This week, Indian Country is up in arms about threats made against Seattle’s first—and only—Indigenous city council member Debora Juarez, Blackfeet. I want to say right away that I do not condone anyone going to someone else’s residence to harass or berate them. I hate that s***. I don’t think that—unless we’re talking about Jeff (Em)Bezos or some other privileged white person who has a whole couple of suburban blocks for themselves and a mansion—going to someone else’s house in the middle of the night for several nights to “protest” is going to be productive. But that stuff did happen. And I believe it creates tensions across BIPOC communities that are counterproductive to the goals of de-funding the police and re-appropriating taxpayer money for community social and health services.
With that said, I want to talk about the role of media in their coverage of the situation, as well as how it relates to the delicate balance between voice and accountability. Indian Country Today posted a banger of a headline: “Protesters threaten Indigenous Seattle council member.” The article starts with a description of the issues Councilmember Juarez faced, as well excerpts of statements from Indigenous leaders denouncing the behaviors of protestors as “disgusting and the antithesis of the movement,” “incredibly personal and targeted acts of violence,” and “hateful or dehumanizing behavior,” among other things. The author of the article does make apparent the fact these statements (Juarez or otherwise) are directed at the white or otherwise non-BIPOC protestors who engage in the violent and threatening behavior.
I’m no stranger to studies of mainstream media. Mainstream media as a whole has a history of placing Black communities in a negative light. Media coverage of O.J. Simpson is a prime example of the racialized sensationalism of murder that target alleged Black criminals who harm white victims (Lyon 2009). It gave rise to hundreds of weekly hours of T.V. shows on crime—especially those that focus on Black criminals (ibid.). Most (but not all) media cover crime for the sake of corporate profit. The New York Times‘ video reconstruction of George Floyd’s death—while in service to the imperatives of “transparency”—harms Black viewers who will likely internalize and become traumatized by the images of violence against a Black body (Mabute-Louie, 2020). The New York Times benefit economically from their reconstruction of the police videos even if the intended purpose of doing so is to bring forth justice against the violence.
Because of Indian Country Today‘s recent affiliation with the Associated Press, I consider it to be part of mainstream media, which as a whole continue to employ tactics that garner viewership at the cost of Black community reputation and voice. When read plainly, the headline of today’s article, “Protesters threaten Indigenous Seattle council member,” is vague enough to be both attention-grabbing and controversial. Readers don’t know that Indigenous leaders are criticizing the behaviors of non-BIPOC protesters until they had a chance to build a relationship with the article and understand the lore behind the story. Even if the lay reader had a chance to read through the article, that is not enough for them to be convinced that it’s only talking about a subset of protestors who engage in harassment and destructive behaviors (as opposed to both BIPOC and non-BIPOC protestors). The term “protester” has lost all meaning.
I want to be clear that Indian Country Today, Juarez, and fellow Indigenous leaders had every right to denounce violence against Indigenous women. As leaders, they are held accountable to the futurity their communities. An Indigenous future should not have to depend on the continuity of the Settler state (Tuck and Yang 2012). However, these same arguments must not overshadow (even inadvertently!) the more timely and imperative issues of police violence against Black bodies and communities. So how might any leader balance voice with commitments to their own community as well as commitments to marginalized communities that are not their own? It begins with a recognition that non-BIPOC systems and structures are meant to be divisive. As an participant in mainstream media, Indian Country Today is no less responsible for writing that frames Black communities in a negative light. By extension, as a Seattle City Council member, Juarez is no less responsible for making decisions that potentially harm Black communities.
We must never lose sight of the imperative of looking outward and dismantling the systems and structures that harm and divide marginalized communities. We must always ask ourselves, “What’s next?” If the goal is to criticize non-BIPOC “protesters” who engage in harassment and destructive behaviors, how might news organizations frame this in a way that doesn’t give lay readers a reason to believe that the criticism is also directed to Black organizers who have a different approach and ethic to the situation? If the stated goal is to ensure that 50% of police funding go towards community social and health services instead, how might leaders in their capacities hold each other responsible for articulating and realizing that goal? I don’t have the answers on top of my head. But I believe BIPOC leaders and organizations have the power to unravel and challenge the divisiveness of systems that were never designed for Black and Brown communities. That’s it. See you.