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May 09 2013

15:05

Why Charles Ramsey’s interview is great (and it’s okay* to think so)

Everybody loved the Charles Ramsey interviews on freeing Amanda Berry, one of three young women abducted in Cleveland a decade ago and apparently held captive all this time. Then of course, people hated it. Or some did, anyway, raising questions about the meme of the “hilarious black neighbor.” Until details about the story had time to emerge—what went on in that house, and how such secrets went undetected for so long—all the attention was on Ramsey, and his unfiltered recounting of the excitement on Seymour Street. You’ve seen the video and heard the audio, but here it is in text form:

“Yeah, hey bro,” Ramsey told the dispatcher. “I’m at 2207 Seymour. West 25th. Check this out—I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eating my little food, right? This broad is trying to break out the fucking house next door to me, so there’s a bunch of people on the street right now and shit. So we’re like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s the problem?’ She’s like, ‘This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter…’ She say her name is Linda Berry or some shit. I don’t know who the fuck that is, I just moved over here, bro.”

“Sir, sir,” said the male dispatcher. “…You have to calm down and slow down. Is she still in the street?”

“Seymour Avenue,” Ramsey said.

“Is she still in the street or where did she go?”

“Yeah I’m looking at her right now. She’s calling y’all! She’s on the other phone.”

They went on for a bit, with Ramsey getting frustrated and the dramatic tension (hello, narrative) rising. A short while later the TV news crews arrived, and Ramsey’s story got longer and more detailed, with discrepancies:

I went to McDonald’s and I’m at home and I hear this, ‘Help, let me out!’ This girl screaming. Now we don’t have that on our street because everybody on this street knows each other, so when you hear something like that you come running to see what’s going on. I thought it was a kid got attacked by a pit bull. And I looked at that girl and I said, ‘You look familiar!’ And I’m prying the door open and she’s trying to get out, and she climbed through the bottom of it and soon as she got out she said, ‘My name is Amanda Berry, call the police.’

You heard screaming? the reporter asked.

I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s. I come outside and I see this girl going nuts, trying to get out of her house, so I go on the porch and she says, ‘Help me get out, I’ve been in here a long time,’ so I figured it was a domestic violence dispute so I opened the door and we can’t get in that way because…a body can’t fit through, only your hand. So we kicked the bottom and she comes out with a little girl and she says, ‘Call 911. My name is Amanda Berry.’ When she told me, it didn’t register until I got to calling 911… I thought this girl was dead, you know what I mean? And she got on the phone and she said, ‘Yes, this is me…’

And when did you see Gina?

About five minutes after the police got here. See, that girl Amanda told the police, ‘I ain’t just the only one, it’s some more girls up in that house.’ So they went up there 30, 40 deep, and when they came out it was just astonishing because I thought they were gonna come up with nothing.

How long you lived here?

I been here a year! I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot, and listen to salsa music.

And you had no indication?

Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or that anybody else was in there against their will. Because how he is, he just comes out to his back yard, plays with the dogs, tinkering with his cars and motorcycles, goes back in the house. He’s somebody that you look at and look away because he’s not doing nothing but the average stuff. There’s nothing exciting about him. Well, until today.

What was the reaction on the girls’ faces? I can’t imagine…

Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she’s homeless or she got problems. That’s the only reason she’s running to a black man.

[The interview over, Ramsey flashed the thumbs-up.]

Why this is great and people love it: First, true originals mesmerize. Unfiltered, unmanaged, Ramsey was authentically who he is. Second, he told a story. His account of the escape is straight up narrative. The elements are there: a compelling character with an original voice (“Yeah, hey, bro…check this out;” “so they went up there 30, 40 deep;” “We eat ribs and whatnot”); there’s a clear structure (chronological), dialogue (which is key), and the aforementioned dramatic tension; it’s got what Tom Wolfe calls status details—food from McDonald’s, assumptions about a pit bull attack and a domestic violence dispute. And then the underdog hero utters a Hemingway’s-iceberg line of dialogue:

“Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”

So the story becomes transcendent.

