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Aurora Shooting Victims Raise Concerns About “Joker” in Letter to Warner Brothers

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  • Families of the victims of the 2012 shooting at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, CO wrote a letter to Warner Brothers raising concerns about their new film Joker
  • They said the film depicts violence in a manner that gives them “pause” and encouraged the studio to advocate for gun reform through political support and donations.
  • Critics of Joker believe the film depicts the story of a societal outcast who turns to violence in a dangerous way, which could empower similar behavior in the era of mass shootings. 
  • Writer/Director Todd Phillips and the film’s star Joaquin Phoenix, however, think there is a different lesson to be learned from the film and argue that someone seeking to be inspired by violence could find it anywhere, not just in their movie.

Families Write Letter

Families of the victims of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting penned a letter to Warner Brothers with concerns over its new film Joker, asking the company to join a wave of businesses fighting for gun reform. 

On July 20, 2012, a gunman killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. While Joker will not be shown at the remodeled version of that theater, many in the community still have concerns about the movie. Warner Brothers’ latest Batman-related project depicts the famous villain as a failed comic who spirals into violent spells after feeling like a societal outcast.

Five family members of shooting victims and witnesses explained how this tragedy impacted their lives and why this new movie concerns them in their letter, which was addressed to Warner Brothers’ CEO Ann Sarnoff.

“This tragic event, perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt “wronged” by society has changed the course of our lives,” they wrote in the letter, which was obtained and published by Variety. “As a result, we have committed ourselves to ensuring that no other family ever has to go through the absolute hell we have experienced and the pain we continue to live with. Trust us, it does not go away.”

“When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called “Joker” that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause,” they added. “We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression. But as anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility. That’s why we’re calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns.”

The letter cites Walmart and CVS as corporations who have recently taken their own steps to support gun safety. Rather than calling for a boycott of the film, or asking the company to drop the project, the families are asking Warner Brothers to stop contributing to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform.

They are also calling on Warner Brothers to use their own political clout in Congress to lobby for gun reform and are asking them to donate to survivor funds and gun violence intervention programs.

Reports say that a copy of the letter has not made its way to Warner Brothers Studios yet, and they have not commented on the matter. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to some of the people who signed the letter, including Sandy Phillips, who lost her daughter in the shooting.

“I don’t need to see a picture of [the perpetrator]; I just need to see a Joker promo and I see a picture of the killer,” she said. 

“My worry is that one person who may be out there — and who knows if it is just one — who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie. And that terrifies me,” she later added.

However, not everyone behind the letter is worried about fictional displays of violence influencing the real world. Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America, who advised the family members on this letter, told Variety that he does not believe there is a correlation between the two.

“I generally follow the science on this stuff and the science has repeatedly found no link between violent movies and real world violent crime,” he said. “That’s the reality of the situation. The real issue isn’t violence in what Hollywood makes. It’s that it’s incredibly easy to obtain firearms in America.”

Criticism of ‘Joker’

Joker is expected to open to an impressive box office haul and is even looked at as an Oscar contender come awards season. The violence depicted in it, however, has dominated critical conversations since the film debuted at the Venice Film Festival in August, winning the event’s top prize. The film’s acclaim has been met by equal concerns about letting audiences sympathize with a character committing heinous acts in the name of being a lonely defeatist. Some critics find this image to be too disturbingly familiar in a world where mass killings occur on a regular basis.

Chief Critic at Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson said the movie, “may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes.”

David Ehrlich, the Senior Critic at IndieWire called it “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels.”

Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips Respond to Criticism

This angle inevitably became a talking point in interviews with the cast and crew. In an article published by Telegraph on Friday, Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the title role, walked out when an interviewer brought up the subject.

Critic and writer Robbie Collin said he asked Phoenix if he was “worried that this film might perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results?”

“Why?…Why would you…? No… no,” Phoenix responded. Collin wrote that the actor then clasped his hands between his and walked out the door. 

