March 3, 2018
On Monday night, Theo Anthony’s Rat Film debuted on the PBS series, Independent Lens. I watched to support my friend, Louis Eagle Warrior, and enjoy his contribution. Louis’ commentary, however, was largely edited out of the final version. Yet he remains the only human in this film who demonstrates what peaceful coexistence can look like, his message apparent as his companion rats drape either shoulder while he plays a haunting melody on the flute. I would have preferred to hear him articulate his thoughts as I suspect his words could have been the most important vehicle to bring the underlying speciesism in this documentary into focus.
Let’s start with the tag line that’s been attributed to this film across the internet, credited to no one in particular: “There’s never been a rat problem in Baltimore, it’s always been a people problem.” Neat and succinct. Also sanitized. The phrase uttered by Harold Edmund is actually, “It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore; it’s always been a people problem. And that ain’t gonna change until you educate the people. This is important because Edmund is a product of that city; not a disinterested spokesperson. He acts as a societal id, guiding us through the rat-infested slums that compose the red-lined districts of the city, the areas where institutional racism had deliberately condemned those populations while those populations deliberately condemn the rats with whom they live.
In 1933, a panel called the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation was established and in 1937 it released it’s risk assessment maps that would remain confidential for decades. The groups purpose was to assess the security risk associated with federal lending programs and their map designated four distinct areas:
- Green Zones were deemed prime investment areas as the properties were well-maintained and population racially homogeneous (i.e., white);
- Blue Zones were still well-maintained but not as good as they once were;
- Yellow Zones were characterized by an “infiltration of lower grade” people;
- Red Zones were defined as having “detrimental influences” and an “undesirable population” (people of color
People living in the fourth category were red-lined or denied home improvement loans and denied access to any government funding earmarked to help first-time homeowners. The poverty-stricken in the Baltimore slums were condemned to stay there, safely isolated from the upwardly-mobile middle class. These red-lined neighborhoods are also the areas where humans are plagued with rat infestations. Edmund, who appears to have some sympathy for the rats, is nonetheless tasked with their extermination: “I’m not gonna make no excuses for it. It’s mean.”
Rat Film does an excellent job of demonstrating how racism is woven into the fabric of Baltimore’s culture, from the country’s first segregation ordinances that were adopted in that city in 1911 to how these red-lined districts have the highest rates of incarceration and premature deaths in the 21st century in comparison to the green, blue, and yellow zones.
Theo Anthony also does an admirable job of tracing the heinous assaults and extermination agendas to which rats have been subjected, from fears during World War II that this species could be used to spread the Bubonic Plague to those who murder rats in ever-more creative ways for the sheer fun of it. No discussion of rats could be complete without mentioning vivisectors, rodents being the most-abused and tortured animals inside of every laboratory because of their sheer numbers — so many billions of animals succumbing that it is impossible to even grasp the scope. This film discusses a John Hopkins vivisector, Kirk P. Richter, in some detail and rightly compares him to Hitler and Stalin. In Richter’s words:
“If someone were to give me the power to create an animal most useful for all types of studies concerned with human welfare, I could not improve on the Norway rat.”
The narrator goes on to explain Richter’s observation: rats can be easily handled, restrained, and subjected to surgical procedures; they eat the same things we do; and their life span in a lab is 2 – 3 years. In one segment, Richter fed a substance to his rats and, to his utter elation, he found them all dead in the morning. So he took his poison into the impoverished, red-lined communities to begin his extermination agenda. With no testing to see how people would react to the substance, only federal funding to pad his bank account, this vivisector had no compunction about exposing poor black people and rats alike.
At the end of the day, this documentary does an extraordinary job of demonstrating that the same system that oppresses animals, rats in this case, is the same system that oppresses people. In one of the closing scenes, we see a white man who hunts rats with his pellet gun. The next image is of two black men who enjoy having one bait rats with a treat on a fishing line who, when he hooks them, will have their head bashed in by the second black man who wields a baseball bat. Also pure fun. Finally we see a snake about to consume a small rat. This is simply nature; it is the way in which all life sustains and perpetuates itself free from human interference. The snake’s act is pure. And there is not comparison to the hubris and malice we must possess to restrain, torment, and murder other species.
While the commonalities of oppression are highlighted in Rat Film, I’m not sure that most will see the message that resounded most loudly for me: No matter how oppressed any human may be, the one thing we all share is a birthright of privilege over every other species on earth. And until we’re willing to relinquish that privilege, I have tremendous difficulty concerning myself with the rights of oppressors.