If you’re writing the long-ball narrative you wouldn’t want to omit what happened next, which was that Ramsey, inevitably, went viral. Why? Did the public love him for his storytelling skills? His authenticity? His gutsy instincts? Yep. And was that okay? Absolutely. There was nothing, on Day 1, not to love. This was “a wonderfully vibrant interview with a man who helped kick down a door and rescue three women and a child,” said Neely Tucker, a veteran Washington Post reporter and author of Love in the Driest Season, when we informally polled a few journalists on the topic. “It was precise, exciting, emotional, visually telling, and told with great pacing and narrative detail. All in two minutes, live, on camera. Anybody who’s bothered that the narrator is black and probably not rich is saying more about themselves than him.”

*Things got tricky when the inevitable autotune opportunists and meme-weavers bundled Ramsey with the viral videos of other crime-scene witnesses, all of whom happened to be black. The personal you-go-dude! feelings for Ramsey, conflated with images of expressive stylists like Antoine Dodson, morphed into something else. Not ugly, exactly, but ugly adjacent, if you took the view that the meme-drivers were laughing at, not with. Ramsey moved “from bystander and guy on the scene into ‘Internet object of affection,’” as Justin Ellis, an assistant editor of Nieman Journalism Lab, one of Storyboard’s sister publications, puts it. “I don’t know if that’s just the Internet chugging along or if there’s something else to blame. People want to celebrate him, which is great, but it’s hard to ignore the familiar trappings/scenario of ‘black person achieves Internet fame through local TV,’ which can feel exploitive at times and condescending or even casually racist at others.”

A narrative that already contained those trace elements of race/class (“pretty white girl;” “black man’s arms”) now had an overlay of social media influence, triggering confusion (was it not okay to like this guy’s interview?) and raising coverage questions: How will—or should—this aspect of the story be presented in the long view, or even in the short one? We asked other colleagues and here’s what they said:

Unknown

Greg Moore

I have not watched a lot of the Internet stuff having fun with Charles Ramsey’s manner and I don’t plan to. I am from Cleveland and I know lots of people like Ramsey. On the street, he is likely being lauded for “keeping it real.” And part of the fascination with him is his originality and lack of self-consciousness. That’s partly why he could do what he did in saving those three women. He was on ABC’s Good Morning America this morning talking about the case, grappling for the right word here and there and sometimes clearly not understanding the question. But there was no mistaking his meaning and his grit when he did. Lamenting that he had shared ribs with the alleged perpetrator and even tried to salsa dance to some of his music, he ruefully noted something like this: If I had known what was going on in that house, don’t you think we’d be having a different interview right now? With Ramsey, you darn tootin’. Sometime people have to laugh to keep from crying. That’s a little bit of what is going on. This stuff is so bad and we are so relieved. But we all need to be listening to what this brave man is saying and not how he says it. I don’t think the reaction is so much racist as it reflects the lack of real familiarity with the strata of America. There are lots of people who talk like Ramsey and are damn funny, too. And there are many I grew up with who don’t play; who do the right thing and are fearless. Simple applause for Ramsey should be enough. He is a genuine hero, quirks and all. McDonald’s needs to put him in a commercial and one of those public-minded dental clinics should give him some new choppers for free. That’s the best way to show gratitude for such courage and community mindedness. And it is okay to chuckle at the unvarnished way he puts things? (Because it is really nervous laughter about how little we know about real people living real lives in communities across America). If we really understood his world, we’d know he is just keeping it real. And we are damn lucky he is. — Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post, and Pulitzer Prize board member

