Me, in the press

i don't know how long it'll be there, but take a look at this:


Although i am one of my favorite subjects, i've found it rather difficult to toot about my project in Massachusetts. It's been a tough row to hoe: I genuinely wanted attention on the issue, and i also wanted/needed recognition for the kind of work i was doing.

I wasn't selling work, of course, nor was i really adding anything new to arts methodology (and tried not to care if i was). So i couldn't pursue those angles. Also, since the project was a community-based thing with which i was trying to encourage dialogue between different communities, the Arts section of the paper wasn't really the best place to go for the press the project needed. I discovered the Arts section of the Standard Times wasn't equipped to handle this sort of thing yet. They wanted to know about me, what i was saying new in the artworld and so forth. (A review of the show gave me a short blurb about making "memorial steele in the vein of Robert Indiana," but dammit, i wasn't dealing with visual aesthetics here).

Other sections found it to be a community interest story--always with the angle of what "this concerned citizen was doing to try and make a difference."

The nuts and bolts of the project--the plea for community discussion--couldn't be laid out within either of these formats. Also, since some of the powers at school both (selfishly) didn't care about this kind of work, and (unselfishly) felt it was inappropriate to focus more on one student's work than another, they couldn't help me with spreading the word either.

It probably also didn't help that the "economic contradictions" i was addressing, i.e. the regentrification of downtown buildings vs. the nearby forgotten communities, were actually embodied in the single biggest funder of a monthly arts festival: downtown real estate developers. Named AHA!, this festival was using the school and art work as a means of bolstering and advertising the economic recovery of the downtown area. They might have seen a problem with helping disperse an art project that took their interests to task. An AHA! event took place about two weeks after the MFA exhibition went up, and the entire show was conspicuously absent from most of the press coverage. I think i'm over-rating my own significance to think that i may have been the cause of that, but it's still kind of interesting.

Several people encouraged me to create a press release for myself and send it out to different papers. I really felt odd about this. I really didn't want to capitalize on the misfortune of others.

What was i to do, though? The best it seemed i could hope for was using the "me" angle in order to "create awareness," my least favorite activist buzzphrase. But still, that left me with calling up a newspaper , or writing a press release that said "Hey! looky here at what I'm doing!" So i chose pretty much to do nothing. I was left in this ego/altruistic driven limbo where i had to sit back and complain about how neither I nor the project was getting any notice.

Unfortunately, the day the show came down--May 20th--two young people opened fire just a block up the street from the school, killing one person, wounding another. A few days after that an allegedly retaliatory hit was made on one of the mother's of the shooters. They killed her in her bed as she slept. The community was up in arms again. Almost a year had gone by with no one being murdered in New Bedford, and this was a rude awakening for everyone. The newpaper was rife with editorials and comments from citizens concerning the apathy the public had fallen into during this lull in the violence. Why hadn't we done anything? they asked.

I feel that i'm whining here. I don't mean to do that. But i'm bothered, man. For one thing, i know that lots of people--and not just me--were going to see the mayor and talking to council members about this thing in the year leading up to this new spate of violence. I also attended meetings in November and December of 2005, January and February of 2006, made up of perhaps 90 people from various non-profit organizations, that were doing their best to grab a piece of an eleven million dollar anti-gang bill. I made an embarrassing and desperate plea with that group of people to do something in the meantime while they waited the year or two before that money came in.

I personally contacted eleven different non-profits specifically in place to deal with youth and violence and masculinity and so forth and asked them if they wanted to get on board. I just wanted to borrow their "students," too. I wasn't asking for money or for them to take on any administrative burdens or anything. I simply asked if they thought any of their kids might be interested in discussion groups, or acting as tour guides for the two lots that i'd put out. I asked if school groups might want to visit the three locations of the exhibit. I tried to reach the mayor on four seperate occasions. I didn't recieve any responses.

After these most recent murders the editor of the newspaper wrote a fairly good, fairly windy editorial he put on the front page of the paper claiming that something had to be done. That this issue was not about a southend/westend feud (it is) and that gangs must be stopped. We must talk about these issues! he said. He said that this was not about finger pointing--that the mayor and the DA and others were not to be blamed for this situation. Gangs with guns were the problem. This was a "we" problem and "we" needed take a personal interest in what was going on here.

