Music & Murder: “Narco Cultura” Takes Viewers to the Front Lines of the Mexican-American Drug War

 

It’s 7PM when Shaul Schwarz, director of the documentary, Narco Cultura, calls from his Brooklyn office to discuss his film.  He tells me, “I kept feeling this hunger to tell the wider story of this war that’s affecting millions of people on both sides of the border and how we are all involved.  I was haunted by this story.”

Narco Cultura is a study in contrasts.  The subject matter is serious and violent while the film itself is an easy, engaging watch.  The footage manages to be as beautiful as it is horrifying. We’ve heard about the drug wars ravaging Mexico, but this movie finds a new lens to explore the crisis through bringing audiences two very different perspectives from the front lines.

The film splits its focus between Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator in the warzone that is Juarez, and Edgar Quintero, a narcocorrido singer in Los Angeles.  Narcocorridos, we learn, are the soundtrack of the drug wars.  This genre, which has been called the Latin Gangsta Rap, features songs that combine upbeat Mexican folk music with explicit, violent lyrics celebrating the exploits of the drug cartels. Narco Cultura tells the story of the drug wars from both sides of the border, effortlessly contrasting the on-the-ground realities of the violence with the pop culture fantasy world of the narcocorridos.

A veteran photojournalist, Shaul spent two years photographing the violence in Juarez before he began filming.  He explains to me, “As the pictures got published people would say, ‘Oh, the Mexican drug war’, which made it sound far away.  And I would say, ‘The Mexican-American drug war’.  People would ask, ‘Who’s killing who?’ I would start explaining but end up getting frustrated because it’s complicated.”

Los Buknas de Culiacan in "Narco Cultura." (Shaul Schwarz)

Los Buknas de Culiacan in “Narco Cultura.” (Shaul Schwarz)

Shaul, your film paints a complex picture of the narco culture. Depending on where you’re sitting the violence is treated as cool or it’s terrifying. Can you talk about the contrasts and connections?

The juxtaposition also comes from the contrast between the U.S. and Mexico.  In the U.S., Edgar can glorify the drugs and the violence through his music and as much as he lives in a hood he is safe to a certain degree.  The drugs move, but the people die south of the border. The money and the demand are here in the U.S., the money drives south, the guns go south, and the bodies stay south.  Right now I think more than 60,000 are dead.  Look at Juarez and El Paso.  You wonder how the contrast can be so big, especially when a large part of El Paso is either first generation American or Mexican.  You literally have families split on both sides of the border. I think as Americans we have this sense that the drug war is the status quo. We don’t know what to do about it and it’s not our problem.  But that’s not true and I wanted you to feel that in the film. I wanted to make a movie that was raw.

I’ve heard that during the editing process you consulted Richi and omitted information from the film he thought might put him at risk.  Talk about this process.  

I wouldn’t say that we consulted Richi.  He saw some things and gave some feedback, but we cut very independently.  For safety you have to make certain decisions.  With Richi and the Juarez story I always said that I am not an investigative journalist.  I’m not trying to see who killed who, or how drugs moved, or open any files.  That would have gotten us killed.  I quickly learned that in Mexico, forget publishing, even knowing things can get you killed.  That’s very different from most conflicts or most stories you do as a journalist where you always want to have big ears and listen to everything then decide later what to use.

Discuss the ethics of making a doc like this.  How did you balance your artistic vision for the film with the realities of trying to protect your subjects?  

As a journalist, you know there are things you don’t do to your sources.  If somebody gets hurt because of what you do it’s not worth it.  That’s what they teach you in school, but how do you practice that with such a complex story?  It comes down to each scene and each shot and common sense and going back and forth and thinking with editors, and sometimes with the protagonists, or sometimes with lawyers.  I mean you have the right to know and you have the right to publish, but there’s limits. Some stuff we knew we didn’t want to know, some stuff we didn’t dare ask, and we also saw a lot more than we could shoot.  When we went out in Juarez many, many times we just couldn’t shoot.  It’s not one of these places where you say, but wait, I’m on public property, I have a right.  Shit no.  Again, to me this film wasn’t about investigative journalism.  I wanted to show the reality of two people involved in the so-called drug war and where it has taken them and us.  In the editing, you find the balance that tells the story but won’t hurt anybody.  Each scene, each layer has its own rules.

