Thursday, June 25, 2020

Politics of Public Space: Autoism and Delegitimizing Users

There was an interesting piece yesterday at Nieman Lab discussing "protest-as-nuisance" and the autoist framing of media coverage.

via Twitter
In "It’s time to change the way the media reports on protests" they write about a familiar theme of autoism:
...for almost a week, national media made editorial choices, mirroring a framework social scientists have dubbed the “protest paradigm,” that often failed to frame the events of the day accurately....

A 2010 study that analyzed 40 years of protest coverage in five major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, found that the papers depicted protests — even peaceful ones — as nuisances rather than as necessary functions of democracy. To illustrate this point, the study pointed to a 1992 Seattle Times story that described a protest thusly: “The demonstrations began with a University of Washington protest and march from the campus that snarled traffic on Interstate 5 yesterday afternoon.”

Centering protest coverage around the impact on traffic, local businesses, and property is one way that the protest-as-nuisance framing manifests.
Of course, the problem is not merely autoism. But the idea that drivers and their cars are the primary legitimate users of the public space we call a street or road informs the framing. We see this all the time in crash reporting. It's the impact to traffic, not the dead or injured person, that is important. (Also in the repugnant "all lives splatter" meme.)

Also yesterday the CEO of the Urban League in Portland tweeted about a different way this bias for cars operates and intersects with race. She reports that "a friend in Salem bought a cool bike....After cops kept following him...he [gave up bike commuting and] bought a car." He was only a legitimate user of public space once he employed the signalling function of a car and could camouflage his race inside of it.

Ditching walking and biking for driving
via Twitter
This racism surpasses and operates beyond the autoist era, it is important to note. Things have hardly changed. Exactly a century ago, Frank Dixon was arrested for being "a negro in the dark."

June 10th, 1920
From the afternoon paper:
The women...failed to appear at police headquarters and make complaint against Frank Dixon, colored, who was arrested Wednesday night on their request. A bond of $10...was refunded. Police believe that the women residing in the neighborhood were naturally frightened when they saw a negro in the dark....
There is no plausible crime here, just an unexpected and unwanted Black man, who, it should be noted, was able to come up with $10 on short order.

Even though he was not charged with any crime, the arrest and jailing conveyed the message that "you can be jailed at any time for any reason."

Finally, we might recall the ways that people begging or camping or even just loitering improperly are considered suspect and illegitimate users of public space.

Are zooming cars or street people the greatest threat?
As a problem, racism is greater than the other two and I don't mean to equate them carelessly, but for the moment I want to suggest ways that autoism is instrumentally useful, an important tool, in othering a class of people we wish to subordinate. We will be returning to this.

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