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An Epidemic of Opioid Documentaries — Who Is that Stranger with a Camera?

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It’s been more than five years since documentary filmmaker Sean Dunne of Peekskill, NY, released Oxyana. The IMDb description reads, “The ‘Hillbilly Heroin’ epidemic that’s slowly rotting the soul of rural America.”

As the film begins, a harrowing mist rolls over the hillsides and wooded ridges of Oceana, WV , while a lo-fi guitar score hums. When describing the small, rural town and recent events, a local dentist shares, “It’s incredible and amazing and awful, all at the same time,” as he slouches on an examining table. He laments that it became difficult to appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape as complex social and material problems emerged in his community. He felt haunted by its new reality.

He’s right — Oceana’s beauty is complex. Oxyana’s B reels hardly neglect that. At first, the filmmaker nails a distinct “West Virginianness” — the moodiness of low, ambient dream-haze lighting at roadside service shops at midnight, the lull and familiarity of winding back roads and passing by locals sitting on porches at dusk. The grit of the atmosphere and the grit under your fingernails. Coal lurches up impossibly long conveyor belts to be processed, ethereal fog obscures a full moon, and dew coats the windows of broken down 1970s Winnebagos parked between lush pine trees. West Virginia, like most places, is complex, and Oxyana pays careful attention to intimate glimpses of beauty in contraction, albeit peripherally.

Since the film’s release and subsequent acceptance into the documentary film milieu, the concept of the “opioid crisis” as a long-form documentary genre has emerged. Several independent films have joined Oxyana in undertaking the daunting task of documenting events leading up to and as a result of a public health crisis. Many weigh in on factors leading to the emergence of the American opioid crisis, making the normative claim that the monumental rise in licit and illicit opioid use and trafficking in rural American communities is wrought by irresponsible and unethical decisions made by doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

It’s worth noting, however, that not all documentary films are directed by filmmakers who are intimately familiar with the communities they profile, and Appalachian people have long been exploited by visiting photographers and documentarians.

In 1964, and in the wake of President Johnson’s ongoing war on poverty, photojournalist John Dominis captured images of residents of eastern Kentucky communities as a part of a photo series, titled “The Valley of Poverty,” for the contemporaneously popular LIFE magazine. Therein exists an even more uncomfortable reality that poverty tourism was once a common practice in eastern Kentucky.

The “Valley of Poverty” dispatch aimed to illuminate ongoing Depression Era wealth inequality, which was palpably evident in Appalachian Kentucky, but the photos, in many ways, reduced their subjects to nameless stand-ins for the socioeconomic challenges they themselves and their region faced. To Dominis, their valley appeared “lonely,” their homes “ruins,” and their children “urchins.”

OXYANA TRAILER from Sean Dunne on Vimeo.

Indie film buffs will recognize Oxyana’s Dunne as the creator of a breakout short film, American Juggalo, released in September 2011, which debuted at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Juggalo functions as a sardonic, searingly funny biopic of the lives of a fiercely devoted subculture of followers of the Insane Clown Posse. A once-underground cohort of hip-hop artists hailing from Detroit’s working-class neighborhoods, I.C.P. boats an extensive discography and a loyal following of fans who immerse themselves in the music’s carnival themed lore and macabre motifs.

The laughs are cheap, however. A few views of the 24-minute long film and it’s nearly blatant that the director doesn’t seem to be laughing with the Dark Carnival. In reality, the film is laughing at a quirky fandom of individuals who are merely observing the working class tradition of finding relief, comradery and joy despite everyday pains and monotony through exploring music and culture.

The Juggalos and Juggalettes show the filmmakers how they cut loose and share with Dunne and his crew that the Gathering is the best weekend of their year. The Gathering of the Juggalos seems … eclectic — for lack of a kinder word — to outsiders. It’s no secret that I.C.P. and their fans have found little else but ridicule from onlookers since the Carnival’s inception. But to the Juggalo “family,” as they lovingly refer to one another, it’s meaningful. And to some, the Gathering is the only place where they truly feel accepted and embraced by a community who chooses to love them unconditionally, despite their status in “the real world.”

