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Why Do People Having Racist Meltdowns Film the People Filming Them?

The viral video as we knew it is dead. No more “Chocolate Rain” or “Shoes” or “David After Dentist.” YouTube is the territory of gamers and vloggers, and Vine, the social video platform with greatest mass appeal, is gone. Cuts of raw footage gain traction on Twitter, just never with equal momentum — and usually for a very different reason. Where we once associated web virality with music, humor, and adorable animals, we’ve developed a new expectation: “Viral video” is now almost synonymous with “racist rant.”

That’s New York lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, whose explosive anger at people speaking Spanish in a Manhattan deli has turned his life upside down. In another era, fallout from such a hateful outburst might have been contained; In 2018, there is always witness footage to spread far and wide. We could argue at length about the ethics of filming a stranger in the throes of a breakdown, but I’m fascinated by a corollary phenomenon: the moment when the guy flipping out holds up his phone to record the cameraperson.

Where is the advantage in this mirroring maneuver, and how did it become reflex? In its most literal translation, the act of pointing your phone at someone pointing theirs at you is retaliatory — an eye for an eye, as it were. It says: “I have the same weapon you do, and when surveilled, I surveil back. Now we’re equally exposed.”

Practically, however, another angle on the same incident doesn’t give the nutjob the upper hand. It doesn’t even level the field or establish a secure stalemate. It’s awkward and desperate, the fumbling action of someone who knows they are royally fucked. It’s as though the racist thinks the lens will shield them from consequence. Challenged by several customers in a busy lunch spot, Schlossberg chose to film (or act like he was filming) for just a few seconds, capturing — if anything — a woman’s reaction of disbelief when he vowed to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in hopes they would detain and deport her.

Following that encounter, Schlossberg has likewise brandished his phone at reporters and bystanders who’ve recognized him on the street; In a 2016 pedestrian spat also caught on video, he tried to record a man who turned his camera on after Schlossberg randomly accosted him as “an ugly fucking foreigner.” At no point in the videos available do any of these people do something to earn the sort of rebuke Schlossberg is now enduring, so it’s hard to imagine in what mood he revisits this footage later. Were he deluded enough to see himself as an outspoken hero, or the video as exonerating, maybe his clips would find their way to the web as well. That they haven’t suggests he knows they’re equally damning as what’s already out there. Still, he keeps shooting.

It’s plainly not in Schlossberg’s interest to create more evidence of his vile behavior. Neither did it benefit Jennifer Boyle, a Trump supporter who did the same while screaming at black employees in a Chicago store. Ditto this weirdo who harassed a Latina woman at the mall for having blonde hair. But again and again, the bigots fated to rack up millions of views for an unhinged tirade dig an iPhone out of their pocket or purse and wield it like a protective amulet. At that instant, they no doubt feel they are in the right and will want proof after the fact, yet what they demonstrate is fear, not confidence. It’s a fear that informs and now punctures their racist anger: the fear of brown individuals who have not threatened them whatsoever, the fear that any non-white person may, even while exhibiting a patience and calm both honed by a familiarity with abuse, may launch into violence. In a way, the ranter who resorts to superfluous documentation of their downfall needs the object of their scorn to lash out physically. Only then could they have a prayer of asserting comparative innocence.

This doesn’t tend to happen, however. The type of dramatic confrontation envisaged by the xenophobic mind — ethnic savagery in the face of noble white identitarianism — is nothing more than a fable shared on alt-right forums. A cell phone cannot conjure this dynamic, nor will it contradict what the other person’s cell phone sees, sowing Rashomon-like uncertainty. I wonder if they’re surprised by this. If they try to reconcile the seething lunatic they hear with a positive self-image, or accept the dissonance which, after all, seems to be their preferred status quo. What I’m sure of is that the impulse to reach for a recording device as you hit rock bottom is a form of narcissistic victim-play, and panic disguised as composure. At root it reveals the privileged assumption that when the rest of the country watches — through their phone, moreover — nobody will fail to side with the white crusader. That hasn’t been true so far.