CC

Callie Crossley

First, of course, so glad he did what he did. Having said that, I wondered why a lot of the response to him has been all about the “funny” delivery. Have to say I’ve seen it before in portrayals of black men who happen into the middle of a breaking story—Antoine Dodson a prime example. For a while he was all the rage in pop culture, even garnering a record contract. But in his case and in Charles’ the serious substance of what they were saying got subsumed by their mannerisms and affect. I’m fascinated—not in a good way—by the fact that Charles’ commentary about race in Cleveland has stopped being reported as part of the story. “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty ran into a black man’s arms”—that’s pretty deep, and I think should have inspired journalists to ask him to explain what he meant. I’ve only heard one report focusing on this piece of the story, and I can’t remember if it was a TV or radio story. The piece picked up on his statement and went on to talk about the deep racial divide in Cleveland. But, that is the ONLY report I’ve seen dealing with it. As I see it, this is another example of journalists who are reluctant to pursue a legitimate racial angle to a story, even if it is a part of the main character’s story. And of course there is a class angle here. Reporters are also not so comfortable dealing with that issue. By the way, in the black blogosphere, a lot of folks are referencing In Living Color‘s satirical sketch: Reporters arrive on the scene of a breaking story and there are two witnesses, one a black professional in a suit and tie and another a black woman in what we used to call a housecoat, with curlers in her hair, and not in great command of the King’s English. Of course all of the reporters rushed past the guy and went to her for a “colorful” recitation of the events that had transpired. This is not exactly the same scenario in Charles Ramsey’s case—he was the only witness—but you get my drift. — Callie Crossley, host of the WGBH Radio show “Under the Radar.” Friday night at 7:30, Crossley will lead a Basic Black discussion called “What Can We Learn from Charles Ramsey?” It airs on WGBH-TV, Channel 2 in the Boston area.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland narrative unfolded. When Anderson Cooper spoke to Ramsey about all this, Ramsey said, “It’s about cojones. It’s about cojones, on this planet.” Cooper then asked whether he hoped to receive the FBI reward for helping free the women. “I tell you what you do,” Ramsey said instantly. “Give it to them.”

February 22 2011

18:25

One Journalist's Survival Guide to the Egyptian Revolution

During the uprising that eventually ended the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak, I became convinced that the most important journalistic work being done today is in those countries where journalists are not wanted. Mubarak and his agents were determined to silence the protesters and their message.

But, thanks to the valiant efforts of journalists and the resilience of the protesters they were there to cover, the revolution was not only televised, it was also streamed, blogged, and tweeted. During 18 days of sustained resistance by the Egyptian people, the world was able to see what real bravery is -- in real time. This is one reporter's eyewitness recollection of the revolution and the coverage of it.

Dangerous Driving

I flew into Cairo on the night of February 1st. I counted 35 checkpoints from the airport to my hotel on the island of Zamalek, where many journalists and diplomats reside and work.

The drive, which normally takes 30 minutes, took nearly three hours. After dark there was a curfew in Cairo, and every block in the city seemingly had its own distinct checkpoint. Most of them were manned by civilians armed with all manner of improvised weapons: sticks, poles, machetes, and even a samurai sword. These men primarily wanted to prevent looting in their neighborhoods.

The Mukhabarat, Egypt's secret police, had also set up their own checkpoints. These were the most frightening, especially for a foreign journalist. Last year, I was detained by the Mukhabarat. I was in Rafah doing a story on the tunnels into the Gaza Strip. While shooting street scenes in broad daylight, they snatched me off the street. I was held captive for 12 hours and it was not pleasant.

I was luckier this time and made it to the hotel without incident. After checking into my hotel, I tried to check Twitter for the latest information from Tahrir Square, but the Internet was still shut down across the country. Fortunately, cell phones were working so I was still able to communicate with my editors and colleagues.

I watched Mubarak's second speech since the "Day of Rage" from my hotel room. It was broadcast on virtually every channel. CNN and BBC both offered a live English translation. He was defiant, stating that he would stay in power for another six months to oversee Egypt's transition.

A Wave of Thugs

Twenty minutes later I was on the streets of Cairo, producing a video for the New York Times with Nicholas Kristof. We didn't know yet that someone close to the regime was orchestrating a concerted, systematic effort to harass, arrest, and assault journalists.

As Kristof and I crossed the October 6th bridge on our way to Tahrir, we saw a mob of about 150 Mubarak supporters rushing towards us. It was nighttime and they were some 100 feet away, so initially I couldn't tell if they were friendly or not. They had already seen me filming and probably suspected I was a journalist, so I just kept the camera rolling.

Generally in these situations, I like to keep the camera out for two reasons: Evidence and self-defense. If I get beat up (or worse), I want it to be documented. I am also a trained martial artist and know how to use my Canon XHA1 to ward off attacks. (Don't bother looking in the manual for this.) My camera isn't one of those flimsy Flip cameras that are popular these days. It is hard and heavy and fully insured. It can be used for blocking punches, keeping a distance between me and a threat, or as my own kind of improvised weapon.

I stood my ground filming the mob as they swarmed me. They were chanting "Mu-bar-ak! Mu-ba-rak! Mu-bar-ak!" (I must say, the anti-Mubarak protesters had much more creative chants.) I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they went past me.

We filmed some interviews at the square, then left when an Egyptian colleague warned us that some dangerous elements had moved in.