Juggalo’s dialogue reveals that, most of all, these people are genuinely happy, belting out the ubiquitous “whoop whoop” refrain each chance they get, and maybe — as bystanders — we shouldn’t knock it until we’ve tried it.

Watch the short and you’ll notice that Oxyana begins with Dunne’s newfound curiosity of Juggalo culture. Oxyana‘s opening scene is a short dialogue between the film crew and a man living in Wyoming County, WV, who had just lost a loved one. The man’s account becomes the focal point of the film, sharing intimate truths about the many ways opioid use has shaped his recent life. While holding an autographed shirt with I.C.P.’s hatchet man logo, he shares that it was his loved one’s “pride and joy.” He reveals that he recently lost him to an overdose and was struggling with his loss, holding on to a memento that was special to him in life.

I.C.P. has thousands of loyal followers across the U.S. It seems fairly innocuous that a 30-something man would be a member of the “Juggalo family.” I wondered if the filmmaker found the dialogue to be meaningful enough to be an introductory scene because it was such a palpably relatable depiction of loss. It calls the viewer to remember the longing and heartbreak associated with holding onto the last remnants you have to hold after losing a loved one. On the other hand, Dunne has made a career of mocking I.C.P.’s fans and their subculture, directing a narrative that their beloved cultural markers are garish, obnoxious, and honestly, trashy.

Juggalos gather at the National Mall for the Juggalo March in 2017. Photo by Blink O’fanaye on Flickr.

He chose to begin a long-form documentary that investigates the social and cultural conditions of a southern West Virginia community experiencing unforseen hardships with an “easter egg” Juggalo reference, and honestly, it’s difficult to ignore. Could it be that the scene reveals that Dunne was unintentionally othering his Appalachian film subjects in the same vein that he mocked the Gathering? The subject revealed a special vulnerability that comes with grieving. And I couldn’t ignore the place the scene had in context with Dunne’s earlier work.

The pain of Oceana’s residents is real. Dunne and producers show bleary-eyed, unfiltered accounts of the way opioid addiction has moved through their lives. However, the scene was an uncomfortable reminder that Oxyana’s narrative was never in the hands of those living in Oceana, West Virginia, no matter how well-intentioned its filmmakers were.

Over the past ten years, a documentarian has visited my own hometown to create a similar project.

The documentary trailer features B reel footage—supplemental footage used as “filler” between the main shots—of people intravenously using heroin as often as landscapes. The documentarian periodically visits East Liverpool, OH, to collect material for a documentary and photo-series “project.”

A voiceover explains that there’s nothing worthwhile here. People come here to die.

It’s clear that the filmmaker joins Dunne in conveying a similar message communicated by Oxyana: East Liverpool, too, is hardly more than a community in crisis.

The project offers “industrial de-evolution” as a wholesale diagnosis of our community’s problems without historical context of which of East Liverpool’s native industries no longer function or what led production to a halt. Glum, dreary footage and stills of buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes barely look like the same places I grew up.

My classmates, neighbors and people my mother taught as a high school teacher are depicted wearing outdated, tattered clothing, posed lifelessly in cluttered rooms of working-class homes. Images of the community are devoid of joy. Stereotypical misrepresentations of what people and cultural landmarks in our region look like abound. The systemic issues that these communities face are specters that render the community entirely dysfunctional.

Although I’m not an expert on the function of the “gaze” in art and film, it’s clear to me that the documentary filmmakers and photojournalists that visit Appalachia from elsewhere enter our communities with preconceived notions about who lives here and what struggles we face, effectively leading to inaccurate reporting and their own unconscious social distancing from their subjects.

In spite of everything, I don’t find it difficult to find beauty in places like Oceana or East Liverpool. Like other Appalachian communities, our relationship to more than a century of the presence of extractive industries in our region has compounded complex social problems, which over time have led to the public health crisis symptomatic of the emergence of a new extractive industry: pharmaceutical companies.

But our communities are not defined by the social problems we have no fault in generating, just as individuals and lives are not defined by their struggles with addiction and recovery. Most of all, Appalachian people should have the agency to direct new and extant narratives about their communities and those that do create seminal, revelatory works that uncover truths that would have been otherwise slighted by others.