Bursts like this are not outside the realm of normal for Phoenix. He eventually returned to the interview after Collin negotiated with Warner Brothers’ PR team for an hour. Collin wrote that the idea of this character’s violence potentially being contagious had not yet crossed Phoenix’s mind. 

Since that interview, the question has continued to come up. Joker’s writer and director Todd Phillips defended the film’s thesis in a Monday interview with IGN. 

“The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world,” he said. “I think people can handle that message.”

In that same interview, Phoenix also backed the message up.

“Well, I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong,” he said to IGN. “And those that aren’t are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to. People misinterpret lyrics from songs. They misinterpret passages from books. So I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that’s obvious.”

“I think if you have somebody that has that level of emotional disturbance, they can find fuel anywhere,” Phoenix added in regards to the film’s potential inspiration to incite violence. “I just don’t think that you can function that way.”

Editor’s Note: At Rogue Rocket, we make it a point to not include the names and pictures of mass murderers or suspected mass murderers who may have been seeking attention or infamy. Therefore, we will not be linking to other sources, as they may contain these details.

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UCLA Drops Controversial Facial Recognition Plan

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  • After backlash from students and activist groups, UCLA is dropping its plans to use facial recognition on campus.
  • Critics said the software often fails when recognizing women and people of color, and could lead to racial profiling. 
  • UCLA released a statement, just over a week before a National Day of Action to Ban Facial Recognition from College Campuses is set to be held, saying that the school longer thinks the technology would be effective at the school.
  • The use of facial recognition software on college campuses and on a national level has long been a subject of debate. Several cities have already banned it, and last week, two Senators proposed legislation banning it on a federal level unless Congressional guidelines are enacted. 

UCLA Stops Plans to Use Facial Recognition

After backlash from students and activists, the University of California, Los Angeles has dropped its plans to use facial recognition technology on its campus.

UCLA announced plans to potentially use it in its security systems. Students were concerned that this technology could interfere with students’ privacy and lead to racial profiling on campus. 

“We have determined that the potential benefits are limited and are vastly outweighed by the concerns of the campus community,” Michael Beck, the Administrative Vice-Chancellor of the school said in a statement to Fight for the Future, a group advocating for freedom in the digital age.

Fight for the Future is holding a National Day of Action to Ban Facial Recognition from College Campuses on March 2. The group had been very vocal when encouraging UCLA not to adopt facial recognition. They did a test on how effective it would be at the school and found racial biases in its algorithm.

Inaccuracies in Facial Recognition

Fight for the Future used Rekognition, a software made available by Amazon, and scanned publicly available photos of UCLA athletes and faculty and compared them to a mugshot database. They scanned 400 faces in total and said that 58 were falsely matched. 

“The vast majority of incorrect matches were of people of color,” Fight for the Future said of their findings. “In many cases, the software matched two individuals who had almost nothing in common beyond their race, and claimed they were the same person with ‘100% confidence.’”

They are not the only group to find this. According to a study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in terms of one-to-one matching, there are higher rates of false positives for Asian and African American faces in comparison to white faces. They specifically noticed increased false positives when it came to African American females.

Student Concerns

Students at UCLA expressed their concerns about this. An editorial in the school’s paper, the Daily Bruin, warned against using facial recognition because of the potential inaccuracies and profiling of people of color.

“For students belonging to these groups, facial recognition technology would simply reinforce the biases that are already stacked against them,” the piece said. The editorial listed privacy as a concern as well.

“Facial recognition technology would present a major breach of students’ privacy and make students feel unsafe on a campus they are supposed to call home,” the Daily Bruin editorial staff wrote. “It is one thing to monitor campus activity with security cameras, but it’s another entirely to automatically identify individuals and track their every move on campus.”

Students and advocacy groups like Fight for the Future were pleased with UCLA’s ultimate decision to not use facial recognition.