It's the "gang thing" that gets me most. Although i thank Brian Fraga for writing a very nice article about me and my project (a concerned local citizen--Nelson--stepped in to encourage press coverage of the project), he inadvertantly does something in the article that i find telling: he says something along the lines that "Michael Santos' documentary project was about gang violence in the city." Well, i hung around people that were fairly close to the streets and none of them ever said anything about gangs. I was Michael when he stood up at a meeting and courageously pointed out that "this isn't anti-gang legislation--this is anti-me legislation."

I don't deny that there are probably loosely knit groups of disenfranchized youth in New Bedford selling dope and toting guns, but i find the "gang" mantra really disturbing. It continues to put a face of them/us on the whole issue.

I know this is a scattered post, but i'm feeling mixed up about the whole situation right now and don't quite know what i want to say.


Maig said...

Congrats on being in the news, Biffle!

JanetLee said...

What a great story. I think it came across perfectly clear that your motives were to help the community. It angers me that we (as a country) are allowing generation after generation of poor kids to be lost. We have the means to fix these problems. We just don't have the desire. America still has a 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps' mentality and refuses to see that many people never had bootstraps to start with. Shutting up now.

The Mom said...

What a good article, Walter. I'm so glad it gave your project the positive recognition that it did.

Lee will say that I'm one to talk, but I do think it's important to see the positive aspects of a situation as well as seeing where you wish it could have been different or closer to what you wanted to be said or whatever. (As a teacher I really try to use positive reinforcement at every step of the way as a student improves, but often what catches my ear is the "mistakes". My eye often goes to that in written material, as well, and for this reason Lee and Aaron don't like me to read anything they've written. I just need to learn to keep my mouth shut when I haven't been asked for advice!)

Well, that went on longer than I'd intended, and my reasons for the example may not have been clear. I hope I didn't ruin your blog! :-)

Miss Meghann said...


I am so so sorry I couldn't help out with Inky today. The roommate (whose tires were slashed Saturday evening) and I were at the store on JI.

Hope the little guy is well...NEXT TIME, I WILL BE THERE FOR HIM!

Anonymous said...

This is Michael Santos, producer/editer, of the documentary about the sencless violence going on in the city of New Bedford. (13 by 3 mile problem) I just wanted to say it was my pleasure to meet you. Its very rare to meet someone like yourself. Its obvious that your heart points in several directions. Not to only people you know, but to all humanbeings. I feel that the people of New Bedford should take a stand by modeling themselves after people such as yourself. While we are throwing a crazy amount of money into anti-gang bills, and locking up our children, we refuse to take off our horse blinders to be able to see whats really going on. Its very simple... We in NewBedford must adopt a value system that puts every life in New Bedford on the same level. When we consistantly refer to our children as "gang bangers" we sub conciously take the value of there lives not only from ourselves, but the very children we are labeling. If you rase a child calling him crazy his/her whole life, that child will probably grow up and think he/she has to live up to this name. When somes child gets murdered WE NEED TO BE OUTRAGED AS IF THAT WAS ALL OF OUR CHILD!!!! You see while were blaming the kids themselves and the parents alone, we are excusing the rest of society of there responsibility to there children. Yes it does start at home, but when our children leave home to go to school they should be our teachers children. When they hang with friends they should be thier children. Where ever they have to go they should be considered all of our children. All this blame must stop shifting to one side, cause we are all guilty. Lets start evenly distributing the responsabilities of lookig after our children. Its so simple,but we as a society can,t figure this out? Or is it that certain people taht own realastate in New Bedford knows that the prices of there property fluctuates with how many minorities are living in our city? Well I say this.. What ever it is, our children are the most valubale resource we have. Worth far greater than your properties will ever be. Walter it was a pleasure to meet someone else who has this great trate. Your message was powerful and I hope you planted that seed of love during your short stay here in New Bedford cause boy do we need some.