, but within a situation of decades upon decades of inequality, segregation, and poor economic standing, wherein attempts to peacefully resolve these issues were often met with excuses and assertations of impossibility. While Abu-Lughod does not necessarily claim that the main cause of the riots in the 60s and 90s was segregation and economic inequality, it is made clear that they were major contributing factors.
Despite this, responses to the riots in both understanding their causes and attempting to prevent further violence mostly failed to consider these aspects. Even when the federally funded Kerner Report recommended housing reform, these recommendations went “unfunded until concern receded, along with the violence, lapsing into . . . neglect until the problem resurfaced a generation later” (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 7). Then, of course, it resurfaced the generation after that, with the potential to continue on in a cycle unless these larger issues are resolved. In the case of Chicago, the city “remained as residentially segregated as it had been before the 1968 riot,” even despite attempts to address the segregation (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 28). Again and again, the response to race related riots was the same, with onlookers and media outlets asking “not why African Americans were confined to “ghettos” but why “they” were burning down their own communities,” entirely ignoring the factors that led to the riots, as if seeing them as simple examples of Breakdown Theory (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 3). Just as issues of segregation and economic inequality have persisted alongside police brutality, this type of viewpoint of riots has carried on to more recent events.
Often when today’s media talks about the events of Ferguson and Baltimore, it focuses both on the killings of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray that preceded these riots, as well as the issue of African-Americans in each place destroying property in their own communities, treating the riots as sudden outbursts of anger, and usually ignoring the long, ongoing histories of racial inequalities in each location. In the Washington Post article “From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Consequences of government-sponsored segregation, Valerie Strauss focuses on these inequalities and how they have built up to the riots seen in these places.
Strauss even brings the discussion back to the 60s, wherein “following hundreds of riots in black neighborhoods nationwide, a commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson concluded that ‘[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal’ and that ‘[s]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans’” (Strauss, 2015). This statement speaks to what Abu-Lughod was discussing, and Strauss goes even further to discuss that lower class African-Americans “are more segregated now than they were in 1968” (Strauss, 2015). In Baltimore, for example, the city “is now 64 percent black while the suburban counties surrounding it . . . are only 23 percent black” (Strauss, 2015). As such, in this same city where racially-charged riots broke out earlier this year, there were segregated conditions similar to those in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City in the 1960s. Furthermore, Strauss discusses similar persisting economic equality in which “the African-American unemployment rate is 18 percent, more than twice the white rate of 7 percent,” and in which “nationwide, black family incomes are now about 60 percent of white family incomes,” and “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth” (Strauss, 2015). The conditions in Baltimore leading up the riots then, were deplorable for African-Americans, and much was the same in Ferguson.
According the Strauss, “virtually every one of the racially explicit federal, state, and local policies of segregation pursued in St. Louis has a parallel in policies pursued by government in Baltimore,” meaning that, as Abu-Lughod suggested, little has changed in US cities regarding segregation and economic equality, therefore leading to a continuation of those riots which occurred decades ago. Even while Abu-Lughod and Strauss each acknowledge the not unimportant role played by violent and lethal incidents of police brutality, Strauss sums up the argument by explaining “the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing,” but about addressing systematically produced inequality in wealth, income, and housing (Strauss, 2015). They each then discuss the true fear, which is that “without suburban integration, something barely on today’s public policy agenda, ghetto conditions will persist, giving rise to aggressive policing and the riots that inevitably ensue,” and will inevitably never stop until the country addresses the underlying, systematic institutions of inequality that create these conditions (Strauss, 2015). While there is no doubt for either author that racially-charged riots have made some achievements and have well-thought out goals, it is clear that the reaction of media and those in power to the riots have resulted in reactions which fail to truly address what is occurring. If the pattern continues, then, so will the riots.
- Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
- Strauss, Valerie. “From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Consequences of Government-sponsored Segregation.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 3 May 2015. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/05/03/from-ferguson-to-baltimore-the-consequences-of-government-sponsored-segregation/>.
Students Unheard; UMW’s Communication Problem
Op-ed for the Blue and Gray Press
Last year, during the Spring semester of 2015, I was at a rally outside of the Jepson Alumni Center, were UMW Board of Visitor members were meeting, and purportedly discussing issues which were brought up by members of a student body group called Divest. The protest, as many of you reading this likely already know, was with regards to arrests which were made on campus at the instruction of the school’s administration. Two students and one Fredericksburg community member were arrested for refusing to leave a student sit-in organized by Divest, whose demands to the school revolved around divesting from fossil fuels for the sake of the environment. Frustrated by the administration’s decision, members of Divest and many other UMW students, myself included, went to the Board meeting only days later to protest not only the arrests (all three arrested have since been found not guilty in Fredericksburg’s court), but to protest the Board’s refusal to take divestment into consideration. It was at this protest that I was witness to some of the most disappointing actions I have ever seen, perpetrated by school administrators and board members.
