Austin Chapman: I hate computers! I don't even know how they work
David Rossi: Well, then let me give you your first lesson. When something goes out on the internet, it's up there forever
This is a long one, so you might want a cup of tea or something.
A few years ago, I wrote an account of being stopped by the police on my way to get lunch. That essay, I Fit the Description… was posted on my blog on 4 December 2015. I posted a link to the essay on Social Media and it lead to the text going viral.
I wasn’t expecting that to happen, and while it was startling, I was prepared for a discussion. In fact, I wrote the piece and posted it on my blog because I wanted to catalyze a conversation. This was three years ago, remember, and the awareness of issues of police violence against unarmed black people was becoming known to the dominant culture. People kept saying things like “why don’t they just cooperate with the police?” and “if they’ve done nothing wrong, why are they running?” I thought if I could write about the situation in a direct and precise way and present the mental calculus that a black person does when interacting with the police, perhaps it could promote understanding.
So as I said, the piece went viral and that lead to a lot of emails and messages from strangers. It lead to media requests for discussion. The story was picked up by the Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Mic, The NEA Advocate and others. Other online sources posted about the story without even talking to me-essentially they re-wrote my post and put up a link. On Facebook, on 5 December 2015-about the same day as my original blog post-someone I did not know copied and pasted my entire blog post on to his page along with my picture with no link back to my blog or to me. This was strange to me but it is a hallmark of “virality” on the internet; if something gets popular, it if gets a lot of “likes” or “upvotes,” everyone wants to have a post on their page, website, or blog. Not because they really care about the topic (maybe they do, maybe they don’t), but because it drives traffic to their pages. This was my first exposure to this idea of traffic and the role of “influencers” on the Internet. More on that later.
For the most part, messages were positive and supportive but there were some that were so sick and so mean that I had to just delete them. I also stopped responding to people online who were commenting on my blog page. it seemed pointless to debate them since they already knew that the cops were just doing their jobs. To be clear, the way cops “just do their jobs” is part of what my account views critically. That didn’t matter. So I stopped responding to people and ended up shutting off comments for the post. The school were I worked offered to respond to any more press inquiries and I could focus on my students, whom I love, who were preparing for end of semester reviews. The furor over the piece died down and it was forgotten. People stopped emailing me and sending me messages about it. I figured it was done.
Which brings us to today.
On 17 December 2018 I was exhausted, so much so that I fell asleep watching television. I am not a good sleeper (as anyone who knows me can attest) so when I woke up at 4 am I knew I wasn’t going back to sleep. I looked at my phone and saw a Facebook Message from my friend Farah, telling me that he read my story on someone’s Facebook page. I sent him a quick note saying, “Oh goodness, that was three years ago!” without thinking much of it. Farah sent me a link to the posting which brought me to Tray John’s page. I have never met Tray John. I still haven’t.
When I followed the link to her page that Farah had sent me, I saw that she had done something similar to what Steven M. Williams did back in 2015; she had copied and pasted my text and photo onto her Facebook page. Also, like the previous poster back in 2015, she did this with no link back to my original blog, or my Facebook page. As of 4 am, her post had been shared over 90K times.
I took a deep breath and opened my email.
I had a deluge of messages. Just like before. I opened my work email. The same. And the number of emails was increasing every time I hit refresh.
I started reading some of the emails and messages and one thing became clear very quickly, people didn’t know that the story was three years old. I figured because this was copied and pasted from my blog and that John had neglected to include the date of the incident. I thought about my friends and family, especially my only sister in Detroit, opening up their social media to hear that I had been detained by the police AGAIN. I knew that they would be worried. I started texting and emailing friends and family to let them know that a three year old story was viral again. I took to Twitter to at least try to get a clarification out into the Social Media world that I was fine and that the story was not a current one. In the meantime, John’s post, with no link to my blog or Facebook page, kept going viral.