This film contains graphic footage of the violence.  How did you approach the challenge of grabbing your audience’s attention without desensitizing them?

We needed to think about what’s too much versus what things were important to show.  I wanted to grab the audience’s attention because I feel we’re sticking our head in the sand and this is my way of telling you it’s right here, I won’t let you turn away.  But of course if you over do that, or do that incorrectly, you’ve desensitized your viewer and there’s no purpose.  It’s just grotesque.  It’s a line, mostly an editing line.  We tried to make sure that every scene where you see something graphic also has meaning.  For example, ok, there’s burnt bodies and that really grabs your attention, but it’s important and the footage has a right to be in the film because these people were burned with the intention that everyone would see them and that’s really narco culture- that’s the intimidation factor.  Almost everything in the film represents something.

What do you want people to walk away from Narco Cultura with? 

I want people to be upset because I believe it’s upsetting.  I want them to see the drug war like they’ve never seen it.  This is the cancer of Mexico and to some degree the cancer of the U.S.  I want you to care.  It’s too sad, we’re too involved, it’s not far away, and we’re all in it together.  If you’re angry maybe you’ll think about how to change things.  There are a couple of clear 800 lb gorillas – legalization, demand, and access to guns.  It’s also important to understand that this problem does not have a military solution.  You can’t just throw money and guns at it and solve things.  It’s never worked and it’s not going to work.  Things are getting worse and the collateral damage is tremendous. I want people to think about the bigger picture.

Narco Cultura is currently in theaters.  For more information visit: www.narcoculture.com.

Like a Beverly: Starting Somewhere

 

I first discovered Beverly on a list of female songwriters I stumbled across this Summer.

Beverly “Guitar” Watkins.

Up until that point I’d never heard of her.

The corresponding picture featured on that list was of a woman crouched down with her guitar.  A bona fide bad ass if I’d ever seen one.  “Don’t Mess with Miss Watkins”, it warned.

Boy, was I in for a surprise when I investigated further (see video above).

I took to google and came across video after video of a Miss Watkins absolutely crushing it on stage.  She’d sing. Then she’d solo. Then she’d flip her guitar above her head and sing and solo while playing behind her back.

Did I mention the part where she’s doing this at well over 70 years of age?

Currently rounding the corner towards her 75th Birthday, Beverly’s still trying to make it. Despite some turbulence along the way– she’s survived both a heart attack and lung cancer — she’s not letting anything slow her down.  She’s told me on more occasions than I can count:

“I’m only 74, I’m young” she insists “mine is a gift from God”.

Upon finding her on the Internet I reached out to The Music Makers Foundation — an organization that deserves all the recognition and praise in the world.  Their mission is to “support Roots musicians” and Beverly is one of the artists that they’ve taken under their wing.

I figured I could chat with her for an FDL piece– just a little something that could help contribute to getting her name out there.

I followed up and followed up and followed up and finally got a response!

Beverly was willing to talk to me!

The first time I called her it took quite a bit of explaining before she caught on to who I was.  They’d told her about me but she had a lot going on, a show in New Orleans on deck– gigs throughout Atlanta– awards to receive.

We dove right in and started just talking.  Well, Beverly did most of the talking; story after story of her life to date.   She told me about starting to play guitar when she was 8.  She told me about meeting Piano Red and going on the road. She told me about opening up for Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and James Brown. She told me about being a single mother and when the band broke up.  She told me about working at a car wash to help pay the bills while she kept on making music. She told me about recording her debut album in her 60s.  She told me that music is what’s keeping her alive.

