Monday, December 1, 2014

Privilege, Power, and Plywood: What To Do With Our Walls

This has been an interesting time to live in St. Louis.

I was watching live feeds when the grand jury announcement was made (in full dark at 8:30 pm), and several protesters formed human barriers around buildings to try and prevent destruction, but I could also feel the tide of pain and anger swelling. That night several businesses burned in Ferguson, and a smaller protest took place in my own neighborhood.

A group of protesters had marched for a few hours without incident, but it ended with tear gas at a coffee shop and smashed windows in 20 storefronts along a major business district. There's video of the tear gassing here and an account of the events throughout the night here as well as a firsthand account here.

The next morning, business owners and community members started cleaning up the mess, and soon groups of people had gathered to paint the boards covering the windows.

It's those paintings I want to reflect on today because I've personally had a flurry of different emotions while looking at them, and I've seen even more reactions to them from friends and friends of friends on Facebook.

When I first saw the paintings, I noticed the brightly colored ones and felt a surge of pride and pain: pride to live in a neighborhood full of people who would come together like this and pain to think about the hurt, fear, and anger of those who smashed the windows in the first place.

But I also had a feeling deeper that was more complicated than those surface emotions of pride and sympathy. Later, I saw a friend share this status criticizing the paintings as the work of white privilege, and I started to unpack that deeper emotion. 

In the midst of that unpacking, I went to look at the paintings for myself. I used the unseasonably warm weekend to walk with my family to get some breakfast. There were plenty of other people doing the same, and I saw people of different ages and races taking pictures of the paintings and sharing nods at one another. I heard one woman say to the man she was with "This is what I'll show people when they ask me why I live here. This is why we're not leaving." 

I also went and looked at some articles about the paintings. This St. Louis Public Radio piece is thorough and titled "Windows, Boards, Resilience Line South Grand." The title alone suggests that the author sees the boards as a positive message, but it also features interviews with business owners and employees, and there's a clear sense of concern for their livelihoods if people see the neighborhood as dangerous and stop patronizing them. 

I also found this slideshow at KSDK about the paintings, and it featured a group of bundled up kids with paint rollers, showing that many of the paintings were done by children.

I've spent the last few days mulling over these intersections and what it means for the power of this display of public rhetoric. I don't know the answers, but I do know that these boards have a lot of meaning, and that it is definitely not simple. 

To start figuring it out, we can look at one of the fundamental tools of rhetorical analysis: the rhetorical triangle. We learn that there is a medium, a sender, and a receiver. The medium here is clear: pieces of plywood nailed to windows have been painted with various messages. The sender and receiver? Not so clear. 

The painters are not all the same people. Some of the paintings look professionally done, others are clearly the work of children, and many fall somewhere in between. Some of the messages seem to be coming from the store owners, some from the employees, and some from the community at large.

As for the audience, the immediate viewers will be those who come by the store, and the intended audience for many is customers. They will also be seen by many people living in the neighborhood as well as people who drive by. Finally, they've got a potentially international audience as news of the St. Louis protests makes the media rounds. 

We can't, then, take these boarded up windows and their paint as one giant work of rhetoric. There are too many authors and too many audiences (intended and not) to make any sweeping statements about what these words and images do or mean, so perhaps my mixed bag of emotions is a reflection on the mixed bag of messages and the different audiences I stepped in and out of as I walked past. 

A lot of the paintings function to let customers know that the store is, despite the boards, open for business. A lot of them declare "OPEN" in large, colorful letters, which is straightforward, but also puts a pretty, welcoming facade onto an otherwise unwelcoming layer of brown plywood.

The businesses need customers in order to survive.
Other businesses (like this one) focus on their longstanding history in the community, declaring themselves "family owned" and operating since 1972. 

I found the "Every tear shed is outa love" message really powerful as well. This seems to be a message of solidarity with the protesters, a message that they aren't being blamed for the destruction and potential loss of business and that tears shed are hopes for a brighter future. 

Many of the paintings had a more overt message of solidarity and support, some even becoming messages of protest themselves. This painting, for example, evokes the "hands up, don't shoot" message that has become a common chant among the protesters (and shares imagery with the street art covering the boarded up buildings in Ferguson). 

This painting, too, takes a more overt stance that justice was not served, claiming that "justice is blind, but we can see." 

Most of the paintings, though, shy away from such a direct message and instead send up a general call for peace and love. 

