One of the most troubling aspects of the Danièle Watts story is how quickly the claims of two people were turned into concrete fact by the media. Maybe you believe Watts was unfairly detained by police in Studio City last Thursday, maybe you don't -- but the way the story of that incident spread is cause for concern.
Being that it seemed like yet another confrontation between a black person and police, with police immediately jumping to a conclusion about that person based on the color of her skin, it's no surprise that the outrage button was pushed hard right off the bat. The problem is that the resulting firestorm of indignation drew the attention of media outlets that should've known better than to run with a story based on nothing more than a couple of Facebook posts -- particularly Facebook posts fired off by people who claimed that they'd been wronged.
It's expected that a website like Jezebel, existing in a state of perpetual umbrage, would take Danièle Watts and her boyfriend Brian Lucas completely at their word. But when even easily verifiable mistakes in Watts's description of her encounter with the police are allowed to go unchallenged and simply wind up being parroted word for word by everyone from The Daily Dot to US Weekly, outlets with strong readerships and strong social media presences, it's a problem. It's how bullshit becomes agreed-upon fact, and it's wrong.
It was always possible that Danièle Watts really was detained by police for no greater crime than kissing her boyfriend on a public street. It was entirely possible that police assumed that a black woman and a white man together showing affection in a car amounted to prostitution. As I said the other day, there are some bad cops out there and the damage they can cause should never be diminished or dismissed. But the past couple of days haven't been kind to Watts and Lucas's story of simply making out in the front of his Mercedes and suddenly having to face down the cops.
First came the audio of the incident, released by TMZ, which didn't confirm or disprove Watts's claims about why the police were called in the first place but which definitely made her look snotty, unnecessarily melodramatic and entirely uncooperative in the face of a cop who was relatively calm and professional. Now come the inevitable photos supposedly taken by the Studio City resident who called 911 to report a flagrant incident of "indecent exposure" on a residential, but still heavily traveled, Studio City street. TMZ published them earlier today.
It's tough to judge what's going on and whether it actually required the police, but the details of the original call are also being made public today and they paint a much different picture than the one Watts and Lucas posted to Facebook.
A witness from a nearby office building who was watching the events unfold outside of the CBS Studios last Thursday afternoon told TMZ that Watts was grinding on Lucas with her shirt pulled up and her breasts exposed. Someone from the office reportedly went downstairs to ask the couple to stop, but they didn't. Witnesses also said that Lucas was "horizontally bongoing her boobs back and forth" before they cleaned themselves off with a tissue and threw it on the grass.
Now who knows, this could still be a bunch of crap -- some uptight busybody getting his or her own dander up over nothing (although it doesn't sound like it if more than one person saw this and someone actually tried to get Watts and Lucas to knock it off). I've certainly seen far worse things than this on L.A.'s streets. But it was still a call and police were likely nearby to respond to it, since that part of Ventura Boulevard, near Laurel Canyon, is generally busy at all hours of the day. You can debate whether Danièle Watts deserved to be detained -- from what I've seen, I think she was and that police were entirely within their rights to do so -- but what I'm bothered by most is the way that even before holes started being shot clean through Watts and Lucas's story, much of the press was simply going with it like it was part of an official press release. This happened even though there were always problems with it.
I counted at least three outlets that declared that Watts had been detained by the Studio City Police Department, an agency that exists nowhere but on the Facebook post by Watts. In reality, she spent 30 minutes in the company of the LAPD. Now maybe Watts just made an honest mistake, but media outlets should have caught something like that. That's a journalist's job. If you're writing about an incident and make the same mistake a source does it just proves that you're not trying to independently confirm that source's story. Also, while it's not the biggest deal on earth, it was amusing as hell that as any good Angeleno C-lister would, Brian Lucas managed to turn his encounter with the police into an opportunity to promote himself. In his own Facebook account of the event, he described himself as a "tatted RAWKer white boy." Lucas is a "celebrity" chef who specializes in raw food. Yeah. This doesn't necessarily discount his story, but the involuntary eye-roll it caused might be the kind of thing that stuck in my head.
Maybe most egregiously, the number of headlines -- and of course indiscriminate tweets -- on Sunday that proclaimed that Watts and Lucas had been mistaken for a prostitute and a john were practically legion. The idea that a black woman couldn't engage in PDA with a white guy in a car without being called a "ho" -- Lucas's own word -- was the backbone of Watts and Lucas's indignation and eventually everyone else's as well. This isn't to say that shitty assumptions like that aren't made on a daily basis in this country, but that wasn't the case this time. Within 24 hours, it became clear that at no point did anybody claim that Danièle Watts was a prostitute. And yet for 24 hours a hell of a lot of outlets ran with that angle. And it's the initial story that always sticks in people's minds and becomes irritatingly difficult to dislodge, even with an avalanche of new, contradictory evidence.
The relationship between the police and black America has always been strained, but over the past month that strain has led to visible rips that our hyperconnected culture is very well aware of. So maybe it's understandable that we'd jump to an obvious conclusion when it seemed like we were presented with yet another case of cops harassing a black person for no good reason. But as much as we can all use a very public awakening about the injustices minorities still face in our supposedly "post-racial" country, we also need to be shown in the most vivid way possible how misinformation can spread throughout our media-saturated society and set the narrative, even if it's a false narrative. The story of Danièle Watts and Brian Lucas is a perfect example of that.