So for months we went back and forth–I’d interview and transcribe and take a stab at writing something. She’d call to check in on me and say hello.

Drafts became more drafts become overworked drafts.

The pressure was high.  Beverly was trusting me with her story and I didn’t want to mess this up.

Getting this “right” was super important to me because- beyond the fact that she’s more than paid her dues– my heart and guts and stuff need you know that she exists.

I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut feeling all the pressure in the world to strike a balance between being myself and being dubbed the black girl who acts white. I grew up feeling pressure to act, and talk, and dress a certain way because of what I looked like.  I took a lot of those insecurities with me into adulthood and I spent years wandering and stumbling and trying to fight back.  I worked in fashion and politics and technology.  For the longest time I had the instinct to create but without the skill set.

Then I found music.

I was 24 the first time I picked up a guitar and I only found the drums in the last year.

Now, music isn’t a choice for me.

There’s life before it and there’s life after and there’s a split second in between when something snapped and I knew my life would never be the same.

I will always do this thing because I have to.

Beverly knows a thing or two about that.

She called me a few weeks ago to tell me that she had a performance in London that she was flying to in mid-November. Then she mentioned super casually that she also had a brain aneurysm that the doctors were going to operate on in December.

I met her for the first time this past Monday in the waiting room of an Atlanta hospital just hours before her stent procedure.

She danced her way into surgery.

Don’t mess with Miss Watkins.

I thought of that picture standing with her in ICU a few hours later.

She was already antsy to get back on stage.  “Just get yourself better,” I told her, “I’ll keep practicing while you do.”

Without skipping a beat her eyes tightened and she responded super seriously:

“You better.”

Beverly’s given me a lot in the last few months that I’ve known her.  She’s pushed me and coached me on and reminded me time and time again of the power that comes with just being yourself. She’s showed me what it looks like to love and trust and place faith in an absolute stranger. As soon as her health clears up, we’ve got all sorts of adventures dreamed up.

I’m nervous about this.  I might as well say it out loud and upfront.  But I’m also emboldened by the magic that’s brought me this far.  Finding Beverly wasn’t an easy journey but as I was reminded by some graffiti on the bathroom wall of Northside Tavern last night:

Smooth sails do not a strong sailor make.

It’s been a long road getting this far and as nervous as I am– I know that you’ve got to start somewhere.

So here we go.

I’ll be posting her story and recapping this trip to Atlanta here on Firedoglake.com over the next week or two.

I couldn’t have made it this far without the support of FDL and Jane Hamsher specifically– so I also want to start out with a heartfelt thank you to her and to all of you for reading this far.

Let’s get messy.

#likeabeverly

 

Photo Credit; Flickr user johnmcnicholas

 

Bob Newhart Cancels Appearance at Anti-Gay Legatus Summit

Comedian Bob Newhart has canceled his headlining stand-up appearance at Legatus Summit, a virulently anti-gay Catholic organization. So happy! Wednesday Newhart tweeted:

Upcoming Bob Newhart Tour Date Change — Bob will not be performing at the Legatus Summit in Orlando FL on February 6th, 2014

A number of bloggers and activists expressed their shock that Newhart–who won his first Emmy  this year playing opposite openly gay Jim Parsons on Big Bang Theory–would headline the Legatus Summit which will also showcase Rick Santorum and the Catholic League’s William Donohue. It’s pretty clear where the ever-frothy Rick Santorum and Donohue stand on LGBT issues–and Legatus? Writing for GLAAD, Jeremey Hooper said:

Legatus pushes the idea that homosexuality itself is a “disorder” from which one must be “cured.”

Thank you, Bob Newhart for realizing some groups (even religious ones) have darker agendas and want to use celebrities to further bigotry, discrimination and hate. And thank you for looking and listening to your fans, gay and straight, who believe in you!

