He didn’t just drive away, and she didn’t just walk away, and the result was the video seen ’round the world.
In “Blatant Racism in Cheektowaga NY” – now burning up YouTube and other websites – an angry mother shopping at a Western New York dollar store goes where even Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy dared not tread.
The woman is filmed screaming the n-word repeatedly at a black man holding a phone camera in his vehicle, allegedly because her children were startled when the man turned on the ignition. She also threatens to have the man beaten, arrested and killed. After Reddit and other websites linked to the clip, it jumped from a few thousand views Wednesday morning to over 4 million by 9:30 a.m. Thursday. And as of 6 p.m. Friday, it had easily surpassed 7 million views.
For the principals in the video and the community watching it in stunned disbelief, the entire episode has become nothing less than bizarre.
But once it was out there, the discussion spread like wildfire.
The names of those in the video were quickly discovered, and the woman, identified as Janelle Ambrosia, was granting radio and TV interviews early in her notoriety. She explained to Buffalo-area radio and TV stations that she is bipolar and was very upset that morning. Initially, she was unapologetic – telling WBLK radio, “Oh yeah, I’ll apologize for him almost hitting my kid and me losing my temper.” She mellowed later in the morning and phoned WGRZ-TV to say her use of the n-word was “uncalled for and unladylike, especially with my kids around.”
Narvell Benning, the object of the tirade and the man with the camera, said the incident happened at about 9 a.m. last Friday when he stopped at the store on his way to work.
He told The News that he filmed the woman because he had never experienced such overt racism before, and was shocked to see a mother express it so virulently in front of her own children. He was also surprised that she stayed around while he took out his phone and got the video camera going.
Michael Stefanone researches social media at the University at Buffalo and wrote via email that, even though he is in Singapore right now, he saw the video within hours of it being uploaded, pushed along by friends on FaceBook.
“That says something about how fast content can reach global audiences,” he wrote.
The other question, he said, was why did this video propagate so fast?
“Researchers have been studying viral content for years, but nobody can yet predict what kinds of content spread like this video. I admit I was compelled to watch the video, but had to stop watching after only a few seconds. It was so disgusting I couldn’t watch it,” he wrote.
“But there’s something deeper happening here,” he continued. “This video touches on a topic many Americans are uncomfortable discussing.”
The clip, which lasts 4 minutes and 22 seconds, was taken from Benning’s car window. It shows an agitated woman pacing in front of a Dollar General in the Airport Plaza, punching at her own phone, apparently trying to reach someone – variously described as the police, the children’s father, her husband and her lawyer – while the man filming her tells her he has video of her calling him the n-word.
Her response, once she has someone on the phone, is so full of profanity, racist slurs and bizarre non sequiturs – “Oh, he knows the cops? How many cops have I stripped for?” – that Ambrosia became an instant sensation across social media.
She was so sensational, in fact, that her FaceBook page was taken down by midmorning on Wednesday and she became her own hashtag on Twitter.
Benning has seen a more subdued response. He said he has personally heard from people who were impressed by how calmly he made it clear to the woman that her slurs were not acceptable, and he admitted he was shocked by how her anger escalated.
“Growing up, I experienced a lot of racism, but it was always in passing,” he said. “I went to school in South Buffalo and kids would drive by in a car and shout out (the n-word), but the way she did it, she brought it right to my vehicle, to my face.”
Afterward he showed the video to his wife, LaShawn Benning, and she was appalled.
“I think it took a while for my husband to process what was happening to him,” she said. “We live and work in this community and our kids go to school here. We’ve never run across this before.”
She also said she is concerned about the woman’s children, who are seen in the background of the video, looking playful at first, and then puzzled and nervous.
“It’s probably regular for her children to hear that,” she said. “It wasn’t just racism. There was a lot of anger there too.”
Her husband agreed. “You’re teaching your kids hate,” he said.
Bill Paulison, manager of the store next to the Dollar General, witnessed the incident but didn’t hear it. He said he didn’t see Benning do anything to provoke the woman.
“It looked weird, but I didn’t really think anything of it because it wasn’t like someone was throwing punches or something like that,” Paulison said. “But you could see the hands going and stuff like that. I was just like, ‘Hmm …’ It was a little bizarre.”
Cheektowaga Police Chief David Zack said he first learned of the video Wednesday morning.
“I reviewed the video and with 27 years of law enforcement, I have seen people at their worst. I’ve seen people with mental health issues, I’ve seen people under the influence of substances and I’ve also come across people who are out-and-out racist,” he said.
However, he also said no one has come forward as a complainant on the matter. Even so, he said his office probably will contact the Erie County District Attorney’s Office about the matter.
Meanwhile, the online barrage of criticism for the rant continues on sites across the Internet, with some remarks – on both sides – as disturbing as the original video.
News Staff Reporters Shawn Campbell, Aaron Besecker and Melinda Miller contributed to this report.email: firstname.lastname@example.org