The way Facebook Messenger is set up, if you are not “friends” with someone, their messages to you go into a folder called “Message Requests.” These are held separate from other messages from people to whom you are connected. I had scores of messages from people in this folder along with Friend Requests, most well meaning and kind. There are more than a few of people telling me horrible stories of abuse they had suffered-and not just from police. The vast majority of these messages are from white people and I only know that because in the text of most of these messages they declare themselves to be white. “I’m a white person and I think what happened to you is wrong” is a common refrain in all of these messages. There is also a strong desire to hug me. (Anyone who knows me knows that I am not the “huggiest” person with strangers, still it’s a kind thought.) And as before, there were the messages from the throat of hell that I just discarded.
But in that full box of messages, I found messages from Tray John, dated 18 December 2018.
So here we are indeed 😊.
There are a lot of issues here to unpack and I talk about some of them in A Selection of Colors… (which documents an artistic response to a truly grotesque request that came from someone responding to my work). As an artist and as a budding writer, I am deeply touched when someone-anyone-connects with my work in a way that affirms their experience or excites their imagination. It is a great compliment for someone to tell you that they like your work and because of the digital proximity that Social Media provides it is easier than ever to contact artists, writers, actors, filmmakers and send them direct messages about your relationship to their work.
I am on Social Media. I am on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all under my name. I have a faculty presence at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I have my own website that contains this blog, Art and Everything After. If people want to find an online contact for me, they can. In fact, lots of shall we say passionate and demanding people have found me online with relative ease and communicated with me. So I do not think that I am difficult to find if for a person who has a question about a text I have written.
In addition, the way the post was framed by John is very interesting to me. Her post begins with: “This is a professor, who has the tools to articulate how this encounter affected him. He also has the age and wisdom that allowed for him to maintain his composure and not lose his life. Now, imagine a YOUNG Black person, who is not equip (sp) with either.” This is how she introduces the text I wrote-how she chooses to amplify my voice.
The framing here is that, while whatever happened to me was bad, imagine how bad it would be for someone who ISN’T me? I still find this stunning. Being a professor (like that was easy to do), articulate (thanks for that) and having age and wisdom (neither of which are special gifts) did not protect me from being stopped and harassed by police officers who claimed that I fit a description that they knew full well that I did not. Black people in America learn to perform the mental calculus of how to deal with police regardless of age, maturity level, education, or “tools.” The only reason things went the way that they went was that I was lucky. That’s it. I am not some magical, wise negro that can stop the police from doing things with my calm demeanor. The whole point of the text is that you can be articulate and smart and all that stuff and when the police roll up on you none of that stuff matters. All you can do is hope that they do not decide that they are going to violate your rights. I did that calculus on the street, like countless of black people do every time they encounter the police. If the police were going to violate my rights, I was going to resist. That’s my right as an American and I know that as an American who is the descendant of slaves that any exercise of my rights to law enforcement often is considered an escalation.
The framing also ignores the emotional impact of the situation on me. The thinking is along the lines of “Well, he wrote this, so he must be OK. It didn’t really damage him plus the cops really didn’t hurt him. He was humiliated sure, but, you know, it could have been worse.”
For a lot of people, this is a story. Many people have emailed and messaged me thanking me for my story and telling me how my story moved them to tears. I didn’t write a story and I do not share the contemporary urge to narrativize my own life. I wrote an account of what actually happened to me and included my internal processing and responses. That is not a story; that is a documentation. It is history. I put it out there in the world, but I placed it within a context and a framework for discussion-a discussion that I was mentally and physically prepared to have back in 2015.
What happens when history is taken out of its proscribed context and deployed by others? What happens when first-person accounts of state overreach are shared as narratives without advice, permission, or acknowledgement of the actual person whose experience is being used? What happens when someone demands a conversation from someone unwilling (or emotionally unable) to have it?
As this writing, over 200k people on Facebook have shared my experience from three years ago, copied and pasted onto that platform by someone else. I get the emails, the messages, the backlash, the traumatic recall, the change in medication, the sweating through my clothes, the demands, the threats from police offices in other cities (more about that here) and the additional emotional and psychological labor . I get all of that. What do people get from re-posting my first-hand account without attribution?
They get the likes and shares. These are the currency of the internet.
