Sunday, July 29, 2007
MEDIA MISREPRESENTATIONS OF THE "NEW JERSEY SEVEN"
by Loren Krywanczyk, July 23, 2007
I have to wonder why social justice activists aren't rioting in the
streets after what has happened to the "New Jersey Seven."
Perhaps you've never heard of the New Jersey Seven because the case
has received shockingly little media attention outside of New York
City. Or maybe you read one of the grossly inadequate representations
of the incident in the New York media and decided, along with many
social justice organizations, that it seems too complicated or risky
for you to get involved.
Regardless of what you have or have not heard: On August 18, 2006,
Dwayne Buckle harassed seven young, Black lesbians (the "New Jersey
Seven") in downtown Manhattan. Buckle made an advance on one of the
women and when rejected began to spew homophobic and misogynistic
slurs at them. He allegedly shoved one of the women and threw his
cigarette at her. A scuffle ensued, which ended with Buckle in the
hospital for five days with bruises and stab wounds. The case was
pushed through courts with unprecedented speed, and four of the women
were recently sentenced to prison terms ranging from 3 1/2 to 11
years. Buckle has not been charged with anything.
A few media sources have spectacularized the incident, catering to an
American public that is generally terrified of female masculinity and
of young people of color. The New York Daily News called the women a
"wolf pack of lesbians" and "a gang of petite but ornery lesbians."
The New York Post's epithets of choice were "rampaging lesbians" and
"seething, Sapphic septet." The New York Times referred to the women
as a "pack of marauding lesbians." In many news articles, Buckle's
thoughts are front and center. The women are marginalized and brushed
off as bloodthirsty and hysterical. Headlines like "Brawl to Bawl,"
found in the Daily News, illustrate the eagerness of the media to
build upon the discomfort far too many Americans feel with
female-bodied individuals, and particularly women of color, who are
not properly "feminine."
Media coverage has not accounted for or analyzed the many pressures
prompting the women to respond violently to Buckle on August 18th.
This is not an incident without historical precedence. What has
happened when a young lesbian of color finds herself in a similar
situation, but alone and unarmed? Sakia Gunn, a New Jersey teenage
lesbian, was the victim of an assault in 2003 that ended with her
being stabbed to death. Each of the New Jersey Seven knew Gunn.
Courts and the mainstream media indicate that the seven women should
have sat back and blindly hoped that Buckle didn't have a more deadly
physical assault in store for them - but they refused to make that
unwarranted leap of faith in a man who felt comfortable violating
them. They challenged Buckle's self-authorization, which is all too
common among heterosexual males, to treat female-bodied people however
he wanted to without seeking their consent.
The American justice system responded harshly and swiftly. The
sentencing was a ringing admonishment from the powers-that-be, warning
female-bodied people, young people, people of color, and queers not to
overstep their bounds â€" not even for the sake of self-defense.
Whatever you do, the American justice system warns us with its
unyielding condemnation of these women, don't fight fire with fire or
you will be made out to be an inhuman monster.
The purpose of critically examining the media representations of this
case is not to suggest that the women handled the situation in the
most effective way possible, but to illuminate that their choices were
limited in a way that has gone utterly unaccounted for. Their actions
have been distorted and deeply misunderstood by the courts and by the
mainstream media, who have failed to factor in racial, sexual, class,
age, and gendered experience in the handling of this case.
If the women had not been young and Black, would they have been
charged with gang-related activity? I highly doubt it.
The severe sentencing of the women and the absence of any charges
against Buckle are manifestations of a prevailing idea of what
constitutes self-defense. This abstract image of "appropriate"
self-defense behavior hinges on perceptions of the women's genders,
races, class statuses, and ages. "Justice" in this nation rarely
appears for the countless minoritized, disempowered individuals who
are harassed on a daily basis. The justice system and law enforcement
rarely defend anybody who does not have the resources, finances,
education, or savvy to access it. Anyone who simply condemns the New
Jersey Seven needs to reassess the naÃ¯ve notion that the justice
system and law enforcement in our nation protect all individuals equally.
These women defended themselves. Judging from the way the justice
system and the mainstream media have treated them, that seems like a