As a long-form documentary genre focused on the opioid crisis and its cultural reverberations emerges, it becomes evidently clear that those that irresponsibly visit the region, who mistakenly engage in inaccurate reporting and misrepresentation of subjects, contribute to longstanding stereotypes about people in the region, leave and profit from their findings just might have more in common with exemplars of extractive industries that have shaped the Appalachia we know.

Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.

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The Tree of Life shooting devastated all of Pittsburgh. I can’t help but ask: Why aren’t Black lives mourned this way?

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The entire community should grieve over the Tree of Life tragedy, writes Tereneh Idia, but she wonders: "Why is there such a double standard? If all lives matter, why aren’t Black lives mourned this way?" Photo: Ryan Loew/PublicSource

In the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy, where 11 Jewish worshippers were killed by a white supremacist terrorist, the world heard from elected officials, professional sports teams and even national celebrities that in Pittsburgh we, “Love Thy Neighbor, No Exceptions.”

Many in Pittsburgh’s African-American community wondered what city they were talking about. With little time to grieve and ponder the ramifications of this latest white supremacist violence, African-Americans had to quickly reconcile the onslaught of media describing a city of love that they do not recognize.

As a Falk School and Taylor Allderdice High School alum, Squirrel Hill was a consistent part of my childhood. In a deeply segregated and racist city, Squirrel Hill was one of the few predominantly white neighborhoods where I felt comfortable. After the Tree of Life tragedy, I was in pain not only for the loss of life but also because I understood that as a Black person, white supremacist-motivated killing is also directed at my community.

However, this connection is not being made by many others, particularly those with a broad public platform. Do we see the same outpouring of support and unity when a victim or victims are Black? No.

This is the city where the mayor goes out of his way to clarify that Antwon Rose II, a 17-year-old Black boy gunned down by a police officer, wasn’t killed within city boundaries without offering condolences. (The mayor later apologized). This is the city where its football team has decided to ignore players’ right to protest police violence but readily emblazons “Stronger than Hate” on their cleats to honor the synagogue victims.

Yes, the entire community should grieve over this tragedy. But why is there such a double standard? If all lives matter, why aren’t Black lives mourned this way? I felt isolated by these thoughts and wondered if I was alone.

Through social media, I asked others for their reflections in response to the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy. What follows are thoughts of African-Americans living in Pittsburgh, edited for brevity and clarity. Many have asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal for expressing ideas different from the apparent mainstream.

“There is a keen awareness of the hyper response to and support of these victims, their families, and the broader community vs. the response to Antwon Rose’s murder in June. The idea that our community cannot hold space for both tragedies without being accused of maleficence saddens me. I am hopeful that the entire situation will help Pittsburgh think more critically about how we treat our neighbors and respond in times of strife. Our freedom is bound in and directly tied to a recognition that the struggle against oppression faced by all marginalized communities must be approached as a collective. Our freedom depends on each other.” —“N.W.” 30, North Side

“My experiences in this city as an Afro-Latina have been marred with blatant racism. I don’t even attend certain establishments because of how the bouncers or customers have treated me or other people of color. If we are to stand up to hate as a city and community, it should include everyone who is a victim of hate.” —Krizia Bruno, 20s, Pittsburgh

“I’ve been wondering if this same sense of ‘community’ would be there if this had happened at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church (in Larimer)?” —“H.N.” 40s, Pittsburgh

“Did I miss something? I don’t remember this much support when our people were being attacked… Maybe I’m overlooking something, but in the wake of the recent events, I feel a bit left out in this sense of community.” —”Kidmental” 36, Avalon

“I’ve spent time in several Southern states and I have never received the level of racism as I have experienced here in Pittsburgh. On a daily basis, something happens. I’m consistently correcting people and combating stereotypes. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been called a n*gger!…My poor babies, I’m doing my best to make sure [my children] do not internalize the negativity they receive. Pittsburgh has a long way to go.” —“R.H” 37, Penn Hills

Your Black neighbors also need time and support to heal and deal with the constant battle against racism and/or another tragic killing. “I need to call in Black today” is a phrase used internally by the Black community, a joke to cover the pain of not being given the space to mourn in public, at work or at school when Black blood has been shed.

In the aftermath of the Tree of Life tragedy, the world heard from elected officials, professional sports teams and even national celebrities that in Pittsburgh we, “Love Thy Neighbor, No Exceptions.” Many in Pittsburgh’s African-American community wondered what city they were talking about, writes Tereneh Idia. Photo: Ryan Loew/PublicSource

“Even though I work in a place where political conversations are not held, I dreaded coming in on the Monday after [the synagogue shooting]. [One person] was crying endlessly and between loud sobs, she said, ‘So much hate, so much violence and killing of people who were in their place of worship, nowhere is safe.’ Where was all this talk about hate and violence [before]?” —“L.O.” 60’s, North Side

“I personally feel a distance from this shooting that I am not proud of but am also not hating myself for either. It feels like Squirrel Hill could be in Florida to me. I’ve tried to connect but it isn’t coming. The response of this city and country is also distancing because it shows what Pittsburgh love looks like and so it reminds me of how it doesn’t love Black people — Black children, particularly.” Justin Laing, 30s, Hill District

One of the reasons the Black Lives Matter movement is so important and polarizing is because time and time again we show through our policy, celebrations, media and, in this case, mourning that we as a city and as a country do not value Black lives the same way we do others. This truth breaks my heart.

Every time I see “Pittsburgh Strong” emblazoned on a public bus; every “Stronger Than Hate” post from a friend who has never mentioned the murders of Black and Brown people; every vigil photo posted from a person who said they’d never attend a march, my heart sinks a little. I have to reaffirm my life and my value to myself — if not to this city or to anyone else.

Tereneh Idia is a designer and writer. They can be reached at tereneh@gmail.com.

This story was originally published by PublicSource

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Tech Giants, Free Speech and Hate: Where Do We Go from Here?

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Mourners and passersby left flowers and messages of support and love at the intersection of Wilkins and Murray Avenues about a block away from where the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue took place Saturday, October 27. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days Appalachia

In the past few weeks, America has experienced the deadliest anti-Semitic terrorist attack in its history, the largest political assassination attempt recorded when pipe bombs were mailed to prominent members of the Democratic Party, and the murder of African American grandparents by an avowed white supremacist at a Kroger. Two of these events– the shootings at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a grocery store in Louisville– happened in the heart and on the outskirts of Appalachia.

This comes after the country experienced its deadliest high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, its deadliest mass shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas and the hate-fueled assassination of nine African Americans during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. All of these events happened in just the past four years.

Many recent American terrorist attacks have shared something in common: killers who were radicalized, at least in part, online. For years, extremist groups around the world have used social media networks both to connect with people who share their ideology and to recruit people who may be sympathetic to their beliefs. And now, Americans are seeing the results of homegrown terrorists who use the internet both to become radicalized and to radicalize others.

On Saturday, October 27, Robert Bowers posted on the social media network Gab that Jewish refugee resettlement nonprofit HIAS “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” He continued, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Two hours later, 11 people were shot and killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Prosecutors have charged Bowers with their murders. At the top of his Gab profile were the words, “jews are the children of satan.”

Gab, was founded by Andrew Torba, an avid Trump supporter who says he launched the site because of perceived liberal bias on larger social media sites. Since its inception, Gab has been a favorite of alt-right extremists. Although nothing in the site’s policies references the alt-right or white nationalism, its 2017 annual report brags about having “over 50 million conservative, libertarian, nationalist, and populist internet users from around the world” and notes that “[t]hese users are also actively seeking alternative media platforms like Breitbart.com, DrudgeReport.com, [and] Infowars.com,” three other websites known for promotion of white nationalism.

The day before the Pittsburgh massacre, Cesar Sayok had been arrested in Florida, after allegedly attempting to mail bombs to at least 12 high-profile reporters, liberal activists and Democratic politicians, including Pres. Barrack Obama, George Soros, Hillary Clinton, New York Times reporter Sarah Jeong, and Parkland survivor David Hogg. He had posted numerous threats on Twitter, including, “Your Time is coming,” “Your days are over,” “your next,” and “Hug your loved ones real close everytime U leave your home.” He repeatedly hurled threats at one target at a time, before moving on to the next.

