Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Save Darfur Racket

Since 2001, the Montgomery Muni/BART station in San Francisco's Financial District has been subjected to blitz marketing campaigns where every pole, wall, floor and stairway are up for grabs by a single sponsor.

One of the first advertisers was, and I remember a memorable campaign for some drug which was being touted as "The Purple Pill," with pictures of purple capsules cascading about everywhere, as if we were trapped in a paperback copy of "Valley of The Dolls."

Still, the advertising installation that went up last week is the most bizarre use of the station I've ever seen, featuring large black-and-white photos of suffering Africans that look like parodies of the great photographer Sebastiao Salgado.

This is accompanied by slick signage trying to induce guilt trips among people who have enough money that they can worry about their stock portfolio and how ethical its holdings might be.

The whole "Save Darfur" campaign has always felt strange. Shouldn't we be divesting our portfolios of companies that are profiting off the Iraq Invasion? As Americans we carry a hell of a lot more responsibility for that suffering than the situation in Darfur.

Also, is such a blatantly political set of advertisements really within the guidelines of the Municipal Transportation Authority? (Update: It is BART, rather than the MTA, which is responsible for allowing the ads, according to MTA spokesperson Maggie Lynch and J. in the comments.) Can anybody install their message as long as they have the bucks? How much does it cost to rent out the station, and how much was the entire installation? (The annual budget is $15 million.)

And since we're asking stupid questions, why did the station agent Ms. Fang tell me that I was not allowed to take photos in the station? Paid propaganda is allowed, but journalism is not?

Jan Adams at the "Happening Here" blog wrote about the "Save Darfur" campaign about a year ago, and the entire article is worth reading (click here).

Here's an excerpt:
"I don't get Darfur. No -- I don't mean that I don't believe that hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of human beings have been uprooted and may die because of conflict there...And no, certainly, I don't mean that I believe the world should simply leave these people to their fate. But the Darfur campaign in the United States doesn't feel right. For one thing, one of its biggest boosters is Mr. Invade and Torture himself, Pres. GWB...and when I look at the organizational members of the Save Darfur coalition, the list, in addition to the usual suspects, is full of outfits whose commitment to humanitarian action on behalf of the suffering regularly disappears when the sufferings are afflicted by the United States or Israel."


janinsanfran said...

Folks might be interested in a current Harpers Magazine article on the Darfur campaign.

Anonymous said...

Please note that MuniTA doesn't have control over what ads are placed throughout the station. BART owns and maintains the downtown stations. CBS Outdoor will put up anything but can also follow ad guidelines if BART has any.

Matthew Hubbard said...

I agree with you, Mike. It's a terrible thing, and given our uselessness during the Rwanda massacre, we feel like we should be doing the right thing in Africa.

But back in the 1990's, we hadn't invaded and occupied a country, ruining its infrastructure to such a state that electricity is hard to find and cholera is making a comeback.

We, the American people, are responsible for Iraq more than any other problem outside our borders. You show the pictures of the people who still remember that when they stage their regular vigils. It takes incredible perseverance to keep it up when it's clear the government responsible isn't listening, and this government never will, and probably any Republican that follows it won't listen, either, God forbid.

jash said...

why are you guys hijacking this legitimate discussion about what can or cannot be sold as advertising in a bart station? lets talk about the real issue. we are all for sale. as for darfur (not iraq) it is just another sad tale of how poor african nations exercise population control. they really see no other way to manage their scarce resources and poverty and corruption than to kill a million or two of their innocent citizens every 10 years or so. so lame.

Civic Center said...

Dear jan: Thanks for the Harper's link.

Dear j: Thanks for the BART/Muni ad clarification.

And to matty and jash: Thanks for coming by and commenting.

wsanders said...

Interesting about the photo prohibition. I heard a station agent in Montgomery yelling someone a few days ago over the PA system about this.

My guess it's just the Montgomery station agents acting out.

Official, vague BART photography policy at:

MattyMatt said...

You are indeed allowed to take pictures in public spaces such as this, as long as you're not causing a disruption or bothering people or being annoying and so forth. This was a topic of some debate a few years ago (, and there's an excellent site here that continues the conversation:

janinsanfran said...

Just for the heck of, in case anyone comes by and reads this, check out Simplifying Darfur in order to save it.

Nell said...

I'm very, very interested in how much this display cost.

Now imagine that the money became available to do an analogous campaign to end the Iraq occupation and pay reparations to the Iraqi people, with photos of the suffering directly caused by our government and military. It would not be permitted in this space, period.

Which says it all to me about the political function of

Nell said...

@j in the second comment above: I doubt very seriously that "CBS Outdoor will put up anything."

Jason Mitchell said...

I think this campaign is close to being effective. The missing link is for the writer of this blog and the commenters above who don't know what is going on (or who think that they do) to actually do some research on the topic.

What you will find is that it is easy to divest from this (and many other) causes that you feel is important. And it has been one of the most effective agents in helping to bring a resolution to the conflict by imposing a cost on the Sudanese government.

The other thing you will find is that the Bush administration is actively standing in the way of intervention to the genocide because they feel they have intelligence information to gain from the Khartoum government.

The campaign is there get you to think about what's going on. The biggest obstacle in solving this crisis has been ignorance. Please consider that there may be more to know about what is going on and you can easily take an active role in ending it. Because if your dollars are invested in Sudan, you are actively funding genocide ... period. Even if you don't want to think about it.

You could start by visiting and see if you learn something about what's going on.

If you find that this campaign can then be effective, apply the techniques to other causes your are interested in. But don't disparage another cause to further your own.

Jason Mitchell,
Producer, They Turned Our Desert Into Fire

lil tricky said...

Why is telling the often ill-informed public that a MASSIVE genocide is taking place at this moment a bad thing? Yes, what our nation has done in Iraq is terrible. But that is a separate issue.

What is happening in Darfur is a GENOCIDE of epic proportion. 500,000 dead to date. 2.5 million driven off their land. Public gang rapes of women and girls a matter of daily business. And the crimes against humanity continue.

It is becoming increasingly clear that a major deterrent for the Khartoum government is to reduce their capital. It is not just about "rich" people.... if the company you work for offers an investment IRA or mutual fund to it's employees, chances are good they have holdings in Sudan. So MANY people may be directly funding to the killing but they are "blissfully ignorant" of their contribution.

For the record: 8 Countries have initiated Sudan divestment campaigns including Australia, Canada, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, Germany, the US, and the UK. Here in America, 20 states have divested in Sudan, while another 20 await legislative approval. The following international companies have divested: La Mancha Resources, CHC Helicopter, ABB, Siemens, Rolls Royce, ICSA of India, and Schlumberger

To become better informed on how each of us can help stop this atrocity (and others around the world), I would encourage a visit the campaign as well as the Sudan Divestment Taskforce You may also be interested in Human Rights Watch

It is my opinion that criticizing this effective campaign feels inappropriate and misdirected.