Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring intertextuality in the representations of protesting workers in newsreels and actualities of early film. This means that I have been asking questions such as where do these ways of representing come from, do they have a history, or were they just coincidental?
To give an example I would like to share these two images. One is an illustration of a Mayday parade of 1890 – the first held in Stockholm – was published in an illustrated Swedish magazine called Svea. The other is a frame from a newsreel documenting a Mayday parade in Uppsala in 1914, produced by Swedish Biograph. In spite of their differences, to me, there arguably is an interesting resemblance between these two images. Both depict a speaker on a podium in the background, and the backs of the by standing audience in the foreground. There is intertextuality at work, it could be argued, suggesting a form of intermediality between early cinema and the illustrated press. It could also be coincidence. The methodological issue is, of course more complicated: sources will have to be consulted before either argument can be made. But even at this preliminary stage, it is a reminder of the need for caution so that technological change is not confused with cultural and/or social change.
If we instead focus on the differences between these two images, such as the proximity to the audience and in particular the faces of the people in the crowd who look back at the camera, things become even more complicated. The camera operator could have chosen to take the shot from a greater distance so as not to be noticed by the people in the crowd. That may not have been possible, or there may have been an intent to interact in order to capture movement. Of course an illustration could just as easily have included a face, but in this case the camera operator arguably invites a form of interaction – dare I say participation? – which seems specific to the medium and makes it difficult to rule out the role of technology in the process of representation.
These images and reflections are glimpses of an analysis that is still work in progress. But even at this preliminary stage, it seems to me that making comparisons such as these confronts us with an important question about the extent to which we can understand the history of protest representation on the screen in terms of differences and similarities, and to what extent we dare to speak about continuity and/or change.
North Carolina has been shaken by protests over the shooting of a black man by a police officer, an event which has also left its mark on the global channels we follow. It is a type of event that occurs increasingly often in the US and finds its way not just into newscasts, but into the headlines, right up there with the war in Syria and World Powers summits, signalling the importance news broadcasters assign to this topic. The protests in Charlotte were sparked by the killing of Keith Lamont Scott – the third black person to be shot by police in the US in a week. Violent clashes, pleas by the mayor of Charlotte to keep the protests peaceful, and statements of the local police chief have punctuated the headlines. Yesterday, BBC World devoted no less than five minutes of its halfhour 8pm (CET) broadcast to these events, focusing on the details of the investigation, the interest of security forces in maintaining the peace and protecting buildings, of officials in keeping the city open (without imposing curfews) and clean, and of the protesters in punishing the police for what they perceive as crimes against black people.
On the other end of the earth, in Romania, police have also played a prominent role in protests this week. The story, however, is quite different. People have taken to the streets of Bucharest and elsewhere after the Romanian Senate decided to reject a move by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) to approve the prosecution of Gabriel Oprea, former Interior Minister, currently senator. The senator is involved in a scandal that started with the death of a young policeman who died while escorting Oprea’s official entourage last October. The Senator had requested a police escort and instructed it how fast to drive. According to the DNA, Oprea has used police escorts more than three times as often as the Romanian president. The Senate’s vote means the senator retains his immunity and his prosecution is blocked. More protests are announced for later today as citizens consider this vote an act of injustice. Despite giving pride of place to protests in a US city, day after day, protests in the Romanian capital, concerning a high-ranking politician and the abuse of power, have not made their way into any of the newscasts we follow. And we follow a lot of them.
The striking presence of the Charlotte, and absence of Bucharest in this week’s global media representations of protest has a bearing on questions posed in the Screening Protest project. What events are made visible in the news, who speaks out, how does the map of the world look like in the eyes of the broadcasters of our interest, and what news is considered more important? To these questions, we can find empirical answers. The question of why police brutality in the US is more newsworthy than the abuse of power and corruption of the Romanian political class can only be given speculative answers.
On Race Relations Sunday in 1938, my grandfather Paul Becker held a sermon entitled ‘If I were a Negro’ at University Christian Church in Des Moines IA. The service was broadcast by radio, and the following week the church was packed. This past July, I visited the church, where I found Paul Becker’s portrait in the ’Heritage Room’ tucked away on the building’s 5th floor.
I wrote to Ryan Arnold, the current minister, about the sermon, and my brother tracked down the original text, scanned it and sent it to Ryan. The minister asked our permission to post it on the church’s home page. The neighborhood around the church has changed considerably, and the church is actively seeking ways to reach out to the mixed ethnic and mostly poor people who live nearby.
Ryan waited to post the sermon until yesterday, and wrote me to explain the delay:
‘We’ve been waiting to post Rev. Becker’s sermon knowing it will get more traffic if we wait until the social conversation moved back to racial injustice. Unfortunately, we assumed it was only a matter of time before our consciousness returned to the necessity of saying Black Lives Matter. Given yesterday evening’s release of the video showing police officers murdering Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, OK, we released the sermon moments ago. You can find it here.
Today, the police video showing Terence Crutcher’s death is receiving world-wide news coverage and has received over a million views on You Tube.
I know that Paul Becker would have been proud but humble that his important sermon can speak on behalf of Black Lives Matter. Nor would he be surprised to know that his granddaughter is involved in Screening Protest, a research project on histories of protest and the ongoing struggle for social justice in today’s news media.