(more…)

Duck Dynasty: “Vile Remarks” Phil Robertson Suspended by A&E

Phil Robertson, the patriarch of  A&E’s hit series Duck Dynasty, has been placed on indefinite hiatus following an interview with GQ Magazine in which he said that homosexuality led to bestiality and sleeping around with women. The elder Robertson is often portrayed on the series as being out of touch with modern culture. He frets that the members of his family, which owns Duck Commander, a company that manufactures hand-tuned duck calls, are all becoming yuppies because of the company’s success; and he proudly states he doesn’t own or use a computer.

What Phil does own is that he thinks being gay is a sin, then quoting Corinthians before overhsaring about his feelings on how body parts might feel:

It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical…

Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

Robertson’s remarks sparked outrage in the LGBT and ally communities. GLAAD issued a statement calling the bearded grandpa’s comments:

some of the vilest and most extreme statements uttered against LGBT people in a mainstream publication” and said “his quote was littered with outdated stereotypes and blatant misinformation.”

Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans — and Americans — who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors, who now need to re-examine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.

Humans Rights Campaign stated:

Phil Robertson’s remarks are not consistent with the values of our faith communities or the scientific findings of leading medical organizations. We know that being gay is not a choice someone makes, and that to suggest otherwise can be incredibly harmful. We also know that Americans of faith follow the Golden Rule — treating others with the respect and dignity you’d wish to be treated with. As a role model on a show that attracts millions of viewers, Phil Robertson has a responsibility to set a positive example for young Americans — not shame and ridicule them because of who they are. The A+E Network should take immediate action to condemn Phil Robertson’s remarks and make clear they don’t support his views.

Phil Robertson’s comments were also not consistent with the views of Chris Morelli and Tad Eaton, the openly gay stars of  A&E’s Storage Wars New York, who told TMZ:

[man ass] is tighter…You can’t go through life worrying what other people think. That’s their values and that’s what they think … as long as they’re not nasty to people … We’re not offended at all. We like Phil. We like the show. We like the fact that they are very godly. When we watch the show and see them say grace, we feel the same way.

Fans of Duck Dynasty–the series regularly draws 9 million viewers and has spawned a $400 million retail empire of licensed goods, which along with advertising revenues could have been impacted by an LGBT-launched boycott–have started a Facebook page decrying Phil Robertson’s ouster and calling for a boycott of A&E until he is back on. It has over 214,000 fans as I write.

Phil offered this unpology, issued via A&E before A&E’s parent production company A+E suspended him:

I myself am a product of the 60s; I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior. My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.

When asked about Phil Robertson belief that gays won’t go to Heaven, Storage Wars New York‘s Chris and Tad responded in true Socratic fashion:

How does [Phil] know that? Is he God?

Why do I feel there’s going to be a crossover show with Chris and Tad visiting the Duck Commander factory and meeting Phil? Or maybe a group of LGBT get lost and must stay with Robertson clan. Hilarity ensues, along with shared moments, and both sides come to a comfortable understanding, then grace is said, as always.

Late Night: Joan Fontaine, Peter O’Toole Unique TV Moments

 

Two of the greats, Joan Fontaine and Peter O’Toole played the public relations game like pros, and have a good time doing it in these vintage television clips.  Delightful, good natured and charming, their talent and star qualities shine forth, despite the silliness of the proceedings.

When asked by Vanity Fair what virtue was overrated, Miss Fontaine responded:

Virginity

No doubt the very sexy O’Toole would have agreed!

George Zimmerman: He’s Selling a Painting on eBay. And It Sucks.

Since a Florida jury acquitted him of all charges in shooting death of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman has gotten two tickets for his driving and  has  been arrested twice for domestic violence, once against his wife (they’ve since filed for divorce). and once against his new girlfriend. Charges were dropped in both DV cases, and he has had to pay fines for the moving violations.

