Over the last week, Americans across the country have protested systemic racism and police brutality against Black people following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. This past weekend, cops responded with more brutality, and media companies decided it was the right time to chime in, tweeting out messages of solidarity with the Black community. It’s a start, but when asked what they were doing to help during this time, most of the companies io9 reached out to seemed to stop at the tweets.
Last week, Derek Chauvin was caught on camera arresting Floyd over a possible counterfeit $20 bill. Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, despite his pleas that he couldn’t breathe. After days of outcry, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, but the three officers who stood by while Floyd cried for help have only been fired. This event is terrible on its own, but it also carries the weight of so many other instances of police disproportionally killing Black people, and the system that protects those officers from responsibility.
Protests continue this week, following a weekend of organized gatherings across the United States, as well as other countries like New Zealand and Great Britain. The American demonstrations were largely interrupted by police forces whose actions against protesters (and journalists) included spraying tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, and mass arrests. The National Guard was also called to some of the protest locations. The weekend was filled with chaos, screams, tears, and anger—and none of those look to be subsiding anytime soon, so long as the government’s response continues to be antagonistic.
On Sunday, several media companies tweeted out support of their Black employees and the community, with most of them (except for Disney and Marvel) including the “Black Lives Matter” phrase as well. Once the first tweet started, others followed with what appeared to be a unified response, the likes of which we haven’t really seen before. Previously, companies have come forward with statements relating to the LGBTQ community during the same-sex marriage debate, as well as for gender equality during the Women’s March of 2017. But while CEOs or employees might comment on issues of injustice as individuals, big-name brands tend not to get into discussions of race as a rule—to see this come together so quickly, in response to such turbulent times, was unprecedented. It was also unsatisfactory.
io9 reached out to a dozen media companies—Disney/Marvel, Warner Bros., Universal, Netflix, Amazon Studios, ViacomCBS, Paramount, Sony, Hulu, The CW, and HBO—that tweeted out various, similar versions of a white-texted statement on a black background expressing solidarity over the weekend, asking them what else they’re doing to support Black communities during these protests. Are they sending money to bail funds, community leaders, and other organizations? Are they announcing new plans to address issues of systemic and implicit biases within their own companies? What exactly are they doing to help, besides “standing with” Black people?
So far, only HBO and ViacomCBS representatives have replied. ViacomCBS said it’s matching employee donations to Minnesota Freedom Fund and other groups, and will be participating in Blackout Tuesday this week. HBO would not comment beyond what’s already been shared on social media or reports of WarnerMedia’s internal communications. On Wednesday, HBO announced on Twitter that it “supports the Equal Justice Initiative and NAACP Legal Defense Fund,” though it didn’t specify by how much. And on Thursday, WarnerMedia announced that, in addition to donations, the company would be giving airtime and online platform access to Color Of Change and NAACP—as well as add $500,000 to its OneFifty program, which seeds “issue-focused creative ideas from communities who often go unheard.”
Disney did not reply to our request but released a memo from CEO Bob Chapek, in which the company promised to “keep the conversation going...for as long as it takes to bring about real change.” On Wednesday, June 3, the company announced it would be donating $5 million to “nonprofit organizations that advance social justice,” starting with $2 million for the NAACP (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams’ foundation is donating twice that). We’ll update as we learn more.
If media companies really wish to support Black people who are protesting systemic racism, they need to do more than send a tweet. They need to publicly acknowledge and address systemic bias within their own structures, and they must rethink their relationships with the police departments that are instigating this abuse. Amazon should address its partnerships with various police departments for surveillance and profiling, mainly with its massive Ring network. Why, for example, were Los Angeles police allowed to use a CBS parking lot as a staging area as they prepared to respond to the protests? In a statement to io9, ViacomCBS said it doesn’t own the lot so it didn’t make the decision to have police there, but no word yet whether it condemns the action.
It’s not just the police, it’s the whole paramilitary system that enables anti-Black racism. Warner Bros. should take a hard look at its deals with the U.S. Army for DC Entertainment and other films—a recent survey showed that one-third of Army soldiers have seen or experienced racism within their ranks over the past year. Disney should recall how it contracted with the Air Force to use Captain Marvel as a symbol to recruit women, even though a recent report showed that the Air Force has consistently failed to address problems of racial disparities in its justice system.
Marvel Entertainment (owned by Disney) should examine how it contracted with the private defense firm Northrop Grumman to produce a (since-canceled) promotional tie-in comic for the company that was sued last year by a Black engineer for race and national origin bias. Or, closer to home, it should consider the impact of editorial decisions such as promoting current Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski after he admitted to working for the publisher under a Japanese pseudonym on several projects, or choosing to remove references for the need of violent protest in bringing about systemic change in an essay about Captain America published in Marvel Comics #1000. The publisher has also consistently stayed silent about attempts to stop police officers from using the skull logo of Frank Castle’s extrajudicial vigilante the Punisher as part of uniforms and on vehicles, even as the character’s creators and creative teams have spoken out against it.
These TV and film companies also perpetuate systemic racism in their work, both in front of and behind the cameras. According to a UCLA report, Black men and women only had 16 percent of all 2019 film roles, and the vast majority of protagonists were white. Behind the scenes, there were only eight Black writers on movies last year, and the number of Black directors went down to just five percent. This impacts representation in front of the camera, and blocks thousands of amazing creators from having their work shared with the world.
On television, the numbers can be even worse (although the most recent numbers available are from a study of the 2016-2017 season). That season, only 16 percent of onscreen characters were Black, and the representation behind the scenes was diminutive. There are attempts to address this, like CBS’s annual Diversity Showcase, but the industry is still a long way from achieving parity and equity, and even achieving racial parity onscreen and on sets wouldn’t speak to the larger issues happening in streets.
Another major problem is the prevalence of pro-police media we’ve been inundated with for decades. We’ve had over 300 television shows about police officers over the years. Several are currently running, including the many CSI and NCIS shows—as well as Criminal Minds, a show that’s literally about how to profile people. Police procedural dramas have a history of portraying Black people (young Black men in particular) as criminals. There’s also the news, which usually focuses on crime stories, and “unscripted” cop shows like C.O.P.S. and Live P.D (some of the most fucked-up shit I’ve ever seen). These television shows can impact public perception and criminal policy, according to a January 2020 report from Color of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center:
The crime TV genre—the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system—advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic. The study found that the genre is also incredibly un-diverse in terms of creators, writers and showrunners: nearly all white.
Empty platitudes on social media aren’t sufficient. They’re only a small step up a really steep hill. If these tweets are not pared with actual solutions—and no, that doesn’t include “going silent” for eight minutes and 46 seconds on Tuesday—or calling out police brutality specifically, they end up being worthless in the long run. Disney, Warner Bros., Netflix, Amazon Studios, Sony, and all the companies that say you support Black lives: Put your money, and your values, where your tweets are.
Here are a few ways to help. Donate money to bail funds—especially for cities like Las Vegas that have said they’re short on funds—and criminal justice groups that will be setting up representation for protesters who are tried. Call representatives to demand their support for criminal justice reform and defunding the police (5 Calls is a great resource for that). Support Black-owned businesses in the community and elsewhere. Read more resources on anti-racism. Also, have those talks with your family and friends. They suck, but they’re necessary.
This post has been updated to include ViacomCBS’s statement, and again with HBO, Disney, and Warner Bros. announcements.
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Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.