This is an article I wrote in the summer of 2016 after the infamous #LochteGate when US Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte managed to cause an international incident at the Rio Olympics after himself and several other swimmers alleged they were robbed at gun point while at a gas station after a video surfaced of them being confronted by several men. It would later turn out that the story was entirely fabricated and the men in the video confronting Ryan Lochte and posse were actually armed security guards, understandably, upset that the athletes had vandalized the gas station and urinated there. This caused a large fuss and many scrutinized Lochte, not only for lying but for relying on racist stereotypes about Brazil’s dangerous nature in order to absolve him and his friends of their own wrongdoings.
Without further ado…
“Eat, play, leave” is a twist on the book title by author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). This interesting turn of phrase is a quirky way of highlighting the sometimes insidious side of tourism. People go on vacation they take in the sights of far off places, they marvel at the quirky locals and eclectic scenery and they “find” themselves, they learn that your material possessions don’t define you or some other fortune cookie lesson and they get in their plane back to American suburbia. The crux of this critique is that inevitably the tourist leaves. In fact, this piece is the most pivotal part. The ability to leave or walk away, fly home at the end of the trip. A luxury which locals do not have. A 40 year-old divorcee at the height of her midlife crises goes to India and sees children playing on the shores of the Ganges and thinks “if these kids can smile then why can’t I!”
Now you may be wondering what does a 40 year old divorcee finding her enlightenment in India have to do with a bunch of 18-28 year old concert goers, and Ryan Lochte? Well, all from Banks of the Ganges, to the streets of Rio to the city of Camden, all of their travel experiences are centered on one tiny detail: their ability to leave.
Let’s forget about our old lady friend for the moment and focus on more current news. In the days since #Lochtegate many have taken to social media to discuss the glaring white male privilege entrenched in this case. Somehow despite lying, fabricating a story, implicating innocents and urinating on public property, Ryan is still America’s sweetheart. He’s affectionately referred to as a “kid having fun” by the IOC. The associated Press described the situation as “rowdy.” Somehow these words always come about when the transgressions involve fairer folk. When students at Kean University rioted (because…pumpkins?) articles described the events as a rowdy ruckus! A jamboree that just got too out of hand! Such description somehow was not extended to the angry violent looters in Baltimore and, more recently, Milwaukee.
Ryan Lochte knew what he was doing. He knew he could get away with it. He knew people think of Rio as dangerous and dirty and because of that he knew when he told people he was robbed at gunpoint they would believe him. Rio is scary, right? Of course it happened, who could doubt Ryan Lochte? An Olympic athlete? Never!
Let us not forget this was the very same Olympic Games that left gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas in tears from harassment she endured for standing during the pledge of allegiance. Yet Ryan Lochte, at 32 years old, is referred to as a kid having fun as if he’s on vacation. This makes one point glaringly obvious whiteness will always absolve itself even while confronting its own guilt. What this case shows is that it is often the tourist who brings violence and danger into the city not the other way around. Ryan Lochte vandalized and pissed in a store and then blamed locals. His shiny pristine whiteness against their dirty tainted blackness. And what happened when he was caught “just a kid having fun.” Ryan Lochte is a 32 year old grown man, yet he is afforded the luxury of being called a child. This is interesting because as we can recall 17 year old Michael Brown who was supposedly involved in a scuffle at a gas station was not merely described as a grown man by his murderer but as an inhuman beast. Yet here we have a group of adult white males defacing a gas station and they are just some rowdy teenagers on vacay! I mean can you blame them? Don’t we all go on vacation and just demolish local shops? KIDS! Am I right?
We sure have been talking a lot about the man; let’s hear from the boy himself! “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country” says Lochte of the night in question. So very traumatic! So very scary! So many BROWN people! He just didn’t know what to do! It was late and the people were so dark! No, no wait I mean the sky was dark! It was nighttime! He just couldn’t see! It was white privilege that allowed Ryan Lochte to walk away from a situation he fabricated. Not only walk away, but get on a plane and return to the states unscathed.