The former Neighborhood Watch failure is now turning to art to deal with his issues. And presumably to raise some money, since he’s selling it on eBay. I can’t think of a gallery that would carry this tripe.

I asked noted art critic and gallerist Mat Gleason, whose magazine Coagula made waves (and had subscribers like John Waters and David Bowie) for his opinion. Gleason, who has taught me a lot about art and the art world, owns the acclaimed avant-garde gallery Coagula Curatorial, still publishes Coagula, and continues to write art criticism. Here’s his take:

This is the kind of painting that makes George Bush look like Rembrandt. This is either traced from a Photoshop printout or copied with hack exactitude. But it is a painting about conformity and is painted in a comformist style. Extremely un-American when you think about it. The only thing it gets points for is the monochrome, which saves it from being tacky and loud (which would actually make it more American), but the monochromie is the best asset of the rigid-minded, reinforced with stupid text of course because art must be literal in the minds of the simpletons.

But hey, it is on canvas so therefore it is art, right. I wasn’t reflexively morose over the Zimmerman verdict but the smiley face after his comment about staying indoors warrants the death penalty for this scumbag in my humble opinion. What a cruel twerp.

The bids were low, at $330, then suddenly jumped to $15,000.  Seriously? Yuck. Here’s what Zimmerman had to say about his “art.”

First hand painted artwork by me, George Zimmerman. Everyone has been asking what I have been doing with myself. I found a creative, way to express myself, my emotions and the symbols that represent my experiences. My art work allows me to reflect, providing a therapeutic outlet and allows me to remain indoors :-) I hope you enjoy owning this piece as much as I enjoyed creating it. Your friend, George Zimmerman.

RIP: “Billy Jack” Tom Laughlin Dead

Auteur film director/actor and presidential candidate Tom Laughlin is dead. He was 82. Laughlin is best known for for his film Billy Jack in which he utters the classic line:

I…just…go…BERSERK!

before beating the crap out of racist bullies. Billy Jack was one the first movies to introduce martial arts to a mainstream American movie audience, and stressed both pacifism and vigilante justice, as Vietnam War vet Billy Jack protects the alternative Freedom School and its students from the uptight town run by a corrupt rich guy whose spoiled son gets what he deserves for picking on the Freedom School kids.

Laughlin wrote, produced and directed all four of the Billy Jack canon: Born Losers  introduced the character of half-Native American Vietnam War vet, Billy Jack; the seminal Billy Jack; followed byThe Trial of Billy Jack which helped shape the future of film distribution–the groundbreaking promotion and release campaign included TV trailers during national news and an nationwide opening day; and 1977′s limping series finale, Billy Jack Goes to Washington. After the latter film, life began to imitate art; Laughlin would ran for United States President  in 1992, 2004, and 2008.

Billy Jack was the first movie I saw for which I lied about my age to get in the theater.  I saw it after Laughlin, unhappy with the way Warner Bros.marketed the film, sued for the rights and re-released it, airing commercials on TV.  You had to be 13 to get in, or have an adult with you. Luckily I was tall and/or the ticket person didn’t care. It was a pretty grownup movie, with political themes, female frontal nudity, violence, and rape. I also bought the paperback which was actually the shooting script with photos from the movie. It gave a my first look at how movies were made.

Married for 60 years to his Billy Jack series co-star Delores Taylor, Laughlin also played Moondoggie  Loverboy in the original Gidget movie, and founded Santa Monica’s first Montessori preschool.  He is survived by Taylor and their children Frank, Teresa and Christina, his five grandchildren, and his sister Joan.

Two Johns and a Whore: Conjugating Myself

Last Sunday’s LA Times let the cat of the bag:  If you read to the end in the awesome profile of  the magazine-publisher-turned-successful-gallery-owner Mat Gleason, you’ll see that I’m an artist and I’m curating an art show that opens January 11, 2014 at Coagula Curatorial.

