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Pokemon Go, Contested Public Space, and the Long-Lasting Influence of Jim Crow

Race & Ethnicity

Pokemon Go, Contested Public Space, and the Long-Lasting Influence of Jim Crow

Radix Admin

By Sarah Ramírez

Over the summer I became obsessed with Pokemon Go. When the app first came out, I was pretty ecstatic to see that my neighborhood had several Pokestops for my roommate and I to explore. I lived in an apartment in South Hadley Falls right here in Western Massachusetts, just walking distance away from the bridge that spans the Connecticut River, joining South Hadley to Holyoke. Because of the intense summer heat, much of my time was spent playing in the evening or after dark. As a woman walking in the dark, I was particularly observant of my surroundings and it did not take me long to realize that the majority of other players were either older, white men or kids from the surrounding neighborhoods. People were generally nice enough and it was interesting to see the pop-up communities that occurred in the public spaces marked by the augmented reality game.     

A few weeks after Pokemon Go was released, I noticed some new faces out and about while I played. New groups of kids, many of them on bicycles or skateboards, started to move through and congregate at the public library, which houses 3 different Pokestops. After chatting with the kids for a little bit, I found out that they were from Holyoke, their ages were around 12-16, and that they were just as nerdy about this game as I was. The kids also happened to be black and latinx, which I thought was great  because it gave me a chance to speak Spanish in a place severely lacking in cultural diversity (don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my summer, but South Hadley is a bit homogenous). Overall, I thought of it as a fun part of the game; I got to meet and talk to new people that I otherwise wouldn’t have, and it was fun to see the kids and others around and playing on a semi-regular basis.

Within a week of the Holyoke players coming into South Hadley public spaces, the police arrived. I noticed that an officer was stationed right in front of the public library. It appeared that his job was to watch and inspect all cars and people that came through. As I walked by the officer while collecting items from the Pokestops, I could feel his eyes on me. Even with my light-skinned privilege, I felt inherently suspicious to this officer; he watched my every move in silence, and I could not shake the feeling that I was not supposed to be there, despite the fact that I was doing nothing wrong. I felt uncomfortable, and opted not to collect the last Pokestop there but instead made a quick exit.

I personally did not see the officer interact with anyone else. But I know for certain that the kids from Holyoke saw him. I know this because from then on, I never saw the Holyoke kids again in South Hadley Falls. The police officer was only there for a week, but the kids heard the message loud and clear; we are not welcome here. They decided to play elsewhere instead of risk confrontation, and after my experience, I could not blame them.

Why did the children, who were, themselves, acting within legality, self-police and leave the area? Why was the officer even called into the public space in the first place?

Pokemon Go has made the restricted nature of public space in White Suburbia painfully clear, with black and brown bodies viewed as inherently suspicious and dangerous by simply existing within these public arenas. Although this example appears benign, the essence of “belonging” in particular spaces, and who gets to police belonging, are both significant aspects of modern and historical racial inequality. Jim Crow laws, laws which officially dictated the rights of Black Americans in public space, validated segregation and the racial insecurities of dominant white society. Black and brown people did not “belong” to any shared public space and were barred from sharing in public resources. Now, despite the lack of de jure segregation, this entitlement survives in the form of persistent and discriminatory policing of “white” public space. People within townships and certain areas still feel that they own certain public spaces over “outsiders”, despite the fact that the very literal definition of public is  “of or concerning the people as a whole”. In more subtle forms, this entitlement looks like a police officer patrolling the public library after Holyoke Pokemon players started exploring the scene. In more extreme, dire cases, these unofficial “rules” justify the murders of innocent people in public, such as Trayvon Martin (who was murdered in his own neighborhood by George Zimmerman, an unofficial neighborhood watch), Tamir Rice (who was only 12), Keith Lamont Scott, or the countless others who have been brutalized because they existed in spaces they did not belong. Jim Crow may be over, but our social norms surrounding public space have clearly not caught up.

Pokemon Go, as an augmented reality game, certainly has not helped the situation. Analyses of the game and it’s “hotspots” have illustrated “Pokemon Redlining,” or a trend of having disproportionately higher concentrations of Pokemon and Pokestops in white and higher-class neighborhoods. Thus, for anyone who wants to play the game, going into these “white” public areas are a must. And herein lies the tension: for the game often requires players from lower-class, non-white communities to venture out into White, wealthier communities, communities which receive “outsiders” with strong ambivalence and assumptions of guilt. The kids that I met from Holyoke came to South Hadley due to the higher concentration of game activity in the Falls, a concentration that is not fully present in the flats of Holyoke. Their intentions were the same as any of the other South Hadley residents who frequented the exact same location; we are all just nerdy game players having fun and enjoying our new and impromptu traveling community. Yet the mere presence of black and brown kids engaging in unorganized play in a public space was enough “danger” to put an armed officer outside of the library. Never mind the fact that the majority of harassment I received while playing was from white, 30-40 year old males (the same people entitled to this public space), who arguably appear more sketchy playing a game meant for kids and walking around at night. Those men continued to roam freely before, after, and during the patrol of the officer.

Pokemon Go has the potential to aid in the transformation of these dangerous and lethal social barriers but instead has continued to exasperate the tensions over public space that already exist. Although I do not expect games or apps like Pokemon Go to “fix” discrimination and racism, game developers do have a unique chance to prioritize equality and social justice in their gameplay. Pokemon Go follows the augmented reality map developed by the game Ingress, which utilizes Google Maps for landmark and geographical information. What would the game look like if it prioritized a more diverse set of landmarks that include equal concentrations of game activity in all neighborhoods? Businesses in economically depressed areas would surely benefit from the added foot traffic, and the general public could potentially become more educated about marginalized stories and landmarks, much like they currently are discovering old landmarks and sites in their own neighborhoods. Again, this would not be an end-all solution, but it would be a positive step in the right direction. Until then, Pokemon Go will continue to perpetuate an unjust and dangerous society.