Spike Lee and Toledo
Reader Caution: This column focuses on race in a manner designed to create discomfort.
Spike Lee considers himself a modern day observer of American life through the lens of a camera. I consider him a racist. Just because he doesn't wear a white sheet and hood shouldn't disqualify him from the ranks of our nation's most prominent bigots.
Spike has announced his latest film endeavor, a documentary of the after effects of Hurricane Katrina, focusing on predominantly poor black neighborhoods. Spike believes there is a story to tell, and I don't disagree with him.
Katrina exposed much more than a poorly designed levee system and inadequate government emergency response network. Katrina exposed a divide between race and class that many wish would just go away; a reminder that no matter how far we as a nation have come since the civil rights movement of the '50's and '60's, we still have a long to go.
Now comes Spike and a film crew, fully capable of producing a thoughtful, insightful analysis of that race and class gap and how vulnerable the poor are in times of emergency. With his immense talent, there is no reason that he cannot use the power of film and his considerable storytelling ability to explore these complex relationships and dependencies.
No reason other than racism, that is.
Spike Lee believes that race did play a major role in the Katrina disaster, though. He has suggested, on several occasions, that the government allowed the lower Ninth Ward, home to block after block of subsidized and low income housing, to flood following the disaster.
Given that he has already demonstrated that belief in interviews, one can only assume his documentary will pursue that theory.
Now, I don't begrudge Spike the right to express himself, and if Michael Moore can craft total fiction and call it a documentary, surely Spike Lee, a much more talented filmmaker, should have the same right.
My issue involves using a bully pulpit to incite passions and actions that are based on patent falsehoods and misrepresentations. I have no problem with those calling George Bush names, attacking the policies of his administration, and protesting in the public square. Our nation is strengthened by passionate dissent, real or imagined.
My problem comes from lying to the disaffected, disenfranchised, and disrespected in such a manner as to generate deeper negative perceptions. Telling a man who just lost his job that you know exactly who was responsible when you really have no idea, and then watching him seek out and punish the supposed offender is sick and twisted.
Civil disobedience without any form of morality or honor is anarchy, and that is exactly what Spike is inviting with his documentary. What happened to the idea of a thought-provoking argument presented in a rational, logical manner designed to spur more debate?
Angry voices spewing lies and distortions do a much greater disservice to a special interest or minority group than just going out and starting a riot. When a credible media personality like Spike Lee places himself in the position of Liar-in-Chief, hoodlums, thugs, and degenerates feel empowered to act out and misbehave.
The air of legitimacy Spike lends to a foolish proposition is comparable to the use of jet fuel to light a charcoal grill; highly combustible, so much so that there have to be other, better ways to get the job done.
Recent events in Toledo, Ohio, demonstrate my point. A group of neo-Nazi knuckleheads applied for a permit to gather and march though city neighborhoods.
As the police spokesman said: "We wish we didn't have to allow this, but we have a legal obligation to protect the marchers, the counter protestors, and the local residents."
When the counter protest outgrew the permitted march by a huge percentage, the police convinced the neo-Nazis that they'd be better off going home. They did.
I took my girlfriend (now my wife) to see a John Denver concert in high school. He sang a song called "Toledo, Ohio." The first verses were:" Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio, is like being no place at all. They roll up the sidewalks exactly at 10, and the people who live there are not seen again."
The TV images coming from Toledo today are very different from Mr. Denver's vision in the late 1970's. Looting, wanton destruction of private property, and breaking and entering private homes looked to be the order of the day.
My confusion over misdirected anger popped up again. Why is it that a protestor, angered over the possibility (remember, the protestors never really protested) of a protest, feels it is an appropriate expression of that moral outrage to steal a television or a pair of Nikes?
If the neo-Nazis were going to protest, isn't it hurting the cause of peace-loving people who despise messages of hatred and intolerance when the peace-lovers turn into smash-and-grab thieves?
An assistant pastor of a black Toledo church was on TV after the riots talking about them. He made it clear that those who stole, set fires, and destroyed property deserve to be criminally charged.
He suggested, however, that there might be some justification for their actions. He intimated that minority communities feel so threatened by these "invasive" tactics that they sometimes resort to violence and mob behavior as a sort of "lashing out."
If that were true, then I could see a skirmish between the skinheads and the neighborhood, culminating in a chorus of celebration when the police are forced to ferry the Nazis away.
Unfortunately, that isn't what happened in Toledo. Once the police spirited the Nazi nuts away, the protestors turned their negative energies on their own neighborhoods. Locally owned stores, houses, and vehicles became targets for looters and thieves.
The pastor had some good ideas for focusing on our disaffected communities in a more positive way, by recognizing and celebrating achievement and accomplishment.
Now there's a subject for Spike Lee's next big film. Help disaffected minority communities develop as sense of pride and empowerment. Use Spike's substantial Hollywood influence to craft a positive message of rising beyond historic constraints and prejudices to lead a successful life.