Friday, August 5, 2011

Flashmobs and the inevitable media hype come to Wisconsin

The news of randomized beatings of Fair-goers in West Allis is nothing new to me since I’ve spent my summer in Philadelphia, the birthplace of violent flashmobs. Get ready, Wisconsin. The media hype that’s coming our way is the media’s perfect antidote to the slow news days that will follow the recall elections.

The language in this WTMJ story is most troubling.


"It looked like they were just going after white guys, white people," said Norb Roffers of Wind Lake in an interview with Newsradio 620 WTMJ.  He left the State Fair Entrance near the corner of South 84th Street and West Schlinger Avenue in West Allis."They were attacking everybody for no reason whatsoever."

"It was 100% racial," claimed Eric, an Iraq war veteran from St. Francis who says young people beat on his car. 

"I had a black couple on my right side, and these black kids were running in between all the cars, and they were pounding on my doors and trying to open up doors on my car, and they didn’t do one thing to this black couple that was in this car next to us.  They just kept walking right past their car.  They were looking in everybody’s windshield as they were running by, seeing who was white and who was black.  Guarantee it."


I’ve spent today mulling over the coverage of this story, trying to avoid jumping down WTMJ’s throat. I’m only a student, and I keep telling myself that I’m not an expert on journalistic ethics even though I’m deeply interested in the subject. But this kind of behavior goes against what I’ve learned in my short two years of news reporting. Journalism is a public service. This kind of fear-mongering (I hate that term) only worsens racial tensions, especially because of the lack of significant comment from a member of the black community in the initial story. 

I’ve observed that one of Wisconsin’s biggest problems is its hidden and constantly-denied strain of racial disparity and fear which mostly stems from not being able to come to terms with the changes of a city like Milwaukee. Chicago and Philadelphia are lucky to have suburbs with large middle-class black populations (my current city, Downingtown, Penn., is one) but Milwaukee has almost none. It earns its title of “most segregated city in the country.” In Philly, suburbanites reacting to the series of flash mob incidents know the city faces a class problem brought on by crumbling infrastructure in North Philadelphia, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. But some members of Milwaukee’s suburban class, completely insulated from black culture, can only point to a “race riot” (Vicki McKenna actually used this term in a Tweet) as a motive for the flash mob that happened the other night. 

There’s a reason Milwaukee’s suburbs are counted as some of the most socially conservative areas of the country—many area residents are terrified of further urbanization. The WTMJ story is absurd, irresponsible sensationalism aimed directly at that audience. Where’s the “we’re not jumping to conclusions” line? Where was the rational other side to this story explaining the “black on black” crime Milwaukee Council President William Hynes described to the Journal-Sentinal? 

The State Fair incident, with help from talk radio and incindiary rhetoric, will only turn a class issue into a race issue and further divide the most divided state in the country.

In Philadelphia, flashmobs have been a problem for almost two years. In 2010, a large pack of teenagers, most of them from minorities (Philly is a majority-minority city), started a large brawl on South Street, the city’s main entertainment thoroughfare. Last year more youths attacked shoppers at a Macy’s store in Center City. This year has seen the most disturbing violent mob incidents—a local journalist had her leg broken after a mob attack on Broad Street and an 11-year-old boy participating in a large mob was arrested for trying to mug a man in a safe, busy commercial area last week. 

Rarely, except in online comments, have local media in Philadelphia reported these crimes as racially motivated. No witnesses have come forward to say they feel like their attackers were racists—in fact, the young journalist I mentioned earlier this week disputed claims the attack was racially motivated.

Guendelsberger disputes claims that the attack was racially-motivated.  She notes that her boyfriend, who was attacked, is Indian-American.  

"I didn’t get the feeling that this was black kids beating up white kids…It was just kids breaking stuff and we happened to be the stuff that they ran across so."

Too many people will say the attacks at the fair were racially motivated, but that’s a naïve and useless approach to a much larger social problem. In historically segregated cities like Milwaukee or Philadelphia, there’s an issue with class just as much as there is with racism. The teenagers involved in these incidents are the archetypically alienated young adults we’re used to seeing channel their anger and angst into things like grunge music or, when violence takes over, school shootings. Social media has only made organizing “fuck shit up” events like this easier, and race means nothing. The point of these mobs is to have no point, to cause chaos, to follow roughly the same mentality of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark KnightIt will continue to spread in poor communities—don’t expect this to be the only incident of its kind in Milwaukee or even in Wisconsin. 

Media outlets—especially TV and talk radio personalities, will try to convince Wisconsinites these are race riots. Don’t let the irresponsible journalism get to you. These are not hate crimes, they’re senseless acts of violence from children who have grown up in violent communities. 

Plus, is two years too long to remember a white guy beating the mayor of Milwaukee outside the State Fair?

UPDATE [7:45 EST 8-5-11] I suggest reading this piece from the Madison Onion A.V. club to compliment this blog post.


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