People think of Rio and they often think of poverty and violence. Ryan Lochte deliberately exploited this to his advantage; just as all the kids who come into Camden exploit the idea Camden is already desolate. Being a tourist affords you dirt-colored glasses.
When many people think of Camden, New Jersey they think of crime rates and drug abuse. When I told my friends where I went to school their giddy expressions quickly twisted into ones of fear and concern “you go to school WHERE?” Suddenly they were concerned about my safety and well-being. I wanted to remind them I lived and worked and went to school in DC for 6 years. I wanted to remind them going to college anywhere is not the safest place for me as a young woman, statistically speaking. This extended long after I left for school and every time I told a new person, even Jersey natives, their faces of shock and horror never faded. The Camden stare I’d call it, what I quickly realized is that all the people who painted a negative picture of the city had never been. This image of Camden is pernicious as it is pervasive. Similarly Rio, Brazil is as well known for beautiful women as it is for its high crimes rates and infamous favelas. Not only does focusing the narrative on crime rates and danger criminalize the lives of people who live here but it creates an unfortunate link in the minds of tourists. They do not respect the city. The link in their mind connotes Camden and Rio with ghetto and all the inherent racial ties therein. They walk into the city and see nothing but grime, they don’t see neighborhoods, they don’t even see people. Knowing nothing of the community, locals, or neighborhood, too afraid to venture past the victor or their parking lot fits Camden into a nice neat box. One they don’t have to offer and deeper consideration or understanding towards and so as they navigate the city they feel by their very existence they are improving it, they can do no wrong, how can you sully a city already dismantled? Their sheer disregard for the city is prevalent as they scatter their empty beer cans across parking lots and along the waterfront.
XTU, an annual country concert, beckons hundreds of drunken (mostly white) teens to Camden to attend concert at the BB&T pavilion. These kids come, they pour off the PATCO and drive down Cooper Street with their confederate flags blazing in the wind, they tailgate, they drink and, without fail they completely trash the waterfront. The aftermath of these concerts is ridiculous. The stench left behind after XTU reeks not only of discarded Budweisers and cigarettes but privilege. The people who come to the city view Camden as nothing more than the dirty city attached to the BB&T. Their conception of Camden as a crime ridden, dirty ghetto leaves them Unfazed by the chaos they cause. They don’t care about the people living in Camden because to them Camden is nothing more than a dilapidated ghetto. These people would never trash their own neighborhoods like this. Their idyllic lawns in Cherry Hill and contamination lay pristine and untouched. Their communities are gate kept both literally and figuratively. Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman for even daring to walk down the streets of a similarly immaculate neighborhood and yet every year Camden is left trashed by kids who are not from the city. As they ride out back down Cooper flags still boldly blazing they leave their filth behind them and Camden in their rear view until next year or at least until the next concert.
There will be no significant ramifications for Lochte as there are no ramifications for those who come into the city of Camden. Despite Lochte lying about the entire event and how it transpired he is referred to as kid, the con rotation being that he is harmless and benign. Despite the past several years of XTU resulting in vandalism, stabbings and reckless violence there is never a broader conversation about the danger of white on white crime. Even these are just harmless children having a good time. Juxtaposed with the dangers of Camden and the locals whiteness will come out on top. Always. As I write these words it is not lost on me the role I play in this system because I am not exempt nor exceptional. I’d be remiss if I insinuated Rutgers students don’t perpetuate this as well. We do our service day and pat ourselves on the back happy to have done our part in saving Camden! We are heroes! Then we wait until next semester. After our class let’s out at 3:30 we are on the road back to Haddonfield or Moorestown. At the end of four years we move out and move on often leaving Camden behind just like tourists.
Ultimately all of these stories play out the same way.
The woman leaves India.
Ryan leaves Rio.
And the kids leave Camden. Until next time.