Monthly Archives: March 2007

The Power of the Image: Sean Bell

I was reading an article about Sean Bell the other day, on the CBS 2 News website. Accompanying the story was this image:

It’s a pretty ambiguous image. The text says “Police Shooting” at the top, not specifying whether Sean Bell shot the police or was shot by them. He looks sort of grim – not smiling, alone, almost like a mug shot. And did you notice that the right side of his head looks a little weird? Flat, maybe?

Yeah, that’s because that’s where someone at CBS edited out his wife. That shot of Sean Bell is actually taken from this image:

That’s Sean Bell, his wife Nicole Paultre-Bell, and one of their daughters. Presents quite a different, well, picture than the top image, doesn’t it? A family man, with his beaming fiancee and chuckling little girl.

Flicking through the channels, if you saw the words “Police Shooting” over the shot of the somber, unsmiling Sean Bell, you might assume that he shot a cop, and keep on clicking to something more entertaining. If you saw the words “Police Shooting” over the shot of him with his family, you (a) would not ever think he did the shooting, and (b) you would be sad. You would think oh, what a shame, that nice family man was killed by police. Just remember that when you’re watching the news. They could have used this picture instead.

At the rally and march for Sean Bell today, I saw filmmaker Byron Hurt, who made the great documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which aired earlier this year on PBS. I asked him why he was there, and he said that as a Black man, he feels like it could be him next. And he talked about the fact that the media paints Black and Latino men as violent and as criminals, and that these representations puts fear into the head of the police. Fear that leads them to see guns where there are none, and to shoot unarmed men.

I teach media literacy, so I think about the power of images a lot. But seeing the doctoring of Sean Bell’s image, and talking to Byron Hurt, I was reminded that portraying Black and Latino men as criminals, as threats, isn’t just wrong. It’s lethal.



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How Quickly We Forget

I had the opportunity to speak at last weekend’s Left Forum (formerly the Socialist Scholars Conference), on a panel called “Doing Independent Reporting: A Tribute to Brad Will.” Given that frame, in preparing my remarks I considered the reporting on Oaxaca, where Brad was killed, and the recent coverage of popular uprisings in Mexico. I also wanted to offer a critique of the independent media, and think through what we can be doing better. And that brought me to thinking about Atenco.

Like the mainstream media, the independent media is episodic. We focus on the breaking news, the arrest, the murder, the riot. I like to think that at Wakeup Call, the morning news program for which I am a producer, and at other independent media outlets, we dig deeper into the root causes of these flareups. But even when we manage to do that, we rarely follow up on a story until the next big flareup. Atenco is a case in point.

On May 3rd of 2006, there was a confrontation between flower vendors in Texcoco and the police – the police wouldn’t let them sell their flowers in the town square. They called for help from their neighbors in Atenco, who blocked the road the runs along Atenco and leads to Texcoco. The police came to move the blockade, and couldn’t, despite intense violence. A fourteen year old boy was shot and killed by police.

The next day, May 4th, allies flooded into Atenco, along with reporters from the mainstream and independent press. So did more than 3,000 police. After a second day of intense police violence against reporters and protesters, there were some 300 plus arrests. At least five women were raped by police, on the busses where the arrestees were being held, in front of their fellow protesters and reporters.

Allow me a momentary side note. Some news reports say that 5 women were raped, some news reports say nearly 50. In talking to people who were at Atenco, and others who are close to the story, they say that this disparity in numbers comes from a difference between how the women on the ground define rape, and how it is defined by human rights organizations. Not all of the nearly 50 women in question were penetrated by a penis. Dozens were stripped naked, beaten and touched and penetrated by fingers – to me, and to the women in Atenco, this is rape. Anyhow, quibbling about the numbers is asinine. I just wanted to preempt any doubts about the validity of the stories from Atendo, in case you investigate the story further, as you should.

As the news started to filter out from Atenco, about the arrests, beatings, hospitalizations, and rapes, there was an outcry from the independent media, in the US and all over the world. From NarcoNews to Wakeup Call to Democracy Now! to the BBC, the story of the murder and the rapes spread through the internet and the airwaves.

The attacks at Atenco raised the consciousness of people in the US, at least, about the diversity and continued struggle of the popular uprisings in Mexico. Of course, many people on the US left were familiar with the Zapatista movement. The beautifully written declaraciones, and the glamour of the masked rebels in the jungle, fed the North American need for inspiration. The Zapatistas do what most of the US left has not managed to do; they are creating their own systems and alternatives, fighting for self-determination, for the right to be left in peace. Their example has sparked some much-needed reflection in the US left about our work, and its often reactive tendencies.

It also sparked a lot of Zapatourismo, young and idealistic people visiting the revolution on summer break. Some great work has come out of that exchange, and so have a fair number of problems. I’m not going to go too far into that now. Point being, the attention on Atenco raised awareness about groups besides the Zapatistas that stand in opposition to the government, including the Frente del Pueblo en Defensa de La Tierra in Atenco. Essentially, Atenco reminded people in the US about Mexico.

