Home is where the protests are
Fingers speaks with North Charleston chef & writer Amethyst Ganaway on livestreaming protests from across the country, homesickness, and more
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Amethyst Ganaway has been watching protests unfold in her hometown from across the country. Yes, I made this graphic myself, why do you ask?
I’m a part-time food reporter at Charleston’s daily newspaper, so my first introduction to Amethyst Ganaway was some tweet she did about gentrification-by-restaurant in her hometown of North Charleston. I think it was this one:
A-ha, says I, here’s a local that I would like to have as a source.
Turns out Amethyst is extremely local—she was born and raised in North Charleston—but also not really, because at the moment, she lives in New Mexico. Still, Amethyst is a chef and a writer and we’ve kept up about Charleston stuff: she introduces me to people she grew up with who I want to talk to for this or that story, and I tell her “damn, Amethyst, that was a fire tweet you just did.” Or whatever. It’s a good arrangement.
Anyway, over the past month, Charleston’s streets and parks and public squares have been filled with activists protesting the killing of George Floyd (among other things.) Amethyst, a Black woman, found herself 1,600-ish miles away from her home at a moment when her city was alive with shouts of “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace.”
Unable to protest in Charleston herself, Amethyst did the next best thing: she watched it on social media. So for Fingers Interview No.2 (this was No.1) I interviewed Amethyst about livestreaming protests, homesickness, and watching her city try to reckon, yet again, with its racist past.
And present: as I was finishing up transcribing this interview, Charleston’s City Council voted unanimously to take down the John C. Calhoun statue that towers over the city’s central square. (Calhoun, one of South Carolina’s most prominent historical figures, was a big fan of slavery. So, y’know: his jig was up.)
It was something Amethyst was skeptical would happen even a week ago. I texted her this morning to see if she watched the removal effort on Facebook. “I did for like a second lol,” she replied.
Make sure you follow Amethyst on Twitter; any editors looking for a razor-sharp writer on food and culture had better check out her website, too, and commission her double-quick.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Dave Infante, Fingers: OK! Amethyst Ganaway. You were you born and raised in North Charleston. Where are you now?
I’m in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’ve been out here for almost a year and a half. It’s really a kinda slow, big city. It's the land of mañana out here so it’s like… it’s actually really reminiscent of the South in its own way. A lot of people from here don’t leave here, or if they do they come back. I guess home is home for anybody, but it's kind of like Charleston a lot of ways.
You and I kind of know each other because you’re in the food & beverage industry and I cover it. Are you cooking in Albuquerque right now?
Nah, I’m not. Most of our places here are still closed, or are running skeleton crews, pretty much. I got a couple offers recently, but I'm really not feeling going back into a restaurant full-time. So if anything, when things start opening back up, I’ve been looking at renting out a commercial kitchen space and… I don't know man, maybe just doing my pop-ups or whatever. I doubt that I’m going to be doing anything in a restaurant any time soon out here.
Yeah, I hear you. So Albuquerque is home for now, but North Charleston is home-home, forever.
After George Floyd was killed, there were protests in Minneapolis, but it took a little time for them to take shape in Charleston. Were you paying attention to the protests on the national level?
I mean obviously social media kind of caters to what we talk about or who we follow, so for me it was already constantly in my face. Also I'm a grandma, so I watch local news and national news like everyday. And I read.
On my Facebook especially, I still follow all the news channels and stuff in Charleston. Charleston and here [in Albuquerque] actually pretty much started protesting around same time. I think at that point, big cities had already. It was wild to witness Albuquerque and Charleston kind of concurrently [start to protest.] I would be on my phone looking at Live 5 News [in Charleston] and then I'd be like on my iPad looking at stuff in Albuquerque. It was almost happening at the same time.
What's the difference in coverage between TV news and actually following your friends and people you know in Charleston on social media?
If it's local or national news, they all kind of ran with the same stories. Obviously on a national level, you know, we only were only seeing the major city protests. And every now and then you kind of see, you know, stuff about the memorials and different statues being tore down and things like that.
It's been a lot of weeks with a lot of information being pushed down our throats.
But mostly they kept to the narrative that there were just a few bad apples rioting and ruining the protests, and that for the most part, everyone was out there being peaceful. But I think local and national news both made it so where the stories started to get minimized really, really fast.
I see that out here in Albuquerque. I've seen stuff on a national level about the shooting that happened here. Right? But even with Albuquerque [broadcast] news it's almost like the newspeople are just kind of almost verbatim taking what one outlet said. I don't feel like I'm getting the full scope of what is actually occurring here.