Our Vice President of Student Affairs at the time, Doug Searcy, came out of the building soon after we arrived. We started chanting at him, and continued to do so as he got into his car, going to pull out of the parking lot. His window was open, at first, for what reason I don’t know, but as he drove past the mass of 100 or so students, he rolled his window up.
These were students who felt voiceless; who felt that their school’s administration was failing to listen to them, or even care what they had to say, and instead of taking a few minutes to hear what they had to say, our own Vice President rolled his window up, and drove off. Unfortunately, he was not the only person to disappoint me that day. While we were there, the two students who had been arrested both stood up to speak. Each of them, in turn, directly called out the school’s administration and board of visitors as members of those groups were nearby. In each of these situations, the staff member walked away from the students while they were being addressed. One of these men was Marty Wilder, UMW Chief of Staff and BOV Clerk. The other was our university President, Richard Hurley. Of the other board members who were at that meeting, none but Edd Houck spared a moment to talk to the students gathered there that day.
At another incident, in which members of Divest spoke with President Hurley, he said something that for me, caused a lot of frustration. I was not present for this occurrence, but multiple people have relayed the general events to me. During the course of conversation, when students asked if he would continue to stay neutral on issues such as divestment, he replied; ‘I think that’s what I’m paid to do.’ In that same conversation he mentioned that his loyalty is to the board, thereby implying that it is not, in fact, to the students whose university he presides over. Both of these responses solidified in the mind of students present that their voice does not matter to the administration, and they had almost no power within the university.
Earlier that same semester, a controversial party was held by members of the student body, in which students dressed up as racist stereotypes of Mexican Americans. Now many of these students likely did not understand the harm they were doing, and many of them later apologized, and some of them completed community service as restitution. The issue I take now is not with them, despite the potential harm of their offense. This party took place sometime in February, and the administration found out fairly soon after. Instead of communicating to the student body about what had happened, they decided to keep the incident under wraps. I myself did not hear about the incident until weeks later, and only then because I was highly involved in student groups on campus. In fact, the only public mention our administration made about it was an email sent out mid-March by President Hurley. The email was referring to both this incident and another, but discussed them in no clearer terms than “recent situations in which our students (groups and individuals) have engaged in behaviors that” President Hurley found “repugnant and highly offensive to members of our community” (Hurley, 2015).
The second incident referred to in this email was of course the now infamous chant performed by members of the men’s rugby team. The chant itself referred to and glorified mutilation, rape, necrophilia, and violence against women, and had taken place the semester before, in November of 2014. The email above was the first time the school ever publically addressed the incident, and was written in such vague terms that none who did not already know what had happened could have no idea of what it referred to. That same day, students on campus asked the president that he be more clear about what had happened, fearing that a lack of transparent communication would result in retaliation against women on campus. I was in that room, and I recall very clearly President Hurley stating that he would prefer the information being spread ‘through the student grapevine.’ As I’m sure most of you remember, our fears proved true almost immediately. Only a day later, President Hurley did send a follow-up email going into more specific detail about the incident, and announcing the suspension of the men’s rugby club (and making no mention of the racist party), but it was too little, far too late. Each of these incidents were evidence of racist culture and rape culture on campus, and although thankfully, neither incident involved physical violence, such cultures often result in decreased safety for women and people of color.
Given this fact, students have the right to know about incidents like these on their own campus. Students have the right to know about the environment they are paying to live and learn in, and the school has a responsibility to inform them. Over the past year or so, each of these incidents I’ve spoken of have stirred some controversy amongst students on campus. Despite this; regardless of your opinions about divestment or about how the school ought to handle incidents that violate school policy, one thing is clear; communication is key. Communication can be nothing but beneficial, and certainly, better communication by the UMW administration may have resolved these recent issues with far less difficulty and frustration on either ends. The University of Mary Washington is a public university, and therefore, its priority is its students. Its priority should be listening to what its students have to say, and being honest, open, and communicative in return. Hopefully this fact is taken into consideration as the school searches for its next president.
Hurley, Richard M. “Re: Message from President Hurley. Message to Undisclosed Recipients. 18 March 2015. e-Mail.
Falls Church Plan to End Homelessness
In 2008, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted a “Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in the Fairfax-Falls Church Community.” The plan and its implementation had been in talks for a little over year, and it was finally set into motion in March of 2008. The main goal of the plan is that by 2016, every person in the community will access and maintain decent, safe, and affordable housing. The plan is about 26 pages long, but still manages to provide a fairly accurate overview of the homelessness and housing situation as well as a detailed strategy to solve this problem. The plan overall is presented logically and easy to follow, with an important and valuable apparent focus on inclusion, collaboration, and community input.