And then attention shifted from Atenco to Oaxaca. The Associacion Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, or APPO, was fighting a pitched battle of ideas, and battle in the streets, seeking the ouster of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The conflict in the streets drew many independent reporters, including Brad Will, an American videographer and friend of mine who was killed by paramilitaries in Oaxaca. Professor Emilio Alonso Fabián and Esteban López Zurita were also killed in Oaxaca that day, October 27, 2006. Brad’s murder brought an astonishing amount of media attention to Oaxaca. It was also used as a pretext for an invasion of Oaxaca by the PFP, or Federal Preventative Police, and rachetted up the repression of organizers, activists, peasants and journalists living and working in Oaxaca.

Now, it’s nearly a year since the attacks in Atenco. There are 9 women, arrested at Atenco, five of whom were raped by police, still in jail in Santiaguito. Last May, the attention of the global activist community, the global independent media community, was focused on Atenco. And in Santiaguito, people were protesting outside the jail every day. But the prison is far from town, and the visitors have dwindled away. Now, the 9 women prisoners from May 4th are essentially alone, and feel forgotten. And it pains me to say it, but they mostly have been.

The conflict in Oaxaca continues. Journalists and organizers are living underground or in exile, moving from house to house with their children in the dead of night. The people who continue to work and speak and fight are doing so at great, very real risk to their lives. And they too have been forgotten.

Why? I could say that it’s a question of resources. Because there are relatively few progressive, independent media outlets, we often feel as if we have to tell every story, and that doesn’t allow for much follow up. I could say that it’s a question of time. We talk at Wakeup Call about doing a regular segment called That’s Old News, following up on what we were covering last year, or six months ago. It’s a good idea (if I do say so myself), but we don’t have the staff to make it happen. But more than anything, I think, its a question of habit, the gut urge to cover the breaking news. That’s important, to cover the breaking news that most media outlets ignore. But we also need to teach our audience to stick with a story. Speaking as a newsmaker, I hope you ask that of us, and push us to give you the consistent information needed to stay with a story and demand change.


On May 4th, it will be a year since the nine women arrested at Atenco will be in prison. They have yet to be sentenced, and are essentially still awaiting processing. When they are given the rare opportunity to go before a judge, the very police officers who raped them are in the room. In October, Amnesty International condemned the sham investigation into the rapes and violence at Atenco, and demanded a federal inquiry. We are all still waiting, and our nine sisters are waiting in prison.

As of today, it has been more than ten months that they are in prison. Think of what your life was like ten months ago. Think of all the people you have met, the conversations that have changed your life, the places you have been, the meals, the walks, the dreams. Now imagine that you spent all those months in one room.

At the Left Forum panel, Brandon Jourdan said that we as independent media makers must learn to fight the battle of the story, and not just cover the story of the battle. We are not doing that well enough. We report from a different perspective than the mainstream media, and often cover different stories, but we too often fail to construct a narrative that we choose, rather than one dictated by the dates on which our people die or disappear.

I don’t want to be like most of the press and leave you without a job to do or an action to take. I am waiting for friends closer to the Atenco story to give me information on:

  • government officials to whom you can write;
  • how to donate funds to their case and their commisary, and;
  • the addresses of the prisoners so you can write them and let them know we remember their names.

While you’re waiting for those action points, you can come out on Thursday March 15th to a night of videos, discussion and food:

In honor of the March 15th international day of action against police brutality the Amor y Resistencia and In Our Hearts Collectives, present videos and speakers featuring:

Maka, an activist from Mexico City who was involved in media projects in Oaxaca during the uprising.

Videos about the Uprising in Oaxaca, and the seizing of the media by Oaxacan Radical Women in 2006.

Legacy of Torture: A documentary about the case of the “Panther 8”, eight former Black Panthers arrested January 23rd, 2007 on charges related to the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer. Similar charges were thrown in 1973 when it was revealed that police used torture to extract confessions.

Representative from “Friends and Family of Daniel McGowan” speaking about the recent FBI crackdown on Environmental Activists known as “the Green Scare”.

Vegan Mexican Food and home brewed soft drinks, courtesy of the ‘Brewing up Trouble Action Faction”.

$5.00 Suggested Donation. (money raised will go to mexican anarchist collectives supporting political prisoners in Oaxaca no one turned away for lack of funds)

Come early for food and drinks!
Thursday, March 15th, 6pm at:
Ad Hoc Art space,
49 Bogart Street, Brooklyn, NY.
(‘L’ to Morgan Ave. Bogart Exit) (for directions)

Like the Zapatista sisters say, abajo y la izquierda, con todo el corazón.

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Some Ladies Musack

So not quite a real post, but I spun some ladies music on WBAI 99.5 FM the other day, as part of the station’s two days of programming celebrating International Working Women’s Day. You can listen to the set online, if you’re so inclined.  Featuring Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Feist, Jolie Holland, Mirah, and a whole bunch of other great women artists.

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