If It Isn’t On MY Phone . . . It Didn’t Happen

I have become a true aficionado of Portland street violence. No really, I savor every riot, every confrontation and each unpermitted march like a vintage of fine wine.  Each clash is an expression of the Portland terroir. 

I won’t critique the street politics. No, long ago I concluded that is a waste of time. The magnetic attraction of the two sides has become tedious. That’s right . . . attraction.  They are the couple who you can never figure out why they got married. By all outward appearances, the spouses have nothing common, argue all the time and god forbid they actually have kids. Nonetheless, something in the nightmare of a relationship just seems to work for them. They can’t get enough of each other.

This latest street embarrassment served to magnify the unifying defining feature of street theater: it must be recorded on a cell phone. Deprived of a thrilling clash of the main bodies of protesters, the event devolved into a series of skirmishes between individuals and roving bands of vigilantes. The script was always the same. Bathed in their own flavor of righteousness, groups gave themselves permission to harass and physically attack people whose main offense seemed to be not wearing the right uniform. Yelling, pushing, punching and running. Wash rinse and repeat.

As an aficionado, I watched several of the videos. And that is the thing, everything is on video. When I looked closely, I saw that that the actors are relatively few but the number of people holding up phones and cameras is legion.  The videos themselves became surreal as I realized that in what I mostly saw was the view of someone recording other people recording. When the action turned into people running, the vast majority were running in what has become a modern salute, arm outstretched in front of them trying to hold their phone steady. 

Every now and then the budding videographers performed a modern pirouette, spinning in a quick circle to record those around them, and no doubt, try to discover themselves as an individual in the moment. The move always seems a little desperate, this searching for self. I get the feeling that they would like to turn the camera on themselves for a second, but that would be breaking the 4thwall and would make them uncomfortable. Seldom is narration part of these videos.

Video clips have become an Internet staple. YouTube has taken up the role of helping to define our collective consciousness. During any pause in the action, clips are immediately uploaded to social media. And here may be the pathology. Every upload begins with the need to show that something important happened and “I” was there. With millions of clips hitting the web every day, the video taker is praying that their effort will be the viral video, the one that defines a moment, and that they will thus be validated.

No doubt, we have all seen culture changing moments caught in a moment on a phone. That’s the heroin hit for anyone holding a phone aloft. You never know, you could be famous for a few minutes. You could change the world. Mostly, that never happens, but like buying the lottery ticket when the prize is huge, you have to be in it to win it.

What frightens me is that now that the preponderance of people at an event are now recording it, they changing the moment itself. It’s the old Heisenberg problem. Observing changes what is being observed. Awash in celebrity culture, that actors quickly separate from the watchers. As I watched the men and women throwing punches and yelling at mostly outnumbered and hapless targets, I wondered if anything I was seeing was real. Would it be happening at all except for the presence of all those phone cameras?

Poor prescient George Orwell didn’t have an imagination big enough to describe the ubiquity of watchers beyond a device hanging on the wall of every room and looming over every public street. He couldn’t contemplate a dystopia were every person is a watcher, an eager watcher. Though, I do think, confronted with the current reality he would still see the same tyranny.

Having watched Portland protests up close, in person, I soon began to see beyond the earnestness of the actors and understand each instance as a new sort of social narcissism. There have always been protesters who engage in street theater with costumes and thoughtful metaphors. God bless them for originality. But in general, what I saw was people constantly looking for and reaching for cameras. It is as if nothing really mattered without it being recorded so that later they could look at it over and over reveling in their existence in that place and time. Taken collectively, it is about mass self-soothing, a grasping for relevance.

No one video I saw captured the essence of this needy self-awareness better than a brief clip from one attack. The camera turns to a young man who has been hit in the face with pepper or bear spray. You can hear man on the other side of the camera ask if the victim if he is OK. He then turns the camera and yells for one of several self-defined “medics.” A masked young woman runs up and hands the victim what looks like a plastic bottle of cooking oil. She offers directions, “Don’t rub it. Water won’t help. Use the oil.” The near blinded young man takes the plastic bottle but is clearly confused. He doesn’t understand want to do. The young woman doesn’t react to his confusion. She moves directly in front of the victim, pulls out her phone and begins filming the guy’s reddened face. At that moment, as if completing a handoff, the original camera guy turns away and runs down the street.

I realized that what I was watching was the remnant of compassion. There were these little stubs of words and actions that hinted at caring for another human but those were just part of the play, lines in a script. Care would or wouldn’t be a byproduct of their actions but the video was the priority. The revolution must be streamed.

Photo by KOIN.com

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