Part of the reason I began writing about art as part of pop culture is that I love it; the other part is that it is a job and it’s awesome to get offered a gig doing what you love. So here I am, a pop culture journalist, curating a show which if I wasn’t curating I would be writing about (and probably with better sentence construction!). So I guess I should write about it, even though it feels in many ways like shameless self-promotion–though more importantly it’s excited promotion of artists whose work I like, and is a show that is pretty wow (if I do say so myself).

Here’s why I would be writing about this show: “Two Johns and a Whore” is the gallery debut of two artists who create outside of the white cube: Award-winning performance artist and actor John Fleck, and filmmaker John Roecker, who I have written about before here, and who has been a guest twice on FDL Movie Night, once for Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Gay Porn Stars, and again for his awesome gender-bending Svengali webseries.

“Two Johns and Whore” features internationally known Los Angeles-based artists Anthony Ausgang (who I have also written about here), Stacy Lande, Louie Metz, Mike Street and Kelly Thompson; plus Sheila Cameron who created the notorious “Free Katie” tee-shirts and took on NY art critic’s Jerry Saltz’s challenge to make 55 works of art in 3 months with no allusion to fairy-tale; San Diego-based visual artist, author, and musician Rafael Reyes; Bradford J. Salaman who is on exhibit at Lancaster’s Museum of Art and History through January 5;  singer/artist/writer/director/ Jane Cantillon; adult star and author Oriana Small Nazworthy (aka Ashley Blue); multi-media artist Kelly Blunt; and artist Mimi Universe, who owned Silver Lake’s popular Iota Gallery.

John Fleck is one of NEA 4, lynchpins of the culture wars, and his one-man shows delve into love, sex, death, families, pop iconography, and celebrity culture. John Roecker’s first feature film, Live Freaky Die Freaky is a claymation re-visioning of the Manson Family; his documentary, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Gay Male Porn Stars, was banned by Amazon; an article I wrote for La Figa, which was x-posted to Huffington Post changed that. His Green Day documentary, Heart Like a Hand Grenade, is due out in 2014. Both Johns are heroes of mine; they fearlessly and unabashedly dive into their work with passion and fierce dedication. Their lives are also works of art; they are constantly creating, while inspiring those around them.

I know both the Johns socially, we have meals in others homes, celebrate the holidays together. Earlier this year I was taking Curator’s College from Mat Gleason, which gave us students a chance to not only co-curate a one night show with art from his office, but to pitch him on a dream show. Three nights before the pitch class, I went to dinner with Fleck and his boyfriend Randy at my favorite neighborhood restaurant Papilles, and John mentioned he was curious about doing an art show. Roecker–who I have known since he opened the Silver Lake shock shop You’ve Got Bad Taste and curated an LA punk rock retrospective at Track 16–had over the past couple years told me he wanted to show his art in a gallery. Light bulbs went off as the Bordeaux went down and our braised lamb arrived at the table: Two Johns…two Johns…what goes with “johns”?  Whore. Two Johns and a whore, duh.

The whore part was easy to figure: Eleven or twelve artists interpreting “whore” and/or prostitution.  And I know at least a dozen artists. One thing Mat had stressed in Curator’s College was “associations.” Who you know, how you know them. I’m lucky that somehow a lot of artists and I have crossed paths (and it helps that my other is as editor for CARTWHEEL, a Los Angeles-based art website!. So I asked a couple of them:

If I could do this, would you participate?

And then on pitch day, I pitched Mat:

Two Johns and Whore, John Fleck, who like Karen Finley [Mat had shown Finley at Coagula and brought her to Miami for the Miami Art Fairs in 2012] one of the NEA 4. John Roecker,  controversial filmmaker. gallery debuts for both of them.

Then I listed off a few artists who had said yes. He liked it. And I was serious.

