November 26, 2014

Under Siege, Those Dancing Blacks and Acrobatic Palestinians

It’s probably stretching to castigate these news photos or to see them as less than innocent. Still, given the timing and circumstances, there is a frivolous quality that troubled me as soon as I encountered each. The first, titled “Tense Ferguson, Missouri Awaits Grand Jury Findings In Shooting Of Michael Brown,” was taken the night before the grand jury announcement in Ferguson at the apex of anxiety over the outcome. What we’re witnessing are black youth breakdancing in the foreground of Mike Brown’s death site and public memorial. The second was taken at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem of Palestinian youth practicing Parkour, an athletic ritual to overcome physical obstacles. With Israel restricting Muslims access to the Dome of the Rock, one of their most holy sites, the photo itself hangs in the tension-filled air.

Perhaps the dancing or athletic exhibition represents an expression of cultural solidarity and even transcendence, as well as a way to let off steam in the face of the pressure cooker. But how, in the case of the first shot, for example, does it read to a largely white readership, published by largely white editors and publishers, especially now — after one night, then two of intense anger and sporadic violence after the grand jury non-decision and the reflex against perceived racial ignorance?

If I believed the world had that much more sensitivity, I would think these photos would be recognized and celebrated as empathetic to the largely black residents of Ferguson or to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. In a more ideal world, they would surely operate as they do on the surface, as the celebration of life, the affirmation of identity and a reminder not to take things so seriously. Quite the opposite though, what I’m afraid of is how much they function as stereotypes, as objects of pacification and as tokens to relieve nearly everyone else’s tension.

(photo 1: Scott Olson/Getty Images caption: Young boys break dance near the Michael Brown memorial on November 23, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson is struggling to return to normal after Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, on August 9. His death has sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson. A grand jury is expected to decide soon if Wilson should be charged in the shooting. photo 2: Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images caption: Palestinian youths practice the sport of Parkour outside the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa mosque following Friday prayers in Jerusalem.)

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Michael Shaw
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