Messages calling for "One Love" or "Peace" are common, and perhaps it is this gather-round-the-campfire ethos that has some people calling foul on the whole endeavor. Calling for peace is certainly a valuable desire (and one I want myself), but if it ignores the circumstances in which this particular violence (the broken windows) was enacted, it can  have the same impact of those who insist they are "colorblind" (an ideology that is a friendly-sounding form of racism). 

However, there are other paintings lining the streets that put that message of peace and love into a different context, one that's less about ignoring the problems of the present and more about hoping for a better future. It's hard not to hope for an optimistic outcome when surrounded by the hopefulness and innocence of childhood. 

Paintings covered in stick figures, tiny handprints, and "#KidPower" remind us that no matter what is happening today, we are passing down a legacy for the future. There are many children who live in this neighborhood, children who have surely been feeling the anxiety, fear, and sorrow of the community around them. 

There were only a few messages that could really be construed as taking a stance against the protesters or their actions. One, a place that serves eggs, has a rooster saying "Break eggs, not windows." Even this, though, is more playful than condemning. 

Only a single painting really bothered me. One building said "Stop choosing sides and turn off your TV." 

The suggestion that one can make the problem go away simply by turning off your TV is one that ignores the lived reality of the people doing the protesting, people for whom turning off the TV does no good. In fact, it is the TV (and social media) that allows them to share their frustration, pain, and fear, that allows people like me who benefit from white privilege and who don't know what it's like to feel that kind of oppression to hear the story and reflect on where we fit in it.

And the suggestion that we need to "stop choosing sides" is even more frustrating. While I understand the desire to stop turning everything into a set of binary oppositions, there are definitely times when we need to choose sides and take a stand. Suggesting that people are wrong for choosing to support protesters or that they've been brainstormed by a media narrative negates the stories that real, living people are telling and reduces them to background noise.

In the end, I spent the most time reflecting on a message that I saw painted on several boards. It said "Why? We need our jobs."

This short message demonstrates the rhetorical complexity quite nicely. On the one hand, it seems to be a message from the business owners to the protesters. "Why [did you break our windows]? [We are part of your community and] we need our jobs." 

But it also seems like an answer from the employees to the protesters, especially in the face of criticisms that painting the boards is an attempt to hide behind privilege, to "pretty up" a necessarily ugly reality: "Why [did we paint over these boards]? [Because it will make people feel safe enough to shop and] we need our jobs." 

Finally, I've been thinking about the parallels between these literal walls and the figurative ones of Facebook. In both instances, we are sending messages out to an audience that's broad and unpredictable in scope. The business owners don't know who will be driving past these windows just as I don't know which friends of friends are going to see my Facebook posts. 

It made me think of an interesting post I read this weekend titled "Dear White Allies, Stop Unfriending Other White People Over Ferguson" (the link has been a little erratic because of the traffic, but it's definitely worth reading). In this post, Spectra Speaks suggests that white allies have a responsibility to engage in the uncomfortable conversations surrounding Ferguson and the other police shootings of unarmed black men and boys.  In part, Spectra Speaks writes:
I’m seeing one too many white people bragging about defriending other white people. I don’t need your condolences. I don’t need rash actions that absolve you of the responsibility of facilitating hard conversations with folks I will never be able to reach. 
I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion. Because I will not do this. I cannot do this.
In many ways, I've been conscious of the need to engage with people who do not understand the protesters and who disagree with them vehemently. I've been very conscious with each post that I share (including this one) of how I might be isolating people who I could talk to, how I might be shutting down conversations that might not otherwise happen. My Facebook feed is filled with people who have only visited St. Louis for baseball games and who have no sense of the neighborhoods surrounding it as well as people who have lived in communities void of any racial diversity entirely. My feed is also made up of several police officers and their family members. It is also filled with protesters: passionate, intelligent, and hurt people who I love deeply.

I want to be someone who engages thoughtfully and meaningfully, but every post I write or even share runs the risk of shutting down that engagement. In some ways, my Facebook wall mirrors those "Peace and Love" paintings: focusing on the easiest, most palatable message instead of the one that needs to be heard the most. I know that is a message of privilege. I can post the positive and the feel good because I am afforded a distance that many of my friends are not, but I also know that I have a responsibility to do more than that, to use any platform I have to make sure the voices of the protesters are heard. I think that the painters of those pieces of plywood are trying to walk the same lines: keeping the audience without losing the message, and I empathize.

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