The plan starts off with a list of values that explain both the reasons for needing the plan, as well as the way in which it was developed, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. Next, the plan discusses the history of collaboration between community and local government, with funds from private foundations (as was the case with STICC donors in New Orleans), in previous handling of homelessness in the area, all of which led to written strategies that were presented to the community in 2006. Next is a list of people on the planning committee, a mix of government and non-profit employees, community members, someone from a housing and development corporation, and one representative of Freddie Mac, one of the foundations helping with funds. Next, there are several pages dedicated to the state and demographics of homelessness in the area at the time the plan was written, in 2006, with the total homeless population adding up to 2,077 individuals.
Following the demographic breakdown was an overview of the then available shelters and housing for the homeless population, including the very limited transitional and permanent housing available, making it clear that the needs of the population were not being met. The next section of the plan focuses on the challenges in providing affordable housing, with a focus on prices in the area rising faster than wages, and especially those of low-income workers. These topics take up just under the first half of the plan, and establish homelessness and unavailability of affordable housing as a serious housing in the Falls Church area. The next chapter then focuses on the end goals of the plan, with a housing first approach that focuses on first providing housing in order to transition people out of homelessness; therefore establishing affordable housing as the main goal of the plan, as it is beneficial both morally and fiscally.
The next chapter of the plan then focuses on the details of the steps needed to carry out the plan. In it, four key strategies are put forward:
- “Strategy #1: Prevent homelessness due to economic crisis and/or disability.
- Strategy #2: Preserve and increase the supply of affordable housing to prevent or remedy homelessness.
- Strategy #3: Deliver appropriate support services to obtain and maintain stable housing.
- Strategy #4: Create a management system for plan implementation with the collaboration of the public and private sectors that ensures adequate financial resources and accountability.” (Community Plan, 2006)
The plan goes on to describe these strategies in detail, before finally finishing up with a few logistics, including a discussion of cost, of gaining support and resources from politicians and community members, and a final call to action reiterating the need for the plan.
This plan has a lot of strong points. For one, it goes into great detail on each strategic point, detailing what’s to be done in certain situations to both prevent and deal with homelessness, rather than leaving the strategy in vague, often unachievable, terms. One especially strong point too, is the plan’s inclusion of the importance of educating the community on the issue of homelessness, both to inform those in need, as well as to ensure support from the community itself.
Furthermore, the plan’s focus on collaboration of community, non-profit, and governmental organizations is one that not only allows input from all relevant parties, but one that is proven to work for other issues in Fairfax County. This collaboration, as well as the direct involvement of community members in both the creation of the plan itself as well as its implementation, helps avoid the problems faced by communities dealing with non-profits in Arena’s book. In the examples provided by Arena, non-profits tended to decide what needed to be done, while in collaboration with private foundations, without really consulting with the community itself. From this plan, however, community members appear to have a say, and the clear main focus of the plan is ending homelessness, wherein fiscal benefits are secondary, and generally gained by the county itself rather than outside parties. The main potential flaw in this plan, unfortunately, is one that it seems would be difficult to avoid, given the limited resources and budget provided by the government. This therein is the funding provided by private foundations such as Freddie Mac, as well as their inclusion on the planning committee (Arena, 85).
This situation provides some room for issues that were brought up by Arena, with private foundations using their funds to control public projects in their favor. However, this does not mean this is automatically the case, as the foundations could merely be providing funds and backing off. This plan, however, fails to clarify their role in the plan, and indeed does not much mention where funding will come from overall, though it does project long-term savings as a result of following the plan. Overall, the Fairfax- Falls Church Community Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness is a fairly solid plan, with strengths of collaboration and inclusion that appear to outweigh its potential flaws, and, if implemented correctly, should serve to work fairly well, provided the facts within the plan are accurate.
- Arena, John. Driven from New Orleans How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2012. Print.
Fairfax County Court: A Victim-Centered Approach?
In Fairfax County, Virginia, victims and survivors of domestic violence might go to court for one of two reasons; civil court, to file a protective order, or criminal court, to participate in a trial. The court system regarding domestic violence includes three major parties. The first are county judges, who are appointed via election in the Virginia legislature. The second group consists of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court intake office, which is made up of non-elected employees. The last party consists of non-elected, government-funded employees of the local domestic violence advocacy agency. For my project, I observed proceedings in civil and criminal court regarding domestic violence cases, and determined whether the way the local court system is setup helps or harms domestic violence victims. From my observations, I found that the way the system was setup allowed for a lot of inconsistency and unreliability, creating a shaky system for victims and survivors seeking help from the court.