So over the next couple months, I checked in with Mat about dates. He said yes, definitely, once he got everything worked out at with move from 977 to 974 Chung King Road and Kim Dingle’s show was in place. I had a yes and a date (which turned out to be during the LA Art Show and photo la, talk about great timing!), and went for it, putting together the final list of artists for the whore portion, and cheerleading my Johns. Meanwhile, I took Mat’s class, Art World Boot Camp, to learn more about the how to of art in LA.

And because it was part of class, I had to create and show two pieces of art. Okay, I had made punk rock fliers like decades ago; my interior design sense doesn’t suck, I can take nice pictures, and I can rough out ads, but make art? Yikes. I went ahead and did it anyway, since stepping  outside one’s comfort zone is necessary for growth. The pieces didn’t suck  too badly.

At Art World Boot Camp show, one of the artists in “Two Johns and Whore” asked if I wanted to be in the Arroyo Arts Collective Show, and another artist friend recruited me for Meme Democracy, a show at her gallery.  Was this because I was “good”? I’m not that naive. I write about art. But I appreciated their encouragement of my fledgling ability.

So while my curating show with artists who are my friends, and writing about it for the website I edit might be considered a conflict of interest, I can’t not write about it. It’s an awesome show.

So tl/dr: Expect to see more blog posts about Two Johns and Whore, because the artists are great and the show is provocative.

Despite John Wayne, Tuberculosis Is Still Around

One of the displays in the weensy museum in my grandma’s town of Hiawatha, Kansas, was a brick engraved with with the warning:

Don’t spit on the sidewalk.

and a notice that doing so was illegal. Because, grandma told me, that’s one way tuberculosis was spread.  So to me growing up, TB was a disease from another time period, a central plot point in Anne of Green Gables, something from which Doc Holliday and Victorian women with either dubious morals or charitable inclinations suffered.” St. John’s Infirmary,”  and Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets,” Camille–these were artifacts of tuberculosis.

Then in college I had to get TB test to work as a teacher’s aid in public schools. What, TB still existed?! I was negative despite what may have been considered in Victorian times dubious morals. Several years later  I was working as personal assistant to an author who had a seven year-old son and she explained that her son took medication that had to be ground up nightly in his apple sauce. Because he had tested positive for TB. Whoa.

Tuberculosis is still amongst us and not just in in India, China, and Russia which have over 50% of the world’s cases of TB; or in the  developing world where drug-resistant TB is a

Just yesterday the Las Vegas Journal Review reported:

A case of contagious tuberculosis at the state’s second-largest school drew much attention as blood tests were given to 325 Coronado High School students and staff, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the results.

 

Zerlina Maxwell Reacts to Twitter ‘Block’ Reversal After Online Uproar

Trigger Warning: This Article Contains Content Regarding Rape Culture

Zerlina Maxwell is a bad ass who just succeeded in getting Twitter to back down on a controversial and ill-advised decision regarding the site’s ‘block’ functionality.

I spoke with her for her reaction but before that- some background:

Zerlina made waves last year following a segment on The Hannity Show where Sean Hannity attempted to argue that owning handguns would help women protect themselves against things like “evil” and rape.  A survivor herself who’s leveraged her experiences to empower other women, she pointed to statistics of rape in the military, and the fact that two-thirds of women are raped by someone they know, to insist that rape prevention starts by first telling men not to rape.

The reaction online was swift and intense.

Maxwell was bombarded with death threats and threats of rape on Twitter and Facebook for stating the obvious.

Rape culture is pervasive and the argument that victims are somehow responsible for their attacks and the actions of the individuals who would think to attack them is one that we need to eliminate from the conversation because it’s neither real nor accurate.

In her passionate advocacy against rape culture, Zerlina spends a lot of time on Twitter patiently engaging with the ill-informed and open-minded but outright blocking the dangerous and offensive.

Her experiences with the latter gave her the legitimacy to speak up on behalf of women everywhere who have been subjected to online harassment yesterday evening when Twitter announced that they would do away with the site’s ‘block’ functionality.

