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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Ericast 266 - One Little Re-Tweet

I didn’t expect this past weekend to have as much activity as it did… but thanks to one little re-tweet, I found myself in the middle of a protest I wasn’t at and a controversy I didn’t start thanks to a media that doesn’t understand how Twitter works. Looking for what’s probably my most controversial episode ever?  Here’s your show.

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I really don’t want to do this show, but I really need to.  This is a rare episode where it’s scripted; we’ll see if I stick with that.  But writing this has been really cathartic.  Hang in there, give me a little extra grace, and make sure you call 206-339-3742 (a.k.a. 206-339-ERIC) with your thoughts and reactions.   The conversation isn’t over.

This, by the way, is not a “work-safe, child-safe” podcast episode, unless you want to be explaining a lot to your kids and colleagues.  So, put on your headphones.

First, a little background.  What you don’t know about me is that, as a kid, I was a huge anti-war protester.  At least, as huge as you can get as a scrawny 11-year-old.  And if you’re younger than I am, this will sound strange, because you don’t understand what it was like to live under the very real threat of nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union triggered by selfish war-mongering hawk of a Republican like Ronald Reagan.  At least, that’s how I would’ve summarized it at the time.  So, I’m no stranger to protests, and to protests of the same political wing as Black Lives Matter.

And, today I hold a politically impossible philosophy position of a “universal life ethic” – I don’t think people should intentionally kill people.  Not via abortion, not via the death penalty.  I think there are cases where it’s excused, and that’s different from calling it justified.  And that’s a topic for another podcast episode.

So, I understand the slogan and the hashtag of “Black Lives Matter” and I don’t think it’s helpful to be belligerent and say, “No, all lives matter.”  Yes, all lives matter.  But in the same way, when I talk about the effects of legalized abortion on demand in this country, I don’t think it’s a reasonable counter-argument to say, “Don’t you care about the children who are already born?”  Yes, I do care.  But it’s not legal to kill them.  So the more pressing discussion at hand is abortion.  I think that’s a fair distinction.  And in the same way, since there’s a concern in this country over crime and punishment and police response to people of color, I have no problem with “Black Lives Matter” and I don’t hear that as saying, “To the exclusion of every other life.”

In Minnesota, we have the Minnesota State Fair, and if you’re not from around here, it’s a really really really big deal.  We’ve joked about the few days of summer we have, but “the great Minnesota get-together” is sort of the “last hurrah” of Summer.  Local Black Lives Matters leaders – and we could argue about who “leads” what, but let’s go with it – announced that they were going to have a march and protest down the main traffic artery around the fairgrounds on Saturday the 29th, which is a really big day for the Fair.

So, we’re not going to talk about whether that protest timing is good, bad or indifferent – just that it’s a fact, and it was a big deal.  Plenty of news stories covered it, if you’re not from around here and want to dig up the details.

I’m working around the house last Saturday when Twitter starts lighting up about the protest, and I love the concept of “citizen journalism” – getting a different picture of an event.  Not necessarily more accurate or more complete than what might be represented in the traditional “mainstream media” but another piece of the puzzle.

The first thing I saw was a video clip of protesters chanting, “Turn up! Don’t turn down! We’re doing this for Mike Brown!”  Now, with a wife who’s a high-school teacher, I’ve heard that the phrase “turn up” is used.  And in every context I’ve ever heard, it doesn’t simply mean, “Let’s appear! Let’s show up at an event!”  But I honestly had no idea if the “getting turned up” drug reference is a common one or intended by the protesters – it caught my ear, so I tweeted that out, and nobody said anything.  That was 1:38 p.m. on Saturday, August 29.

About an hour later, I was looking through the #BlackFair hash tag, and I caught a phrase that seemed pretty shocking.  It was a tweet from MrNikoG, and it read “Pigs in a blanket, Fry em like bacon” Hashtags BlackFair, BlackLivesMatter, FTP, ACAB.  I have no idea what ACAB is and I haven’t looked it up.  FTP doesn’t stand for File Transfer Protocol, nor does it stand for “Friend the Police”.

