I am not Charlie Hebdo but I have experienced the sharp retaliatory violence that comes from speaking truth to power.
In late 2011 I began writing about teardowns and gentrification in Decatur, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. After writing just two articles on the subject a person who lives in the neighborhood about which I was writing confronted the local historical society’s executive director and demanded that I be banned from the institution’s archive. Why? Because he didn’t like what I was writing.
Four months later, after being elected to the local historical society’s board of directors, another resident confronted the executive director and demanded that I be “unelected” or he would seek to have the organization’s county funding cut. Why? Because he didn’t like what I was writing.
In early 2012 several Decatur residents used social media and online publications to intimidate me to stop writing about structural racism and gentrification in Decatur. They explicitly wrote that the harassment would end when my writing ended. Why? Because they didn’t like what I was writing.
Between late 2011 and early 2013 I had written many things critical of Decatur’s land use policies and the practices used by builders to harass elderly homeowners to sell their homes and move out of the community. Despite false and malicious claims that I had stalked and harassed them by taking pictures of homes being demolished and new ones being built, the builders had no legal basis to stop me from writing about gentrification in Decatur. After I wrote a teaser post for a historical article, one builder filed a false report of a crime with local law enforcement claiming I had threatened to kill him. Why? Because he didn’t like what I was writing.
In May 2013 I secured a DeKalb County temporary protective order under Georgia’s stalking law against one woman I identified as a cyberstalker/harasser. She created Twitter accounts and commented in local and national publications to use her anonymity as a weapon to present “her side of the story.” She believed that what I was writing hurt her neighborhood and her friends, and by extension her, therefore she took it upon herself to defend herself and her community. Why? Because she didn’t like what I was writing.
At the May 29, 2013 hearing to extend the county TPO, the woman arrived in court with two individuals we believe are cyberstalkers/harassers and Decatur’s deputy police chief as defense witnesses. One of her witnesses is an attorney who appears to have developed an unnatural obsession with me after he thought I exposed his anonymous identity on a local blog and whose apparent cyberstalking/harassment rivaled the woman’s. The other is a software engineer who, like the woman, took to the Internet to defend his neighborhood. Why? Because they didn’t like what I was writing.
That same woman against whom we secured the stalking TPO in May 2013 engaged in an act that can only be described as digital book burning. In February 2013, I was invited to write an article on Decatur’s gentrification for a national magazine’s web publication. Shortly after the article appeared it was cited on the Decatur Wikipedia page. On May 20, 2013, that woman edited the Decatur Wikipedia page and removed the citation to my article. Why? Because she didn’t like what I was writing.
I am not Charlie but I can feel Charlie’s pain and I can identify with all of the people – Western journalists and satirists, Palestinian journalists and writers, and others who have been threatened, intimidated, and harmed because people didn’t like what they were writing. My critics didn’t charge my office with heavy arms but they did weaponize the Web engaging in what cybercrimes scholar Danielle Citron calls digital hate crimes.
I am in no way minimizing the tragedy in Paris and my experiences only resulted in financial and emotional harm. There was no loss of life, no physical violence, yet the virtual violence was very real and tangible with potentially devastating results had the calculus of intolerance in my case worked out differently. I was afraid that the escalating war of words would result in physical harm to me and my family.
I am not Charlie but there are some folks in Decatur, Ga., who are no different from the terrorists who slaughtered cartoonists and spilled blood on the inalienable human right to free speech and the moral duty to speak truth to power.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein