Going around the ‘net in something of an afterlife is a video of the diffusion of an altercation on a 6 train between a Black woman and a man who can best be described as a creeper. The altercation is at least two years old at this point, but having been picked up by internet aggregators and the like, it’s become the subject of the usual “this is why the city is crazy” versus “this is why the city is awesome” bluster social media is practically made for.
It garnered the attention of the New York Times, which had decided for some strange reason to focus on the guy who whipped his phone out rather than the guy who broke up the fight. Indeed, the fact that it’s currently making the rounds on Buzzfeed and other aggregator sites splits the whole event into two stories. The first is Charles “Snackman” Sonder’s deft diffusion of the altercation. The second is Eitan Noy’s (and the internet’s) morbid voyeurism.
The first story is interesting in that it’s an unorthodox usage of public social protocol. The Black woman was being followed by a leerer nearly twice her age, and when he followed her onto the subway, she attacked him. She is not a large person by any means, and when he kicked her back, it was fairly clear that he had the advantage when it came to physical strength. Most people on the train stayed out of the fight, and for good reason: To enter into such a confrontational engagement is to antagonize one or both of the parties. “Mind your own business” is not just good advice for yourself, but also the primary means not to escalate a situation.
Charles Sonder did just that: He minded his own business. He’s also a former wrestler and all-around big galumph, so he decided to mind his own business directly between the two combatants. Effectively, he weaponized his own personal space, by making the creep have to go through him in order to further retaliate against the Black woman. His stature made the creep hesitate before continuing on, and his disposition forced the social situation to be “if you hit me or attempt to get by me, you are including me and then it becomes my business.” The Black woman, thus, gained a shield. This allowed another woman to advise the creep to leave the train, to which he could only impotently contend that the first woman hit him first. Seeing that he had no further recourse, he had to comply.
This is an inspired use of the social version of “negative space.” However, the Times story added another twist, which is how we get to the second story:
After that, the remaining combatant noticed Mr. Noy’s cellphone camera and asked if she could see it. “I didn’t know what she was going to do with it,” Mr. Noy said. “She could smash me on the head. I told her, ‘I didn’t really get anything.’ ” She persisted, he deflected, and then he got off at Grand Central Station.
About 10 days ago, Mr. Noy decided to post the video on his YouTube account, which he operates under his D.J. name, Eitan Noyze. For the first week, he said, it got about 400 hits. Then it started moving up on the Reddit Web site. As of Thursday evening, it was close to 900,000 hits.
That woman didn’t want to be taped, and Noy lied to her about his footage. While it’s legal for people to photograph and tape others so long as they’re in public, as there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” I dare say it is unethical to do so for an altercation in which that woman felt threatened. Her moment of distress became Noy’s internet fame, and while it certainly worked out for Sonder – whose actions are almost universally lauded – millions of views of that woman manhandling the creep may not necessarily be interpreted the same way.
Being an internet symbol of “people in New York are crazy” can’t have worked entirely in her favor, and the fact that the video is resurfacing means that her vulnerability in one front is traded for a vulnerability on another. Without the video, it’d be a New York moment – a teachable moment, perhaps, but one full of strangers that remain strangers. With the video, everything can be scrutinized and reassessed, and her time of distress becomes relived and reinterpreted by a broad swath of people who have seen her face and may not share the view that what she did was justified.
I could, of course, be over-stressing that aspect of the video, but what is clear is that such a result did not substantively influence Noy’s choice to publish that footage. Sonder willfully injected himself into an altercation, and so effectively consented to such celebrity. That woman was looking to get out of a situation, and ended up the subject of a bigger one. If Noy wanted to help, he could have offered to provide her the footage in case she wanted to make a police report. Instead, he decided that we can all leer.