Public shaming of women is unacSEPTAble behavior

14 Mar

Late last week, while browsing my Facebook feed, I clicked on a video with a caption that implored me to watch so that I could help identify a Philadelphia mother shown endangering her child. I had seen the video pop up several times, shared by quite a few people, and I’d passed it by, knowing the chances I’d recognize the mother were low (as I’ve spent approximately 1.5 weeks total of my life in that city) and that I would likely be upset by the contents of the film. This time my curiosity finally got the best of me though, and I clicked. For five minutes I sat with my eyes glued to the screen. I watched a seven-year-old girl do her best to take care of her mother in a situation with which she was clearly all too familiar, and it was heartbreaking. But as the scene crawled along, I had bigger questions.

Many readers know the video, which I will not link here because I want the voyeurism to end yesterday. The setting is the Philadelphia SEPTA public bus system, and the main characters are a pretty little blond girl and her presumably high mother, who exhibits the telltale “heroin nod”, a drowsy and quiet sort of slow tipping over at the waist that looks like you’re watching a sped-up display of the doomsday your chiropractor predicts you may face in old age if you don’t let him start six months of spinal adjustments immediately. Or imagine what it would look like if you wanted to disappear but the only way to do it is to slowly crumple inward until your hair brushes the floor and you disappear into a puddle on the ground.

Over and over the mother drifts in and back out of what looks like a heroin slumber, and her daughter watches her closely, tipping her back up by pushing her forehead with her palm when she starts to fall out of her seat or when a passenger is trying to get past her. She lovingly puts her head against her mother’s, to keep her conscious but also, it appears, because she loves her mother’s touch. When their shopping bags spill into the aisle, she cleans them up and puts them beneath her own seat, all the while saying, “Mama, mama, wake up” and “They can’t through, Mama”.

When the video went viral, a few comments on it read “Shame on you for filming this.” I, on the other hand, am happy it was filmed. Had the witness simply called the police, law enforcement most likely couldn’t have gotten there before the little family got off the bus, but the film is evidence. What I have a problem with is how it was handled from there. The police and social services were never called – not during filming and not after. What happened next was that the video was submitted to a Facebook page called People of SEPTA, which appears to be a local-flavor imitation of the mean-spirited People of Wal-Mart website – except that there is some anonymity in posting surreptitious photos of people shopping at the nation’s largest big-box store, and public transportation consumers in Philadelphia are a relatively small subset who can very easily find themselves, or a loved one, chosen as the latest victim of public mockery.

The video went viral from the Facebook page, with comments ranging from a few expressing concern for the judgment of witnesses to the majority which were rants about parenting skills, most calling the mother horrible names while expressing sanctimonious concern for the daughter. I think it’s safe to say that if you care about the wellbeing of a child, you should not call their mother a bitch or wish them dead. That little girl very clearly loves her mother; she’s likely the only one she’ll ever have.

Word of the video got back to police, who investigated. The police very publicly chastised not just the videographer but everyone on the bus who ignored, watched, or filmed it instead of contacting law enforcement. The mother was identified, not by police but by people who recognized her and called her out publicly on Facebook; she reportedly deactivated her Facebook profile after being harassed and receiving death threats. Follow-up news pieces say that the mother was not criminally charged but the child was removed from her custody, and that social services is working with the family. Now I ask you: if we want what is best for the little girl in that video – who caressed her mother so lovingly – should we shame, vilify, and humiliate her publicly outed mother? Or should we ensure that mother gets every resource available to treat her possible addiction and other problems so that they can be reunited? Should we celebrate humiliating videos by posting them to Facebook or should we be sending them to the police or other appropriate authorities, to resolve the situation privately?

Because congratulations, Internet. You just beat someone while they were down. You may have broken a family that still had hope before that video hit Facebook. You bullied that woman – and you bullied that little girl, too. That video will never go away, and it will haunt both of them. At the very least, that little girl will forever be “the girl from the SEPTA bus” and she is innocent.

As a mother with a list of personal struggles, the video and its reception hit me hard. I don’t want to be judged like that. I don’t want my daughter identifiable in a viral video of that nature. As a feminist it hit me too. The vitriol from viewers and the rush to condemn and publicly humiliate is the same passionate hate-filled behavior I see from the other side in the reproductive healthcare access movement. Film the patients, post film online, shout “baby hater” and worse at them; blindly lash out at women to “protect the innocent”, when no thought is given as to how to actually help anyone involved. I’m sensing a pattern here, and there needs to be a bigger conversation about how we value and respect one another. Whether your bullying happens on a sidewalk or from a computer in your own home, it is never okay. Pretending your end goal is to protect children when your mode of operation is to shame and humiliate women is even worse.

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