Targeting the Media

I went home, slept, and woke up early the next morning to edit the material. I had to get to the New York Times bureau in order to upload it, since the Internet was still down. The Times and other news organizations used a satellite BGAN communications system to get around the web shutdown. After filing, I met up with Kristof and headed back to the square.

Reports of journalists being targeted by pro-Mubarak thugs had begun coming in. Our driver dropped us off as close as possible to Tahrir Square, but the area on its periphery was where journalists were the most vulnerable. I felt a bit like a seal swimming in Mosselbai, South Africa, a favored feeding ground for great white sharks.

With my camera in a student-like backpack, we walked up to an army checkpoint outside of Tahrir. They didn't let us in. We went to another and were again denied entry. At a third, the soldiers finally allowed us in. Past the army checkpoints, civilians were also stopping people in an effort to prevent armed thugs from entering the square.

The protesters' checkpoint was security with a smile. A man in Levis jeans took my passport, frisked me, opened up my camera bag, and said with the utmost sincerity, "I am so sorry. Welcome to Egypt."

In Tahrir Square

Inside, it was like a parallel universe. I walked past a Hardees restaurant that was being used as a station for processing medical equipment. The travel agency next door was a prison for captured Mukhabarat.

Tahrir Square was the one place in Cairo where I actually felt safe working as a journalist. I knew that every single one of these protesters would take a bullet to defend me and my right to film.

As is the case in many revolutions in history, journalists become part of the story. The protesters knew that we were not affiliated with Egyptian state media, and thus were likely to depict the strength and righteousness of their movement accurately. They did everything in their power to help us (which in turn would help them). They fed us, offered us cigarettes and tea, and then posed for our cameras.

Western journalists knew we were being manipulated. But most of us didn't care because we believed in their cause. I didn't meet a single Western reporter who was not in favor of the revolution. Journalists cherish the same democratic ideals that these protesters were fighting and dying for. We were all touched in a very profound way and this resonated in all the reports coming out of Egypt.

I spotted Nawal Saddawi in Tahrir Square and we quickly darted over to interview her. Saddawi is an acclaimed writer and one of the leading women's rights advocates in the Arab world. In the middle of the interview, the frail, old lady nearly got knocked over by a group of protesters dragging in one of Mubarak's goons for interrogation.

But Saddawi is tough as nails. She recalled how she first protested against Nasser, then was arrested for opposing Sadat. Now here she was protesting against Mubarak with nearly a million Egyptians by her side. She claimed that this was the first time she could speak freely to a reporter in public. My spine still tingles just thinking about it.

I was in one of the many makeshift clinics in the square, filming a guy with deep lacerations all over his head and face from rocks, when I got a phone call from the Times' Cairo bureau. Two of their journalists had been detained by police. Anderson Cooper was beaten up by thugs. Reports of violence against journalists were now coming in by the minute.

The U.S. embassy warned the Times to get all their journalists off the streets. They were planning on evacuating the bureau in Zamalek. The situation seemed to be rapidly deteriorating. I passed on the information to Kristof and we immediately met up with Stephen Farrel, another Times journalist in Tahrir.

The three of us decided that Kristof and I should try and get all the video footage out so he and I could start feeding it to New York from our hotel rooms. The problem was, our Egyptian driver refused to come pick us up from the square, saying that it was too dangerous. We didn't have another exit plan.

Saved by Public Transit

Fortunately, two young Egyptian students overheard our conversation, and offered to help. They said the best way to get past the thugs on the streets was actually to go underground. I was amazed that throughout this revolution -- with the Internet and phones and the entire country basically shut down -- the Cairo subway system never stopped running!

I took my tapes and stuffed them deep inside of my socks. I always wear hiking boots and long socks in these situations. I did the same when leaving North Korea. My precious material always stays on my person, either in my socks or underwear. I put a blank tape in my camera and labeled it "Giza Pyramids 1."

Kristof and I followed these two guardian angels down a staircase and got on the train. We made one transfer at Mubarak Station and then reached our final destination, Opera Station, where our driver was waiting for us.

We went to Kristof's hotel, where we bumped into CNN's Anderson Cooper and Hala Gorani. They both looked visibly shaken from the day's events.