“Let this be a lesson to other school administrators: if you try to experiment on your campus with racist, invasive surveillance technology, we will come for you. And we don’t lose,” Deputy Director of Fight for the Future, Evan Greer, said in a statement.

Facial Recognition on a National Scale

UCLA is not the only college in the United States having a conversation about facial recognition. Fight for the Future has been keeping a scorecard of schools that have stated their intentions on using facial recognition. While big schools like Harvard, MIT, Michigan State, and NYU have said they do not intend on using it, other major colleges like Ohio State, Princeton, and the University of Georgia have stated that they might. 

Outside of colleges, other localities have already been working on fighting against facial recognition technology. In 2019, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban facial recognition technology. Somerville, MA, Oakland, CA and Berkeley, CA did the same months later. 

Still, this kind of technology is still used on a wide scale. According to Vox, in states like Texas, Florida, and Illinois, the FBI uses it to scan through DMV databases. In many U.S. airports, Customs and Border Protection uses it for screening passengers on international flights. 

Recently Proposed Legislation

The national use of this could be subject to change, though. In February, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-)R) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) proposed legislation that would ban federal use of facial recognition until proper regulations and rules had been established by Congress for it.

“Facial recognition is a technology that is increasingly being used and marketed to law enforcement agencies across the United States without appropriate debate or consideration of its impacts,” the bill said before describing that this technology has been used at protests, rallies, and other events where one’s’ freedom of speech is on display.

“It is critical that facial recognition not be used to suppress First Amendment related activities, violate privacy, or otherwise adversely impact individuals’ civil rights and civil liberties,” the legislation continued. 

This legislation would still allow law enforcement to use it if given a court order.

See what others are saying: (Vice) (USA Today) (TechCrunch)

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Fashion Institute Apologizes for ‘Racist’ Runway Look

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  • In a Feb. 7 Fashion Institute of Technology runway show, models were asked to wear oversized prosthetic lips and ears, along with bushy eyebrows. 
  • Amy Lefévre, a black model, refused to wear the accessories and called them racist for recalling offensive caricatures of black people. 
  • Many agreed with Lefévre and criticized the designer and the showrunners for the display.
  • Multiple leaders at FIT have issued apologies in the wake of the backlash.

Controversial Accessories

Several head figures at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology have issued apologies after a runway show featured designs that many have labeled “racist.”

The show was held on Feb. 7 to debut designs of graduating students. For one look, designed by Junkai Huang, models were asked to wear oversized prosthetic lips and ears, as well as bushy, large eyebrows. Amy Lefévre, a black model, was horrified at the request. 

“As soon as I saw the pieces, I started shaking. I felt it was very racist,” Lefévre told TODAY

Lefévre said she verbally expressed her discomfort with the accessories, which to her were reminiscent of offensive caricatures of black people that emphasize those features. But Richard Thornn, the producer of the show, allegedly brushed off her resistance.

According to TODAY, Lefévre claims that he told her, “it’s only 45 seconds. It’s fine to feel uncomfortable for 45 seconds.”

The 25-year-old refused to don the accessories and walked in the show without them. However, other models in the show wore the additions, and these looks were seen by an audience of about 100 people as well as captured by photographers.

Reactions and Responses

Upon seeing the pictures from the show and catching wind of Lefévre‘s protest, many Internet users supported the model and condemned both the designer and the institution for allowing it.  

“Junkai Huang should go back to school for something other than fashion because his designs are racist and this is unacceptable,” one person tweeted. “FIT how could you allow this?”

In the wake of the backlash, FIT President Joyce Brown issued a public letter on Tuesday. 

“As many of you now know, there was an unfortunate and disturbing reaction to the show that I want to address,” Joyce wrote.

She claimed that no offense was meant.

“Currently, it does not appear that the original intent of the design, the use of accessories or the creative direction of the show was to make a statement about race; however, it is now glaringly obvious that has been the outcome,” Brown added. “For that, we apologize—to those who participated in the show, to students, and to anybody who has been offended by what they saw.”

