Street Justice

By Gordon Chaffin

Going viral makes you want to disappear

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Going viral makes you want to disappear
By Gordon Chaffin • Issue #153 • View online
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

An orange flower popping out from a white flexible post used to protect the bike lanes on K Street NW. (Photo by Gordon Chaffin)
An orange flower popping out from a white flexible post used to protect the bike lanes on K Street NW. (Photo by Gordon Chaffin)
Driver vs. Skateboard Rider in D.C.
Driver vs. Skateboard Rider in D.C.
I interrupted a dangerous driver and they attacked me
On November 4th, 2021, I came upon a driver parked in a protected bike lane and blocking a curb ramp. I asked the driver to move and tapped the hood of their car to get their attention. The driver and passenger got out of the car, took offense to my touching their vehicle, began yelling, and accusing me of racism. (I’m white and both of my interlocutors were Black.) The driver retrieved something from their back seat and tucked it into their hoodie, making it seem like a gun. Eventually, the driver and passenger got back in the car and sped away — throwing two beverages at me as they left.
Once I got home, I checked public data for traffic safety violations against that driver’s Virginia license plate. That motorist, or several people using that plate, had accumulated almost $10,000 in unpaid tickets for speeding and red-light running.
I posted a video of the interaction — captured on my helmet camera — to Twitter. I also added a screenshot of those public data showing repeated traffic safety violations.
Screenshot shows that car in the video was used to commit over $10,000 worth of traffic safety violations, which have not been paid.
Screenshot shows that car in the video was used to commit over $10,000 worth of traffic safety violations, which have not been paid.
Why did I post the video? DC does little to remove extremely dangerous drivers from the road.
I posted the video hoping to raise awareness and spur a more significant political reaction to a pressing safety matter: hundreds of thousands of vehicles registered in the D.C.-area have accumulated enough traffic safety fines for driving in the District to be immobilized or impounded by the city government. Very little is being done to remove these vehicles from public space and disallow their reckless drivers the privilege to use deadly machines around pedestrians, bike riders, and the disabled.
“…almost 550,000 vehicles across DC, Maryland, and Virginia are currently boot-eligible, many for moving violations. About 75,000 of those vehicles were ticketed for going 21 mph over the speed limit; 150,000 ran red lights; and 50,000 ran stop signs.”  (Greater Greater Washington, Dec. 8, 2021)
There is a growing political action to create traffic ticket reciprocity between D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. In such a scheme, each state could hold drivers from out-of-state accountable. For example, a shared database could allow Virginia to prohibit drivers from renewing their registrations if they’ve accumulated X number of traffic violations for Y dollar value in D.C. — or vice versa
The video I posted went viral
The video of the bike lane altercation and screenshot of accumulated tickets went viral, spreading from D.C. safer streets advocates to the front page of Reddit. Some public posts responding to the video highlighted the absurd ticket total and D.C.‘s unique challenge: a city-state with so many out-of-state drivers causing a grave public safety hazard and limited ability or political will to stop it.
The video sparked another debate about being a “Karen”: complaining about others’ seemingly harmless behavior. Local residents commented that I should have left the couple alone, gone around, and understood my privilege better. Many commenters felt I should not have engaged in this way, as as a non-native Washingtonian in a recently gentrified neighborhood policing the behavior of Black people.
Like many viral internet stories these days, the most public reactions by volume accused me of racism without context or corroboration. I received extremely negative replies for the next several days, including more than a dozen direct messages in which people wished the driver would have beat me up or shot me. By the fifth day after posting the video, right-wing activists online had circulated it. They came to my defense using outright racist language such as “hood rat.”
I removed the video from Twitter and then deleted my account. The driver of that vehicle continued to drive dangerously. As of Dec. 8, they had 97 unpaid traffic safety tickets totaling $10,375.00. 27 of their last 30 fines were earned by speeding southwest-bound in the 3700 Block of Southern Avenue SE — many of those for driving 10 to 25 mph over the speed limit.
Going viral makes you want to disappear
I wrote another 2,500 words about this, but it’s a cathartic reflection better fit for a journal. I’m publishing a newsletter to explain that going viral is the worst experience of my life. Social media is feeding us a cocktail of stimuli that make us all worse people. Our habits online make it *not* okay to agree to disagree in personal and professional settings.
I want to disappear right now, and it feels like most people in my life also think it would be better if I just faded away. I felt extremely uncomfortable at Allison Hart’s Chalk-in Memorial on Sunday. It felt like most of the safer streets advocates I know at that event seem to think I’ve caused another polarizing incident, “poisoning the well” for coalition building: what you do and say in public doesn’t help our cause, so go away.
What’s the point in believing things and doing them if it ruins your life and makes the people you care about walk away?
I’m not okay. But, I’m working on it. I’m trying to move past this experience. I’m not sure if I want to do anymore “getting involved.” But, it’s hard for me to stay on the sidelines. Children get run over every day now in D.C.
I’ve spent my adult life and my career trying to prove myself to toxic people who don’t think I’m doing things right. I’m trying to stop doing that. I rub some people the wrong way and that’s who I am. I am competent, I have immense skills and passion. Who and how I am is not up for your consideration.
This post was for me and for you: don’t think “everyday, regular people” are okay when you make them viral. You ruin their lives. How often do their actions justify it? Less often than you think. ■
Lake Sherwood in California (Photo by Gordon Chaffin)
Lake Sherwood in California (Photo by Gordon Chaffin)
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Gordon Chaffin

This is Gordon Chaffin's newsletter. Gordon is a multi-talented creative and quantitative professional. He's also a civically engaged resident of Washington, D.C. This email newsletter features writing about Gordon's life and observations about current events.

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