But then when I look at it on Facebook, you know and I see my friends talking about it in real time, especially like back home, then it's like “OK, so clearly, I am only getting a part of it from the news.” I'm literally watching the protests and rioting and everything happening in real time on Facebook, not on actual TV.
Sometimes Twitter has stuff. But it’s usually Facebook, people doing Facebook Lives. Very rarely have I [watched] on Twitter or Instagram.
So on May 30th in Charleston, there were peaceful protests, then later there was looting and rioting. Were you watching the feeds of people on Facebook that you knew personally throughout that? Or just kind of like friends of friends?
Most of them were people I already knew who were down there. But some of those videos were literally people who came from out of town to, for whatever reason, and were there somehow recording, and/or helping participate in the looting. One particular young lady… I wish I could find her page, but I will say it was a kind of younger white woman who said that she wasn't from here, and she had just come down. But it was wild because I’m literally watching her, in real time, on her own page, talk to these dudes from Charleston that she’d never met, walking them through how to break into an ATM machine or what store that they could break into. Like, “Hey, y'all already been there, y'all should come over here.” So that was wild.
I was like, “Yo, we are back in the Jim Crow South.”
We see all these outlets talking about these random people coming in and helping agitate or whatever whatever and I'm like, literally watching this woman do that in real time.
When you were watching that, did it cross your mind at all that that woman that you were watching on Facebook Live may have been doing that to make it seem like there were outside agitators?
It’s sketchy! And I could be mistaken, because it's obviously been a lot of weeks with a lot of information being pushed down our throats, but I'm pretty sure I haven't yet seen anything about this lady [since then.] Like, I'm sure that the video that she posted was used to arrest some other people. I’m like, 90% sure of that. I’m. sure I saw some of those same guys from the video in mug shots [later.]
So she was white, but were the guys talking to her Black?
Yeah, of course. Like, how does that happen? How did that connection between this one woman—and there were no other white people with her! And yet these guys got arrested, and she just disappeared.
So were you locked into Facebook Live for most of the night watching this stuff, or were you coming in and out?
Oh, hours. Hours. I couldn’t look away! It was to the point where I was like “Yo, let me go look to see who else is posting” [feeds from the ground in Charleston.] Things would happen, or people were getting [confronted] by the cops or whatever, and they would have to put their phones up. I started watching the actual protests earlier in the day, but once the cops got to Calhoun and King [a major intersection in downtown Charleston], I was like, stuck to my phone. It was about 7-7:30pm here, so about 9-9:30pm, maybe 10 o'clock there. And from probably 7-ish ‘til 11pm my time, I was just like, stuck in front of my phone just watching.
Some of the videos I saw were like, tear gas and all that stuff started getting popped off. Just people having to run.
Did you see any of your friends or people you knew in danger?
I mean… I mean… I can't say, because I wasn't there for myself but. But I could still feel the hostility. Like when I saw the cops line up on Calhoun [Street] the way that they did? I would have felt intimidated and felt very angry. I could definitely feel the tension in the air, even just watching it.
But while the actual looting and stuff was going on, everybody was fine. They was having a good ol’ time. And they cleared out by time the cops decided to come down that side of King Street. Yeah. So I don't want to say that that people [weren’t] in danger, because I think that there were parts where people probably were.
What was the tension like? When you were saying that you could feel it like through the screen—what was that experience like?
I mean if you're if you're Black and you're from Charleston, you've probably had some sort of experience with the police, and it probably was not a good one. I've had situations like that with police officers.
I’m ready to risk COVID in South Carolina just to be there, because there’s strength in numbers.
But I have been lucky. I don’t think that I've ever seen the cops line up like that, but watching this in real time, I was just waiting for them to bring the hoses and dogs out. I was like, “Yo, we are back in the Jim Crow South, with all these white cops in full-on riot gear.” And all I see is people that look like me having to stand off against them.
That… that show of force! Man, that really hurt, but it made me so, so, so, so, so, so, so angry. Just to witness that. It looked like a movie! I really would have thought that was like Selma, Alabama. Mind-blowing.
On one hand, I'm not even there. So, for me to feel that level of anger and disgust… you know what I mean? Just to kind of see that level of tension. And then to hear the people in the background [of the video]… You know, people from Charleston, we are who we are. We’re loud, we say what’s on our minds, we don’t care about no cops. So to hear them in the background, to hear their frustration, their anger. I can't even lie, when I saw them throwing water bottles and stuff back [at the police] it made me happy.
Did that make you homesick?