As more details come to light on these men’s internet lives, more people are asking the question — Should tech companies be doing more to shut down hate speech on their platforms?

After Saturday’s massacre at Tree of Life and the revelation of Bowers’ posting history, other tech companies quickly severed ties with Gab. Over the weekend, Gab was removed from app stores, payment processors and hosting providers. By Sunday night, Gab was forced offline. This “de-platforming,” said Gab, was a violation of its right to free speech.

To a growing group of people, mostly on the right, silencing hate speech has become akin to censorship and is perceived as a violation of their First Amendment rights. A growing number of right-wing politicians and pundits have jumped into the debate, with people like Ted Cruz joining the likes of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in equating the enforcement of community guidelines in digital spaces as an act of “tyrannical censorship.”  

The alt-right uses these opportunities to stroke fears of censorship. “If it happens to us,” they ask, “could you be next?” Phrases like “the First Amendment” and “my right to free speech” are often thrown around.

Unfortunately for those who believe any of this is connected to the First Amendment, internet companies silencing hate speech has nothing to do with the constitutionally protected right to free speech. Actions by private companies, by definition, do not violate the First Amendment.

The First Amendment is a limit on the government.

The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Over the centuries, and because of additions to the Constitution, the Supreme Court has found that the First Amendment also applies to state and local governments and the other branches of the federal government, in addition to Congress. But the key is that it only limits the government.

All “free speech” has limits.

Even the most ardent defenders of free speech rights admit that the First Amendment has limits. The Supreme Court has always recognized that certain categories of speech are exempt from protection. These categories include including child pornography, “true threats,” and speech that is both intended and imminently likely to incite violence. This is because these types of speech can have serious, even deadly, consequences, while adding little or no value to public discourse.

For all of its railing against censorship, even Gab has censored users. In August, after Microsoft threatened to drop Gab from its hosting services, Gab removed anti-Semitic posts from a high profile Neo-Nazi who said that Jews should be raised as “livestock’ and he wanted to destroy a “holohoax memorial.” Child pornography has never been allowed. And Utsar Sanduja, the now-former Gab COO, reported threats he received on Gab to law enforcement. These, too, are limits on speech.

Private companies have First Amendment rights, too.

After their site went down on Sunday, Gab implored Trump take action on their behalf, via tweet: https://twitter.com/getongab/status/1056384624899715073

Ironically, this tweet asks President to violate the First Amendment rights of companies that no longer want to do business with Gab.

With the exceptions of protected classes like race, sex national origin, religion, and disability status, contained in civil rights laws, businesses and people have a constitutional right to choose with whom they do business. Anyone may legally refuse to do business with others who, for example, traffic in hate speech or violent rhetoric. People, businesses, and organizations all have a right to free speech and free expression. The President stepping in to force companies to do business with one another would violate their First Amendment rights.

Gab is gone (for now), but the underlying problems still remain.

Social media networks don’t exist in a vacuum. Before PayPal and Stripe terminated their relationships with Gab, they processed payments for them. GoDaddy previously hosted both Gab and Dylan Roof’s white supremacist manifesto. And without app stores and hosting providers, websites that relish in hate speech could cease to exist.

It’s easier to be hateful on the internet than it is in person. But hateful and violent rhetoric don’t end when we close our web browsers. As hate speech has increased online, it has also increased in our daily lives. And as hate speech increases in our daily lives, so do hate crimes. Not only are hate crimes in general on the rise, far-right extremists have nearly three times as many terror attacks in the United States as Islamist extremists.

The digital connection to hate is not a new phenomenon. For years, tech companies have been fielding complaints from users about hate speech and threats, with little to no action — or worse, the wrong action. Facebook’s Community Standards and and Twitter’s Rules both purport to remove threats of violence and hate speech, but a quick search on either platform for a racial slur or demeaning term for a woman will show that many such posts remain. But it doesn’t stop there. Facebook has also determined that it is “hate speech” to say “men are trash” and “men are scum,” and routinely bans women for such comments, which are picked up automatically by an algorithm. And yet the racial and ethnic slurs remain.

What tech companies say.