The video clip showed protesters standing behind a banner, just like I did in my Kids for Peace days.  And I thought, “Are they really saying that?  What’s the context?”  So I played the video.  They’re marching.  They’re yelling.  And the camera pans left to show… that they’re at the front of the march, and it’s being led by squad cars – and a weird little golf cart truck thing.  I played it back from the beginning to make sure it really was from our State Fair, and it sure was – the fair buildings are in the background (there are a couple identifiable towers) and I immediately knew that they were walking south on Snelling Avenue.

I thought the story wasn’t the chant itself, but that they’re chanting it directly at the police officers in front of them who are escorting down a pretty major road – it’s four lanes plus on/off ramps in that vicinity.

So rather than just a re-tweet, I did an “MT” – modified tweet.  I removed all but the “BlackFair” tag to give room to comment (and because I figured that was the most relevant tag… but that made it “modified” rather than a pure “RT”) and I added four words that I thought very, very carefully about.

As.  Like, “while.” At the time.  Emphasizing that the video, if anyone bothered to watch, shows “this is being said right now”

Police.  I thought about “St. Paul police” but I don’t know if they’re from St. Paul or brought in from another jurisdiction.  And maybe they’re sheriffs or something.  But “police” is generic enough; “cops” is shorter but carries an informal connotation.

Escort.  Like “lead” but they’re not leading or directing it.  And they’re not just present by happenstance; they’re clearly there in a coordinated effort, which also indicates that this isn’t a random collection of yelling people but an organized group.  And it’s present tense – I was tweeting it as it happened, so it wasn’t “escorted”.  The escort is happening right now.

Protest.  I thought about “protesters” but that implies they’re escorting individual protesters, maybe against their will.  They weren’t directing individuals; they were at the front of a group event.

“As police escort protest”

As of this recording, that tweet has gotten 107 re-tweets and 29 favorites.  And lots and lots of replies.

First four reactions: A re-tweet with “Make it stop”.  A re-tweet with “chant to kill police along the march led by white people”.  (Which I think the people of color leading the march would take offense to; they’re pretty identifiable and, no, they don’t consider themselves “white” according to their twitter accounts.)  Then Kate replied with “Oh. My. God.”  Then “Win The War On Math” tweeted, “This chant is obviously anti-cop and islamophobic! Delicious pork imagery is Hate Speech!”

I figured it would end right about there.  It didn’t.

At some point the flood of commentary got more intense and I realizes I must’ve been picked up by somewhere.  That was the on Saturday evening.  So, then, people started re-posting that story.

Breitbart went back to the original source, since all I did was retweet the video.  Nobody else did.

Nobody, including WCCO television.  So when my Dad sent me a message on Sunday night at 10:12 pm that said, “I am watching Channel 4’s 10 p.m. newscast and several times as a video was being show, I saw: Credit Eric M. Larson”…  well, I harked back to the famous words of Kate.  Oh.  My. God..

I went to the WCCO website and, yup, there it was.  Interesting news story, covered both angles, police are upset, protest leaders are unapologetic, and there in the corner every time they play the video is “Credit: Eric M. Larson”

You’ll find in my twitter history that I spent a good chunk of the evening tweeting (and directly reaching out via Facebook messaging to a producer I know there) to explain that “MT” is a modified re-tweet; the video isn’t mine.

And before you think I regret that the video went viral, I totally don’t – news is news, facts are facts, and 19 seconds of footage (where the videographer was good enough to turn around and give the context) tells a story. But I don’t get credit for capturing the story.  It wasn’t my story.  It was someone else’s story.  He or she – I assume it’s a he – shared it.  I pointed out that he shared it, and put some pretty useful text on the front to clarify what story was being told (because you wouldn’t know that from the thumbnail of the video.)  That’s it.

So, what have we learned here?

1) Citizen Journalism is powerful.

2) As I tell my girls, always think about what’s around and behind the camera lens, outside of the frame.

3) Words have power.