As this piece went viral for a second time, some very interesting things happened. First I got calls from two news outlets. One contacted me through email and the other contacted me by phone. Both of them told me that they had seem my Facebook post about the police stop and that it had gotten so many followers and shares that it came to their attention and they wanted to know if I wanted to do a story with them about it. In both cases, I had to advise the journalists that it was not my Facebook post that was going viral and that I already had done stories with them three years ago. I even offered to send them links to their reporting. In both cases, the reporters were deeply embarrassed and were very apologetic. One even acknowledged how retraumatizing the situation had to be for me. I appreciated that as I took a beta blocker. This is a fact of contemporary life that social media likes and shares drive the news cycle. The reporters only called me because of the Social Media activity around my name-even though they themselves had covered that story. I even offered to do a “where are they now” follow up story but they were not interested.
That currency is not theoretical and Social Media currency can become the other kind real fast. This is where I found out about traffic and influencers. Social Media influencers (SMI) are people who have amassed a great many followers and craft posts with which many people engage. This is the foundation of the economy of likes and shares. So if you are, let’s say a makeup company, and there is a person in your marketing demographic who has ten of thousands of followers on Instagram, maybe it seems like a good idea to make sure they are promoting your products to their followers so they can influence their buying decisions. So you reach out to that SMI and offer them makeup, money, gift cards or whatever to include your products in their posts.
So people who become SMIs can get lucrative deals with companies why? Because they have content that brings a lot of people to their pages. And it takes time to build an audience so if you create something that brings a lot of followers to your pages, then that traffic will get your pages noticed. Remember that news companies reached out to me based on an old story they had already covered. I can imagine that a significant number of companies would reach out to a young person in a key demographic who generated almost a quarter of a million interactions with her page. If someone could create viral content that got over 100k page views a month, that would be pretty compelling.
And it must be said, that every young person on the internet is aware of SMIs and knows that becoming one can lead to a lucrative career. Hence the idea that a post “doing numbers” is a good thing. It will get your page noticed.
Now one of the reasons I am on Social Media is to drive interest to my page and to get exhibitions and lectures about my work. I am interested in being an influencer not for another company, but for my own work. When I posted my text three years ago on my blog (which was hosted by GoDaddy at the time) the analytics showed a huge increase in traffic to my website, that meant that people were coming to my site and clicking around, which was great. In 2018, if the entire text is posted, link-free, on Facebook, where is the impetus to search out and to view the source’s website? John, who seems to have copied and pasted Williams’s posting for 2015, could only find a link to my page after someone sent it to her. Keep in mind that over 100k people who shared her post before there was any connection to the source. She eventually added a link to my blog post, for which I am grateful.
It must be said that I don’t blame John for any of this. I take her at her word. I don’t think she meant any harm to me, in fact, I don’t think she thought about me as a person or the the effect this would have on me at all. That’s ok. I don’t think about reporters after I read their work either; I think about what they reported. I think that like a lot of people, myself included, share things we read on the internet in order to raise awareness, share outrage, organize and affirm. There is a great solace in knowing that people know about an injustice in the click of a mouse. I think that is a good thing and like I said, I am deeply touched and humbled that my words have moved people. I do believe her when she says her goal was to amplify my voice. Her intentions were good.
Intentions are different than outcomes.
In a 1998 episode of Law and Order, titled “Under the Influence,” District Attorney Jack McCoy and his Assistant DA Jamie Ross are in discussion about an alcoholic man who murdered three people while drunk. Jack accuses the man of hiding behind the bottle and Jamie affirms that it is a valid defense; he didn’t intend to kill anyone. McCoy says to her, “The law. Probably written on a cocktail napkin. Intent follows the bullet. It shouldn’t matter if it was fired by a drunk or by Carrie Nation.”
McCoy (played by Sam Waterston, a man on whom I have had a crush ever since I’ll Fly Away) is right. If you fire a gun that means that you intended to shoot. It also means that you are responsible for where that bullet ends up. I put something on Social Media and that means that it was meant to be shared. That’s on me. But when someone reframes the context and inserts my words into a context they have established, that is not sharing. That has a different intention and it leads to different outcomes. For me. For everyone.