Absolutely. It’s so much more than just the police. Obviously all these protests started [over] police brutality against Black people. But especially in Charleston, that show of force of the police, was a show of force of white supremacy. White supremacy has always been in Charleston, and will probably never leave Charleston. I legit still might buy a plane ticket to come home. Like I’m ready to risk COVID in South Carolina just to be there, because there’s strength in numbers.
It was beautiful to see that happen. To see it get to the point where it's like this? This is the tipping point. It was definitely a moment of like, at least from a Black Charlestonian’s perspective, it was like, “Alright, y'all trying to do a little something. Y’all standing up for who y’all are and what y’all believe in.” It’s indescribable. I wish I could have been there.
But you weren’t able to be there, so you had Facebook Live instead. Do you think being able to livestream the scene on the ground back home was a net positive? Like, was it beneficial, or just more stressful?
Oh it was both. It was extremely stressful. to watch. I honestly, truly, and unfortunately was ready to see somebody get shot and killed on on Facebook Live. I know that’s how the world is, and I know that's how Charleston is. I could feel the tension. I didn't have to be there to see how people were reacting. But it was also kind of liberating, because I was participating in the moment in my own way. Like, I clearly couldn't be there physically to be there with them. But, at least from 1,600 miles away, I could still be aware of what was going on in real time. [That way] I don't have to rely on the media to give me the story, when I can watch the story for myself.
But you said you watch the news, too! Do you trust traditional media?
Absolutely not! I keep in mind that I can't believe obviously everything I see or hear on TV, or on the internet, or whatever. But it’s still a source of information. I try to receive information from multiple sources. But you gotta fact check everything regardless.
What was it like to hear the news announced from afar that the John C. Calhoun statue was going to come down?
It’s funny. I might get some flak for this, but personally, I grew up going to Marion Square Park and I never gave thought to that statue. And I don't give thoughts to the statues because I already grew up knowing what they were so I never paid attention to them. And obviously, as you get older you understand why they need to be removed. I do agree that they should definitely be removed from public spaces and especially in spaces in Charleston.
I don't need a reminder of white supremacy in the confederacy when I lived in it every single day. I grew up in it. I don't need a statue of John Calhoun. I really don’t care about this man. But I already knew there was gonna be some—am I allowed to curse?—some bullshit, some stipulation as to why we can't remove it right now, or where we're going to put it. I already knew. That’s Charleston.
[Note: as you read this, there’s a work crew in downtown Charleston removing the statue. So maybe it wasn’t entirely bullshit after all! But it’s certainly not the only artifact of the confederacy around here.]
My Uncle Eddie [the first Black graduate of the College of Charleston] he said that people like Charleston because they don't think that racism is there. But what people don't realize is, white people in Charleston, they’re never going to act like they're blatantly racist. So it’s funny to me. It’s Charleston, stereotypical Charleston. This is not Mississippi or Alabama, not to talk trash about them, but it's like, when you think of Charleston, especially [downtown], you think of high-class Southern white people.
Do you see your hometown in a different light from a distance? Like, does watching this all play out via social media change your opinion on Charleston?
Nah, man. I love Charleston too much. Even with its ugliness, I love it too much. It also has this weird way… how people feel about New York, that’s how I feel about Charleston. So, any cynicism I do have, I've already had, I've been had for Charleston. This is not a new story, especially if you're a Black person from Charleston. Especially if you’re an older Black person from Charleston.
This is a good thing I think for the younger generations though, because I think they come from a Charleston that is seemingly much more integrated, much more open, y’all got Pride down there now. You have all these people who are moving in from outside the South. Charleston has a way of making you think it’s a very liberal city when it's not.
So any cynicism I have is probably what I was born with, or grew up with. Because you don’t trust no white people in Charleston! Or you feed them with a long-handled spoon. That’s how most of us were raised.
But I still want to see more. I don't want to take away from the people that are down there doing the work, because there are a lot of people down there doing the work who aren't getting the their voices heard. I want those people who have those voices actually be able to use them. For me, from such a far distance, it feels like I only get to have an even smaller chance of hearing those voices or seeing those things [because they’re not being amplified by traditional media.] If I'm all the way out here and can barely hear them, how can we make these changes on a bigger scale? So it's a little bit discouraging, if anything. But I don’t know that it’s made me more of a cynic towards Charleston. I hope not. I love it too much.
Fully Automated Luxury Newsmaking
Last week, I wrote about the potential folly of turning over editorial control of a massive news source (MSN.com, lol) to artificial intelligence. One of the reasons I mentioned is that robots can amplify the racial biases already present in the underlying data on which they’re trained.
It’s a complex topic and I can’t claim to understand it completely, but here’s a letter decrying racist algorithms signed by 1,000 technologists that caught my eye this week. Seems bad!