Brown said the school is taking steps to “ensure that a situation like this will not happen again” by working with groups including their Diversity Council and Student Government.   

Jonathan Kyle Farmer, the chair of the MFA program at FIT who ran the show, posted an apology on Wednesday acknowledging Lefévre directly.

“It was never our intent for the show’s styling to be interpreted as racist or to make people feel uncomfortable but I now fully understand why this has happened,” Farmer said. “I take full responsibility and am committed to learning from this situation and taking steps to do better.”

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This is by no means the first racially-insensitive blunder that the fashion industry has made. Last year, Gucci came under fire for releasing a black turtleneck with lips that could be pulled around the face, resembling blackface. Burberry faced backlash for a sweatshirt featuring a noose-like drawstring around the neck. In 2018, H&M was slammed for an ad featuring a black boy wearing a pullover that read “coolest monkey in the jungle.” 

Many seem to be fed up with these errors. 

“How do people not understand that this isn’t ok and keep doing it again and again and again?” one Instagram user commented on a picture of the show posted by a fashion industry watchdog account. 

See what others are saying: (USA Today) (BBC) (Washington Post)

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George Zimmerman Sues Warren and Buttigieg for Defamation Over Trayvon Martin Commemoration Tweets

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  • George Zimmerman is suing Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren for $265 million in a new defamation suit.
  • The lawsuit centers around tweets the two candidates posted on Trayvon Martin’s birthday commemorating him.
  • Zimmerman alleges that Warren and Buttigieg defamed him in the tweets “to bolster their standings amongst African-American voters.”

Zimmerman Files Lawsuit

George Zimmerman is suing 2020 presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg for $265 million, claiming they defamed him in order to “garner votes in the black community.”

Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012, was later acquitted on murder charges after claiming he acted in self-defense when he killed the unarmed black teen.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, alleges that the candidates “defamed Zimmerman for political gain in misguided and malicious attempts to bolster their standings amongst African-American voters, all at Zimmerman’s expense.”

The accusations stem from two tweets posted by the candidates on Feb. 5, which would have been Martin’s 25th birthday.

“How many 25th birthdays have been stolen from us by white supremacy, gun violence, prejudice, and fear? #BlackLivesMatter,” Buttigieg wrote in his post.

In her tweet, Warren expressed her condolences to Martin’s friends and family.

He should still be with us today,” she wrote. “We need to end gun violence and racism. And we need to build a world where all of our children—especially young Black boys—can grow up safe and free.”

Defamation Claims

The lawsuit claims that both Warren and Buttigieg falsely represented Trayvon’s death as being a result of “gun violence” which it claims “is generally understood in the public arena to refer to the reckless and indiscriminate use of illegally owned firearms that causes the death of a random innocent victim.”

Zimmerman, the suit argues, acted in self-defense and had a registered legal weapon.

It also says that the tweets defamed Zimmerman because they implied that he acted out of racism or white supremacy, claiming that Buttigieg’s use of the term “white supremacy” in his tweet, “defamed Zimmerman by claiming without any basis whatsoever that the Hispanic minority advocate and Obama supporter Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in cold blood due to his ‘white supremacy.’”

The same argument was given for Warren’s use of the word “racism” in her tweet.

The lawsuit then goes on to say that Warren and Buttigieg’s tweets implied that Zimmerman was “directly responsible for ‘white supremacy,’ ‘gun violence,’ ‘prejudice,’ ‘fear’ and ‘racism,’ among other defamatory innuendos and statements as explained above; and thus murdered Trayvon Martin as a result.”

The suit against the two candidates is not only defamation claim Zimmerman has filed in the last few months. In December, Zimmerman sued Martin’s family and others for $100 million, claiming that he was the victim of defamation and a conspiracy.

See what others are saying: (Newsweek) (Fox News) (The Miami Herald)

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