Strangers asked me to do a lot of emotional labor in the wake of this-not all of it bad, but a lot of labor nonetheless. I had to review a lot of messages. Some have demanded that that I explain myself further. Some have told me that they need to tell me about what happened to them, as if I am some kind of Father Confessor. Some have expressed a tremendous amount of guilt and shame for being white. Some have asked to interview me, which I find particularly odd since I wrote an account. The only reason I can think of for a video interview is to record me talking about one of the most frightening moments in my life. I wonder what that would be for? How would that be useful to anyone-especially since it would be so emotionally expensive for me? Maybe I would shake and cry and my voice would break? I try to explain to that I wrote about the experience so I wouldn’t have to talk publicly about it since in all honesty it was a very difficult day. I really did feel a responsibility to engage everyone who wrote me, not to help them, but to let them know that I was fine and that what happened had happened 3 years ago. The stress of the messages lead me back to my doctor and a beta blocker to lower my blood pressure.
I want to clarify something here. People say to me (still) that I should just not read the messages. I agree with them. Here’s the thing: when you are living with PTSD, it is very hard to detach from certain kinds of stimuli, especially when you are threatened or under attack (think about getting one of those emails) . This isn’t just being startled, this is the entire body in a fight or flight mode all the time. This puts a person with PTSD on a quest for safety and in my case, I have to make sure I know where every thing is, who said what, which messages are threats and which ones are supportive. If I had messages, I had to review them to see which ones should be sent to the police. I archived many of the posts and worked on creating screen shots of others. I had to alert Public Safety at school-people were sending messages to my school email so I had/have a tremendous amount of fear going to work. When someone sends you an email saying that you should be shot and they know where you work it can be unsettling. Add PTSD to that and you spend a lot of time making certain that doors are locked and, essentially, doing what you can to know what is out there. So that’s one big reason why I had to go through all the messages: it was a way to exercise some control.
18 December as I was going through messages, I saw that the post on Tray John’s page had gotten to 100k like and shares and growing. I talked with a couple of friends about this. They were worried about me and trying to get me off the internet, or at least away from my email. I told one of them that I was getting so many messages and so many people were asking what they could do. I didn’t know what to tell them and I thought I should acknowledge their messages. Without hesitation, my friend said to me:
“If they really want to help you, they should fund a studio. If all 100,000 of those people gave you a dollar, you could build it.”
I thought she was kidding but she wasn’t. I reached out to someone in crowdfunding for advice and they advised me that it was the smart thing to do when a post is going viral. So I created a GOFUNDME page and wrote a boiler place thank you note and started sending it to everyone who sent me a message.
Thanks for your message. I wrote “I Fit The Description...” three years ago in order to process one of the worst days of my life. While seeing it go viral again after someone posted it on Facebook has reawakened that awful experience, I’m humbled that the post resonated with you.
I’ve received hundreds of emails from folks all over asking if I’m ok and how they can help. Three years on, I’m fine and you can help here.
Both of my friends really thought that I should at least give people the opportunity to do something since they were offering. I raised about $6,500. with is not bad, but it is about $94k short of what I need to build the studio. I am glad I did it though. Almost 200 people have donated. That post on Tray John’s page is up over 200k shares at this point (if you are doing the math, that’s $0.50 per person to build my studio). People asked what they could do to help and I told them. Remember, intent follows the bullet. And what people do has way more importance than what people say.
When I created the GOFUNDME, I reached out to Tray John. I asked her, since the majority of people were reading the story on her page and not my blog, to at least post my message and a GOFUNDME link on her page. She declined. Telling me:
I have to admit, I laughed out loud when I read this. “Good for you,” I thought. She has very good boundaries about what she will or won’t do and who gets access to her page. I really learned something from John in that moment: the importance of policing one’s own Social Media space and being careful about partnering with other people. They may negatively affect your brand and your traffic.
Instead, I gave the link to friends and instead, asked them to share it, especially where they saw the copy/paste version of my text.
About 12 hours later, John sent me a final message.
I really appreciate that she compromised her principles to do that for me.