Tech companies give a number of answers when asked about content moderation after attacks like the ones we have experienced recently. Facebook, while continuing to expand as fast as it can, says there are just too many users and posts to catch all hate speech and threats. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, known to Twitter users as @jack, is frequently tagged by users who are asking him to ban Nazis. In 2017, after outcry over the growing number of vocal white supremacists, Twitter decided to give users more characters for their display names. (Yeah, I didn’t get it, either.) Many Twitter users responded by using their additional characters to protest and ask Jack to remove hate speech, with usernames like “Would Prefer You Ban Nazis” seen across the site.

Some even go as far as to invoke the Civil Rights Era, when the government and KKK alike used violence and intimidation to stifle the speech of protesters and activists. Many argue that censorship is a slippery slope, and what is done toNazis today could be done to Black Lives Matter tomorrow. After a number of large companies refused to continue to do business with Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, resulting in its temporary demise, internet civil liberties organization EFF put out a scathing statement, stating, “In the Civil Rights Era cases that formed the basis of today’s protections of freedom of speech, the NAACP’s voice was the one attacked.”

Is it really that hard to moderate violent content?

In a word, no. Tech companies could, and should, do much more to stamp down violent rhetoric. Arguments that it will be too time-consuming and expensive for social media websites to police their users in this way often ignore that these companies already have software to filter out hate speech — they just don’t want to use that software here.

After World War II, many European countries enacted laws making it a crime to deny the Holocaust happened. Violation of these laws can result in criminal penalties and hefty fines.

This past summer, after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for comparing Holocaust denial to simply being mistaken, Germany quickly reminded the tech giant that Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany. German Justice Minister Katarina Barley tweeted, “There must be no room for antisemitism. Verbal and physical attacks are part of that, as well as denying the Holocaust. The latter is being sanctioned here and is being persecuted consistently. #Zuckerberg.” Under German law, social media networks are required to remove flagged content within 24 hours of receiving a report. When it comes to Holocaust denial, rather than removing the posts entirely, Facebook simply uses geotagging software to make those comments inaccessible in countries where they constitute crimes. Any argument that it would be too expensive, or too complicated, to ban hate speech in the United States is refuted by the fact that the software already exists and is used across the European Union.

It’s not as difficult to protect historically marginalized groups as some would have you believe. For example, there is no civilization on Earth where women are not marginalized and discriminated against. There is no country on earth where LGBT people are not discriminated against. Refugees and asylees are, by definition, persecuted. Identifying these groups, even across cultures, is not difficult.

Violent racism, anti-Semitism, and all manner of hate crimes are on the rise. We’re living in a time where hatred and nationalism are globally on the rise, in a world where people can use Facebook to incite genocide, and in a country where terrorist attacks and mass shootings are regular occurrences.

Slippery slopes are rightfully terrifying when they come from the government, which has the power to deprive people of their liberty. But for individuals, distinguishing between Nazis and civil rights activists shouldn’t be difficult.

We shouldn’t have to wait for mass murder for tech companies to take responsibility for the proliferation of hate speech and threats of violence on their platforms. In this moment, tech companies have a chance to take actions to try to stop violence and radicalization.

If tech companies don’t want blood on their hands, they have an obligation to do a better job of monitoring, and not just monetizing, the content they host. If the powers that be find this task to be too difficult, perhaps they should not be the ones in charge.

So, what’s next?

I’ve been politically engaged for most of my life. Until recently, I never seriously worried about Nazis in the U.S. Now, a former leader of the American Nazi Party is running for Congress near my hometown of Wonder Lake, Illinois. This Nazi, and many others like him, use social media to disseminate hate.

The way that companies like Facebook and Twitter currently operate puts much of the onus on the site’s users. Most posts have to be reported by users in order to be removed (although the platforms have repeatedly come under fire for failing to remove hate speech and threats even after being reported by users).

The most effective way to get tech giants to sit up and listen is to hit them in the pocketbook. For many, just leaving social media together may not feel like a viable option. Social media websites can be incredible tools to connect loved ones and share news about important events. Journalists, activists, and politicians rely on social media networks to connect to people. But leaving isn’t the only way to have an impact.