As a precautionary measure, we switched Kristof's hotel room to another one checked in under my name. At this point, he'd already penned three strongly anti-Mubarak op-eds. I could understand why Kristof didn't feel safe staying in a hotel with the president's mug staring down from a golden frame in the lobby.

An employee of the now-evacuated Times bureau in Cairo brought me my laptop so I could edit from the hotel. Unbelievably, after all the difficulties that day, my computer died on me when I tried to compress video. I was so frustrated that when we were told to evacuate, I just stayed in my bed. "If Mubarak's thugs find me here, then it was meant to be," I thought to myself.

Back to the square

Sleep didn't come, but neither did the Mukhabarat. The next day, I edited my footage on a friend's computer and went back to the square alone.

I walked briskly past several pro-Mubarak gangs. When eye contact was unavoidable, I flashed a fake, friendly smile. I find that in these situations smiling is the best way to alleviate anxiety. More importantly, it projects positive vibes to the people who otherwise may want to harm you. Smiling and maintaining positive, relaxed body language is often the best deterrent.

But that doesn't mean you should ever let your guard down. My eyes were always scanning 180 degrees for signs of danger. My ears were sensitive to increases in pitch or noises that would indicate violence. Probably due to the adrenaline, I could actually feel that my brain was processing data at a faster rate than normal.

I tried filming one of the pro-Mubarak groups, but within seconds was being threatened. One guy made a throat-slitting gesture and aggressively came towards me. I immediately assumed an apologetic posture, and said how sorry I was for filming.

He asked me in Arabic if I was from Al Jazeera. Omar Suleman, Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, accused the network of being foreign agents who were sowing the seeds of this revolution.

While I do speak rudimentary Arabic, I replied in English, "I'm American." My goal was to limit the conversation as much as possible.

Mass Bloodshed

As I got closer to the square, I witnessed scenes of horrible violence. Molotov cocktails lit up the night sky. I saw lacerated, bloody faces. The air smelled of smoke; sour, rotten tear gas; burning flesh.

Pro-Mubarak mobs ran into Tahrir making male guttural noises and screaming. Armed with broken glass bottles, poles, and anything that they could find, it felt like a scene from a cheap, Middle Eastern remake of "Braveheart."

I was too afraid to take out my camera, and it was too dark to film with my iPhone, so I just watched.

Feeling insecure, I used another important defense tactic, which I call "meet and greet." I found a group of pro-Mubarak guys around my age and asked them for a cigarette. I don't normally smoke, but I wanted to create a feeling of camaraderie with them in case the situation got much worse. For once, I really enjoyed a cigarette.

Change Over Night

By next day, the violence had waned considerably. It reminded me of how South Florida feels the day after a hurricane. The Internet was back on, the thugs were mostly off the streets, and a sense of tense normalcy returned to Cairo: I once again smelled the stench of Cairo pollution; drivers went back to using loud, obnoxious honking to communicate; street vendors hawked tissue boxes and Egyptian flags.

As days went by without mass violence, more and more people came to Tahrir Square, sensing that the protesters were on the right side of history. I even ran into many employees of the government controlled Al-Ahram newspaper. They told me that a similar mutiny was occurring inside their newsroom.

At this point, I was stringing for Time Magazine and PBS MediaShift. I bumped into some Times reporters I'd previously worked with and they told me that their bureau had reopened. I joked that it had been "a premature evacuation."

The mood had shifted from anxious to festive. Celebrations peaked on Friday night, when Mubarak finally stepped down.

After his resignation, foreign journalists seemed as confused as the Egyptian protesters about what to do next. The common refrain among reporters was, "Where should I fly to now?" Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Iran, Bahrain, Morocco, China, and even the West Bank have felt tremors from the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Protesters and journalists changed Egypt and have inspired other uprisings across the world.

The Middle East today feels kind of like a seventh grade classroom: It's a rapidly changing place with young countries at various stages of awkward transition. These transformations are happening faster than reporters, politicians, and intelligence services can process them. As Egypt steps into a very uncertain future with the world watching, I get the sense that the Middle East's coming of age story may have just begun.

But wherever the plot leads next, it's likely that journalists, bloggers, and social networkers will be there to share it with the world.

Jaron Gilinsky is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. As a freelance video correspondent for Time, the New York Times, and Current TV, he has produced and directed scores of documentaries on a range of international topics. Jaron regularly posts his videos and articles on his personal blog.

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