Whether you refer to it as “Park 51” or “Ground Zero Mosque,” the ongoing turmoil about a proposed cultural center with a prayer space for Muslims near Ground Zero has captured headlines across New York City and beyond. But yesterday at a protest rally, the story hit a crucial milestone when the story’s obligatory viral protest video emerged on YouTube.
The viral protest video is usually one which is shot from perspective of an ordinary person attending or observing the protest, and the ones which have the most impact tend to somehow encapsulate the entire conflict while touching emotional chords. As such, it’s an important part of the narrative–it gets our attention and offers a glimpse from the ground of a conflict which may be very distant to us. It is not edited and it is not shot using professional equipment; usually it’s made with a shaky camera of questionable sound and image quality, as compared to footage captured by broadcast news networks.
Perhaps one of the most notable examples of a viral protest video is the clip that came out of the protests which followed the Iranian elections. In it, a young Iranian girl named Neda Agha-Soltan is shot in the streets of Tehran and dies on camera. Most versions of the video on YouTube are less than a minute in length, but the impact of the video lasted much longer, as Neda became a martyr and was even mentioned in one of President Obama’s press conferences. For those of us on the other side of the world, the video of Neda’s death helped us to access emotionally a scale of violence which is fortunately rare in the United States, and offered a personal narrative from the streets.
Far less violent is the footage caught by Aaron Webber (above) of a black man passing through protesters outside Park 51. Members of the crowd wrongly assume that the man is Muslim, and as invectives fly, he becomes a symbol of so much confusion, hate and passion surrounding the issue of whether the cultural center with a prayer space for Muslims should be constructed so close to the Ground Zero site. Here is an individual plainly accused of somehow conspiring in acts he did not commit, and threatened for holding beliefs which are not his. It is difficult not to see this as exemplary of mob mentality, and how misinformation and prejudice have taken over the issue. Justin Elliott at Salon.com reports that the man’s name is Kenny, and comments from him suggest that he actually works at Ground Zero. While it is clear in the video that Kenny is not indifferent to the issue, there is no opportunity for him to explain his side to his detractors. It’s just this kind of calm, open dialogue that might actually be helpful but has been sorely lacking in mainstream media.