Maxwell took to Change.org and launched a petition to explain why the decision was “a nightmare”:

Previously, if you were being harassed or simply trolled by spam accounts, you could click the “Block” button which would forbid that user from ever following you and also remove them from your mentions and timeline.  Now, even if you block someone who is harassing you, that person becomes invisible to you but they are free to follow you and RT you into their timeline.

This is a huge and very serious problem for people, like me, who have received repeated rape and death threats on Twitter on a fairly consistent basis.  I utilize the Block button almost every day and while that is not a perfect solution – because users can simply log out to view your timeline even if you have blocked them – it at least forbid harassers from following you and at worst retweeting you into their feed which can simply allow their followers to also harass you.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet her concerns were heard.

Twitter quickly released a statement announcing that they had reversed the decision:

Earlier today, we made a change to the way the “block” function of Twitter works. We have decided to revert the change after receiving feedback from many users – we never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe. Any blocks you had previously instituted are still in effect.

I checked in with Zerlina to get her reaction to the reversal and she replied:

“happy that twitter went back to the old blocking policy but they still need to address the problem on trolling and harassment which has now reached epidemic levels on their site.  Women in particular are subjected to an online form of gender based violence on a daily basis.    You shouldn’t have to be triggered or hurt emotionally every single time you log in to twitter.  Twitter really needs to address this issue and make their reporting policy more robust.

Along those lines she’s far from celebrating just yet and has some ideas on how Twitter could truly meet their commitment to creating a safe space for their users:

They need a “muting” function, the regular old blocking function, report for spam for accounts that are set up purely to harass people online, and they need to launch a new and improved reporting policy that has real teeth.  When someone threatens to kill you on the street, that’s against the law.  Why should people be able to get away with the same thing online simply because they can remain anonymous?

Twitter’s reversal is certainly a victory– but there’s still a distinction between lip-service and a true and genuine commitment to creating a safe community that we have to make sure that they honor.

The anonymity of the Internet emboldens the worst in some people and makes the notion of threatening someone’s life, or threatening someone with rape, something that happens casually, comfortably and it’s directed at thousands of women every single day.

As much as it’s the responsibility of the companies who help facilitate our online conversations to create policies that protect us as users– it’s also up to the actual community to look out for each other when ugly seeps through.

Trolls react differently to women.  It stops being about the substance of the conversation and becomes a race to say the most sexist, hurtful thing ever. In the wake of Zerlina’s Hannity appearance (wherein she merely stated her opinion) she was repeatedly threatened with gang rape on Twitter.

That’s not okay.

It’s great that Twitter has reinstated the ability to “block” that kind of ugly but it’s also about damn time that we sincerely get to work on outright eliminating that kind of ugly. How we go about doing this is a conversation that everyone should participate in because it should matter to you, whoever you are,  that an innocent women — a rape survivor who’s perpetually revisiting one of the ugliest things that could ever happen to someone to try to prevent it from happening to other people — is having that brave action greeted with threats of more rape on a perpetual and consistent basis.

It should matter to everyone because it’s intolerable.

When you simplify what Zerlina’s been through it’s also incomprehensible.  My brain struggles to make sense of it and yet I know that it’s a real thing that’s happening to her and other women all the time.

Rape culture deserves no place in our culture– and since our culture is defined by the conversations and creations of the people within it, it need not have a place in our culture.

So yes, Zerlina Maxwell is a bad ass.

I’ve known her for years and it’s been a great joy to see the rest of the world wise up to just how much of a bad ass she actually is.

Yet all that said, I’d love to see the rest of us make her life a little easier.  I’d love 2014 to be a year where Zerlina and women like her at the forefront of fighting rape culture don’t have to work so hard because everybody’s doing it.

I don’t know what that looks like in terms of Twitter’s policy or in terms of what hashtags we use or what Tumblrs we visit or what nonprofits we support.

I just know that it’s about damn time things start to change.

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