Misrepresentations Can Be Dire

Last year Assata Shakur became the first woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list. Many people have never heard of her, and admittedly, I hadn’t either, until hearing the refrain to Piebald’s “If Marcus Garvey Dies, Then Marcus Garvey Lives.” I hadn’t heard of neither her nor Marcus Garvey, but I didn’t bother to find out who they were until years later. I am a human, and humans can be lazy that way.

When I finally looked into Assata Shakur and why she is worth writing a song about, it was long after I’d met a 12-year-old girl named Assata, and after Piebald had broken up. Assata Shakur was involved in the Black Panther Party (BPP) and  some people (whose opinions I generally didn’t value) had compared the Black Panther Party to the KKK. When I decided I should look into the BPP myself, I checked my local library offerings and requested “Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton” written by Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, and Assata’s autobiography.

“Seize the Time” described the genesis of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, which includes the 10-point platform and program of the BPP. The text emphasizes a need for black people to protect their own communities and defend their rights, because they had been failed by a system never designed to protect them. Seale describes how the media attempts to paint them as black racists, and how the BPP rejected any ideology that worked that way. Seale calls attention to distributors who would intentionally lose their papers. It is just another step by their oppressors to misrepresent their cause so the majority of citizens would not sympathize with them.

In her autobiography, Assata describes similar things happening to her as well. She shares her discomfort with her image on the  wanted posters posted everywhere and how many people who meet her remark on how they expected her to look meaner and be blacker. I really identified with Assata. The way she describes her passions, interests, and clashes resonate with me on a level reserved for close friends. Not long after purchasing a copy of her autobiography for myself and a friend, I found myself driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike. A digital billboard switched from some inane ad to a photograph of Assata with the words “TERRORIST” and her legal name “JOANNE CHESIMARD” next to it. I was filled with strange emotion and started crying a bit. Everyone knows Assata is in Cuba. Why are we bothering? I don’t know whether or not Assata shot a cop on the turnpike, but considering the intensity with which they’re pursuing her raises concerns about this that and the criminal justice system. That Assata is portrayed as a terrorist is frustrating. Fighting against oppression is not terrorism. Two people shoot and kill. One is a terrorist, one is a hero. Why?

With recent admissions about the NSA and internet / mobile communication surveillance, I’m sure it’s a bad idea (“sympathizing with a ‘terrorist’”) to write this piece. Whistleblower Edward Snowden said, “…even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these system increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude, to where it’s getting to the point you don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made. Every friend you’ve ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”

Last year, FBI agents along with anti-terrorism task force agents took a battering ram and smashed down the door of Leah-Lynn Plante, a 24 year old anarchist living in Portland, Oregon. She and her roommates were handcuffed at gunpoint and read a search warrant before the agents went through their home and taking such “evidence” as books, literature, and artwork. They were told this was because of suspicion related to vandalism during the Seattle May Day riots that year, but according to Plante, the “grand jury was convened on March 2, 2012, two months before the May Day vandalism even took place.”

A number of my friends identify politically as anarchist, and I probably even have anarchist literature. I’m sure owning Assata’s autobiography doesn’t do me any favors in that regard. It’s likely if FBI agents broke down my front door and took a bunch of my books, zines, and artwork, they could use that along with out of context quotes from my intimate conversations to paint me in a really threatening light. The way the media portrays people is a powerful influencer on how they are viewed by the public, on how they are treated, on how they gain or do not gain rights.

The media is a powerful influencer on how movements are viewed by the public. The more I talk about and read about feminism on the internet, the more I find people spewing sexist lies they may or may not believe that seek to discredit or undermine the feminist movement. Discovering the term “straw feminist” was really powerful for me. “to name it – having language to discuss and dismantle this phenomenon is powerful” It allows me to understand my position and explain it and make sense of the slander. It also makes it easy to identify instances of straw feminism in the media, and find fictional characters that are shaping these views. In her book, “Feminism is for Everybody”, bell hooks talks about how the media’s representation has affected feminism,

“Conservative mass media constantly represented feminist women as man-haters. And when there was an anti-male faction or sentiment in the movement, they highlighted it as a way of discrediting feminism. Embedded in the portrayal of feminists as man-hating was the assumption that all feminists were lesbians. Appealing to homophobia, mass media intensified anti-feminist sentiment among men. … Anti-feminist men have always had a strong public voice. The men who feared and hated feminist thinking and feminist activists were quick to marshal their collective forces and attack the movement.” (pp 67-68)

Oppressive institutions have it in their best interest to squash movements from the folks they are oppressing. Oppressive institutions have the money and power to influence popular opinion. And unfortunately, humans are lazy. Humans often accept information at face value, especially when it relates to things they’d had no investment in. You may find no need to question the representation of an individual or people group in the media, until they turn on you.

There’s never been a better time than now, in the age of social media to fight the powerful influencers. Don’t just accept information at face value. Question the way something is being portrayed. Consider what sort of images are used, the connotation of descriptors. Are a majority being represented by a radical extremist faction? Look for first person accounts, documents about the goals of a movement, of a person, etc. Challenge baseless assumptions launched against a group or an individual, especially when you know that they’re fighting against oppression. Question (mis)representations from the media, and seek to share the truth you find. Your rights and freedoms might eventually depend on it.

 Originally published on The Letter Red.

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2 thoughts on “Misrepresentations Can Be Dire

    • You’re right, Angela Davis was the first woman on the Most Wanted Fugitive list. Assata Shakur was the first woman on the Most Wanted Terrorist list. I’ve edited the article to reflect that.

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