“Lengthy Historical past of Neglect”: Why Are Lacking Blacks Discovered Much less? | documentary

GAbby Petito’s disappearance last summer made headlines in national media and sparked a well-oiled and coordinated manhunt that poured in tips on social media but ended in tragedy. After their remains were found, Petito’s parents thanked law enforcement and the public for their support at a press conference. Joseph Petito also made a pointed statement. “This same kind of heightened awareness should continue for everyone,” he told the assembled media. “It’s up to all of you, everyone in this room to do that. If you don’t do that for other missing people, it’s a shame, because it’s not just Gabby who deserves it. “

“This comes from a grieving father,” Soledad O’Brien tells the Guardian. The former CNN anchor and executive producer of the four-part HBO documentary series Black and Missing vividly remembers the press conference on the phone. “Imagine your own little girl goes missing and you have to blame the media for looking for people of color too.”

Joseph Petito made no mention of the breed, but we all heard the ramifications in his testimony. His daughter’s disappearance became a textbook example of “Missing White Woman Syndrome” – the compulsion by law enforcement, media and the public to rally for bailouts for young white women. Meanwhile, missing and murdered women and children who are indigenous and black are historically, continuously and systematically ignored by all of the above. An entire episode in Black and Missing is devoted to Missing White Woman Syndrome and media bias, which draws forensic attention to the systemic problems that cause black people to go missing and then prevent them from being found.

The documentaries – created by O’Brien and Geeta Gandbhir and directed by Gandbhir, Samantha Knowles, Yoruba Richen, and Nadia Hallgren – are thorough, insightful, devastating, and engaging. The filmmakers anchor themselves with Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson, co-founders of the Black and Missing Foundation. The grassroots organization supports families and gathers communities in the search for their missing relatives. We see them handing out leaflets, booking media appearances and sticking them to police departments who are quick to dismiss the concerns of the BIPOC families. The Wilsons, who are sister-in-law, are uniquely equipped to face the problems they commit to after their main job. Natalie works in public relations. Derrica is formerly law enforcement agency. You know how media pressure makes the police act faster, if at all.

In the very first episode, a mother explains that her missing daughter was mistakenly labeled a runaway, which relieves the police of searching for her during the crucial early days when they have the best chance of finding her. The series quickly indicates that this is not an isolated incident.

And while the Wilsons help various families tackle dire scenarios of missing children or seek resolution after a heartbreaking loss, the filmmakers take a step back to grasp the bigger picture. They blend the intimate stories of domestic violence, kidnappings and human trafficking with the macro themes they illuminate: the criminalization of black children, the systems that allow cycles of poverty and trauma to re-fall victim to BIPOC families, and the contribution of the Media on these problems.

Missing poster for Keeshae JacobsMissing poster for Keeshae Jacobs Photo: HBO

“Systemic racism is not independent of what happens in this story,” says O’Brien, who explains how familiar she is with the role of the media on these issues. O’Brien harks back to her time as host of the CNN morning show “Starting Point”, when South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was charged with the murder of his wife, model Reeva Steenkamp. O’Brien was stunned by the extensive coverage that preferred a tragedy in South Africa to local news. It dawned on her that the coverage was an opportunity to paper Steenkamp’s picture all over the screen. “We [were] To cover this story because there are very “attractive” people involved, “says O’Brien. “There are certain people who think the media is a good story. And then there are others who are not. “

O’Brien says she has known the problem existed for years. Little did, however, know there were grassroots organizations fighting against biased media coverage of missing people until 2017, when the Black and Missing Foundation was honored at Black Girls Rock !, an awards show that aired on BET. A year later, O’Brien and Gandbhir began work on the documentaries, recruiting a predominantly female BIPOC team, including co-directors such as Knowles, Richen, and Hallgren, who were sensitive to the culture and challenges of the families they portrayed.

“We really tried to humanize the victims on our series,” Knowles told the Guardian during a phone call next to Gandbhir. You describe the care with which the family has built trust and portray it with caution. This representation is crucial in such cases. There are reasons the Wilsons are so meticulous about how they position families when presenting them to local or national news and shows like The View.

“Families would provide photos of their missing loved ones and the police would choose a mug shot,” says Knowles, describing common practices that persistently criminalize BIPOC people and create a chain reaction in the way they are seen. “It really affects how the media sees this missing person. When the media ends up covering them, it affects how the public sees that person. And it ultimately affects the outcome of the case. “

During Black and Missing, the Wilsons advocate continued media coverage that puts pressure on law enforcement agencies, who generally do not prioritize missing person cases. “Missing units are notoriously underfunded,” explains Gandbhir, adding that detectives are often hesitant because unless there is evidence of violence or kidnapping, there is no crime to be committed. As Natalie explains at the beginning of the first episode, most law enforcement agencies are classified according to the murders and robberies they solve. They are structurally set up to arrest criminals who can be tried and jailed, rather than assisting or rescuing potential victims and serving the community. It is a model that prefers punishment to prevention.

Derrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson in Black and MissingDerrica Wilson and Natalie Wilson in Black and Missing Photo: HBO

“And then there is the industrial complex of prisons,” adds Gandbhir, spelling out the economics of the justice system. “It’s a cash cow for many, many people, which is not a great model for justice.”

The documentary series evokes the conversation about the defusion of the police, which has grown louder since the murder of George Floyd. The dedicated and considerate community effort of the Black and Missing Foundation stands in stark contrast to examples of police negligence, bias, violence, and ineffectiveness. On several occasions, the series features cases where victims, witnesses, or parishioners would rather report to the Wilsons than to the police; the black and missing model offers a helpful alternative. It can be argued that funding should be redirected accordingly from one type of organization to another.

“It’s a little harder to tease out,” says O’Brien, explaining that I may be simplifying a complex problem. After all, systemic problems that are rooted in history and last four hour long episodes cannot be resolved with an e-referral. Filmmakers agree that organizations like the Black and Missing Foundation can do much more with adequate funding. However, they also point out that, while repeatedly frustrated with law enforcement, the Wilsons rely on police resources to find missing people and seek a solution for specific families.

“There has been such a long history of neglect between the police and black people, especially blacks,” says Knowles. “[Natalie and Derricka Wilson] modeling what it looks like to fill the gap, to be such an alternative to having to interact directly with the police. But at the same time, they know they need every single tool that is available to them [including police] and they are very honest.

“You want to hold the police accountable.”

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