D.C. Youths Use Video To Help Stop Violence

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WASHINGTON--The video images are slick and the messages simple.

"Stop the violence.'' "It's about choices.'' "You decide.''

The catch phrases are the only narration in a stark series of anti-violence public-service announcements and a music video recently produced by two dozen youths here in the nation's capital, where the local news includes almost daily reports of drive-by shootings or drug-related crimes, often involving teenagers.

In contrast to the grim scenes in news broadcasts, however, the short videos paint an optimistic and hopeful portrait: scenes of African-Americans, Latinos, and white "skinheads'' facing confrontations, but ultimately choosing to get along with one another.

The video project is aimed at using a familiar vehicle to reach young people at a time when the tide of violence appears to be rising. If the medium is the message, the sponsors hope, the videos can hit home with the MTV generation.

"If you want to influence kids in the city, you have to deal with them on their own terms,'' says William Marshall Jr., a television documentary producer who spearheaded the project.

The public-service announcements began airing in late September on television stations and local cable systems here. The five-minute music video version has also appeared on the air several times.

"I thought the project fully realized its intentions,'' says Ulysses Garner, the executive director of D.C. Art/Works, the city arts agency that helped fund the project.

The messages "really heighten the consciousness of young people,'' he adds.

Last year, Mr. Marshall, a former Congressional aide, produced a documentary focusing on teenagers and sex that has been partially credited with persuading Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly of the District of Columbia to support the distribution of condoms in the public schools here. The city's school system began the condom-distribution program this fall.

'A Certain Amount of Rawness'

For his next project, Mr. Marshall proposed an anti-violence video that would be produced with teenagers from the city's summer-jobs program. Program officials were mulling his proposal over when the Los Angeles riots erupted in April, he says. The city then gave the go-ahead for the anti-violence video project.

"Many young people are interested in making a statement about their times, and they think that making a video is the most appropriate way of sending that message,'' Mr. Garner says. "We wanted to do a positive piece, but also one that had a certain amount of rawness to it.''

Mr. Marshall selected about two dozen young people for the seven-week project, which was also funded by the Mayor's summer-jobs program. Most of the teenagers were paid from $65 to $100 a week for their participation, while a few younger students, who did not qualify for the jobs program, participated as volunteers.

Before diving into the production of the videos, Mr. Marshall required his charges to undergo classroom instruction that covered all facets of the media. The class analyzed newspaper stories, television shows, and music videos to learn how they are produced and to evaluate their messages.

"We had a John Hughes film festival one week and then a Spike Lee festival,'' he said, referring to the well-known directors whose work has focused on, respectively, white, upper-middle-class, suburban teenagers and urban, African-American residents.

The participants also made numerous field trips to local radio and television stations, as well as to such facilities as the headquarters here of the national cable network Black Entertainment Television.

Mr. Marshall himself was surprised by some of the realities he encountered during the project from his students and other youths who worked on the videos as actors or production assistants. One day, he recalls, for instance, one student showed up with a gun.

"I was shocked by some of the beepers, the rolls of money they had, the uninterested parents and guardians,'' he says.

Some Surprises on the Shoot

The participants were in for a few surprises when they got around to shooting the videos as well.

At the city park they had chosen to shoot some playground basketball scenes, presumed drug dealers quickly scattered when the crew showed up.

"We took away some of the dealers' business that day,'' Mr. Marshall says.

Most of the youths from the summer-jobs program worked behind the scenes, while other youths were recruited as actors for the videos. But one young man who agreed to participate quit after he decided he did not want other members of his street gang to see him on television spreading an anti-violence message.

A group of white skinheads recruited for a scene featuring a racial confrontation on the basketball court did not want to be shown drawing swastikas or other symbols of racial hatred.

"We were just trying to blend some reality into it,'' Mr. Marshall says. "But they said, 'No, we are not racist skinheads.''' The production team dubbed them "the good skinheads.''

Besides the skinheads and the basketball players, the spots present images that include a drive-by shooting, drugs, and a scene featuring two Latino youths handling a gun. Later, one of the youths is shown graduating from high school, but not the other.

Mr. Garner of the city arts agency noted that, while the Los Angeles riots have raised the nation's consciousness about urban violence, many youths in this city viewed the event "with a certain amount of detachment.''

"They live in communities where their friends are shot, and their family members are mugged,'' he says. "There is a certain immediacy there. They understand that human decency has gone beyond the reasonable.''

Keeping Youths From Wrong Turns?

Meanwhile, the summer program exposed many of the students to interesting jobs in the media, which may keep some or all of them from taking a wrong turn down the road, Mr. Marshall says.

"At first I thought this was going to be a crummy little video,'' says Brandi Berry, a 12-year-old middle school student who participated in the project without pay. "But this is getting the message out that there is violence everywhere. It may help get people involved.''

Brandi is now a contributor to the largest African-American newspaper here, as well as to a cable-television show that focuses on youth concerns.

Even Mr. Marshall acknowledges that short public-service announcements and similar messages are not, by themselves, going to solve the epidemic of urban violence.

"But viewers will see these messages until February or March,'' he says. "They are having an effect. We are changing attitudes.''

Adds Mr. Garner, "With the slogan 'You Decide,' there is the idea that if we are going to get back to being civil, it has to begin with the individual.''

Vol. 12, Issue 09

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