4) Context is everything.  The way this video was shot gave some context that the other dramatically framed photographs of the march didn’t.  Yet this video didn’t get the whole context of a four-hour march.  In philosophical terms, I think that understanding this rhetoric and scene is necessary but not sufficient for understanding what this march and this movement is about.

5) In the court of public opinion, these protesters can’t win, and neither can the police.
Here’s the deal.  The cops on the scene are quoted as having said two things:  “This is what democracy looks like”.  And, “Everybody likes bacon. We can all get behind that!”  One is serious and, we assume, was said with a since tone (not an incredulous or exasperated one).  The other is funny – maybe offensive to those who don’t eat pork, but probably not.  Cops are trained to deescalate situations, and good cops do that.  That’s what you see here.  Whipping out your weapon of choice because someone insults you is wrong, and it’s bad PR, and I suspect these guys hear much, much worse on a typical beat.

But then you have WCCO seeking a comment.  And what are they supposed to say?  “Well, these kids, they get whipped up about stuff and they don’t know what they’re saying?  Let ‘em mature a bit and they’re realize that the world isn’t as clear-cut as they think it is now.”  That’s not going to work.
So they say it’s offensive.  Because it’s offensive!  It is!  This isn’t a chant of “Most cops are good; let’s make sure the bad ones are brought to justice!”  First of all, that has no rhyme or cadence, and second, that’s not the protesters’ point!

Now you have the protesters saying, “Look, it was just one chant.  It’s no big deal.  It’s just words.”  But the entire foundation of civilized society is that words have meaning.  Yes, you have the right to free speech and free expression.  But when you freely express an idea, you need to be prepared for people to say, “I think that idea is wrong.”
So you have protesters who are either naive kids who don’t know what they’re saying, or evil people trying to undermine society and murder police (apparently bankrolled by George Soros, according to the tweets I was getting.)

This isn’t a happy situation.

So, where does society go from here?  Is there a “white privilege”?  I’m sure there is.  Will I ever know? Probably not; I’m not going to be the next John Howard Griffin and if you don’t know him, you need to read his book like I did when I was 12 or 13.  Why was I re-tweeted, when “MrNikoG” whose full Twitter name is “EMPATHY” with the anarchist circle-A in the middle, wasn’t?  Part of it was those four words of context – “As police escort protest.”  Part of it probably was that I had a name, a face, a website. (I haven’t looked at the stats, and good luck to anyone who dug around in it, since it’s really out of date.)  And do I have those things out there because I “know the system” or because I have “nothing to fear”?  I don’t know.  It’s just who I am.  If I have a problem with my front door and my neighbors see me and a stranger trying to break it open… well, they know me, so they probably wouldn’t call the police.  But if they did, and the police came to the door and told me they were investigating a break-in, my response wouldn’t be, “Why, because I'm a black man in America?” …because I’m not.  And, because I don’t have any experiences that would cause me to think of responding with belligerence toward police.  Maybe if I did, I would.  And if they asked for proof that this really was my house, I’d say, “Hang on; let me grab my license.  Even without the beard it still looks like me.”  And if I got belligerent and argumentative, which the 9-1-1 tapes of the Henry Lewis Gates arrest document, I might expect to be arrested.  And if I were arrested, I don’t think any president would bother to comment, let alone say “The police acted stupidly.”

What I do know is that our race issues in this country didn’t start with the current presidential administration and ended with a beer summit at the White House.  But at the time, Gates said,

“My entire academic career has been based on improving race relations, not exacerbating them. I am hopeful that my experience will lead to greater sensitivity to issues of racial profiling in the criminal justice system."

And then he called the cop a pig and said he should fry like bacon.

No! No!  He didn’t do that.  Because that’s not the kind of dialog we want to encourage.  Is it?

Let me know what you think.  Call 206-339-3742 and leave a message.

My 11th birthday featuring a "Kids for Peace" cake with my KFP logo
Trial run of the KFP banner (Medium: Sharpie on cotton)
Leading the "Mother's Day March for Peace and Justice" (Minneapolis, 1985)

End of the march. (I'm in the purple Vikings jacket)
Post-march interview with WTCN-11 (now KARE-11)