Increasingly, users have launched successful protests by targeting the money behind the problem, alerting brands when their ads appeared in sites carrying sexist, racist or anti-Semitic content. Breitbart quickly lost a number of advertisers in 2017 when a social media campaign targeted companies like Mercedes-Benz and Nordstrom for putting their money there.

If users want tech giants to start to listen to our concerns, we have to hit them where it hurts the most: in the wallet.

Jamie Lynn Crofts is a constitutional and civil rights attorney in Charleston, West Virginia. She is a graduate of Northwestern Unversity School of Law, a former federal judicial law clerk, and previously worked as the Legal Director for the ACLU of West Virginia.

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Blue Dots in a Sea of Red: Voter Suppression in Tennessee

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A Morgantown voter walks out after voting in the May 10, 2016, primary election. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

By some estimates, Tennessee is ranked last in the country for voter turnout.

Ahead of the 2016 election, a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that in the eight previous years, the state had some of the lowest rates in the country, hitting an all-time low in 2014 with just 29 percent of registered voters actually casting a ballot.

Traditionally, more voters turn out in years when a presidential candidate is on the ballot, and that was true in Tennessee in 2016 – when statewide statics show nearly 62 percent of voters hit the polls.

But in another midterm election year, will the state continue to be ranked near last for turnout?

I’d venture to say yes – not because my state struggles with voter apathy more than any other, but because Tennessee struggles with multiple forms of legal and cultural voter suppression keeping Tennesseans from the polls.

Compared to other states in the south and Appalachia, registering to vote in Tennessee is relatively easy. When I moved to Knoxville in August of 2018, I registered in under five minutes from my cell phone. This was a significantly easier process than what I’d previously encountered living in New Orleans. There, registering required filling out a three-page form online, printing it, signing it and mailing it to the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters.

On Election Day, while it can vary from county to county, polling locations are typically open from 6 a.m. – 8 p.m. and that’s after a 15-day early voting period during which voters can cast ballots at their county election commission office, a satellite office or vote by mail.

But in Shelby County earlier this year, it wasn’t so easy.

Shelby County, the largest in Tennessee, is the home of Memphis, Graceland and the largest population of African-Americans in the state. For the first five days of early voting in the county’s local election and statewide primary this year, one polling location opened in a predominantly white area. Later, three more early voting locations opened in predominantly white suburbs, leading Democrats to cry foul, arguing the suppression of black votes.

And while registering may be an easier process in Tennessee than in other states, voters here face strict voter ID laws. Tennessee voters must present a government issued photo ID, which can include a driver’s license, military ID, passport, or handgun carry permit. But without one, many voters find they may have easily registered, yet still remain unable to cast their ballot when they show up to vote.

Culturally, Tennessee also faces complicated voter suppression issues.

I grew up in a progressive family in North Alabama in the 1990s, in the midst of the Republican Party’s attempt to lay claim to every Southern state. To my family, politicians were rich crooks that didn’t care about our jobs at the plant. But we voted. Despite feeling like specks of blue in a sea of red, I was always taught to vote no matter the outcome, while simultaneously holding onto a belief that my vote wasn’t making a difference.

That same narrative of hopelessness continues to be perpetuated by the national media who cover “red states” and “blue states” as if the outcome of elections has already been decided.

In a New York Times op-ed, Charles Peters writes:

“It is not going to be easy for liberals to win back red states like West Virginia. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Donald Trump have been too successful in encouraging ugly feelings like the senseless hatred of Barack Obama.”

While the West Virginia Peters describes historically voted much more progressively than East Tennessee, Peters’ frustration is rooted in media representations of the Appalachian and southern poor. When the news, polls and media tell Democrats they live in a “red state,” and in turn tell Republicans they live in a “blue state,” people vote less.

To disrupt the partisan hold on southern and Appalachian states—and states in the northeast and Rust Belt, for that matter—we have to disrupt the “blue state” versus “red state” narrative. This implied helplessness is a learned form of cultural voter suppression that encourages progressives not to cast their ballots, stemming from a long history of treating the south as a monolith.

The south and Appalachia, both of which are used to define Tennessee, are only political monocultures if we continue to use language of predetermination to discuss regional politics.

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