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Activists Petition Retailers to Ban 'Bumfight' Videos

Rallies nationwide coincide with the release of a report tracking the rise in violence against homeless people.

June 16, 2004|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Protesters in Westwood on Tuesday petitioned Borders bookstore and other retailers to stop carrying the notorious "Bumfights" videos, arguing that the controversial films incite violence and hate crimes against homeless people.

At a rally at the Borders on Westwood Boulevard, actor Mike Farrell and Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness activists said the videos amounted to hate speech that exploits homeless people while earning producers millions of dollars.

"They're making themselves rich off of the backs of homeless, helpless people and what does that say about us," Farrell said. "Until people express outrage, it's not going to stop."

The videos, including "Bag Lady Beatings," "Bumfights 1: Cause for Concern," "Bumfights 2: Bumlife" and "The Bum Show.Com" depict actions such as a drug-addicted homeless man setting his hair on fire, a homeless man being offered a quarter to drink Windex and then becoming violently ill and a man shooting potatoes and apples at homeless people with a rigged-up paintball gun.

Anne Roman, a spokeswoman for the Borders Group, said her company has never sold the videos in its retail stores and is in the process of removing the titles from its special order website after receiving a letter requesting such action from the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Similarly, Brian Lucas, a spokesman for Best Buy, said his chain is in the process of pulling the titles from its 619 retail stores and its website.

"We definitely share the community concerns about issues related to violence against the homeless and we know we have an obligation to our customers to monitor the products on our shelves," Lucas said.

A spokesman for Trans World Entertainment, which owns the 860-store chain FYE Entertainment, said his company was also pulling the titles.

Tower Records, which lists the title "Bum Hunts: Tales from the Bum Cage" on its website, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Westwood rally was one of several held in cities around the country, including Washington, D.C., Cleveland and Atlanta, in conjunction with the release of a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, which tracks a rise in violence directed at homeless people.

In 2003, 70 attacks -- including nine lethal assaults -- were recorded nationwide, according to the study, citing data from news reports and shelters. The accounts include an assault on a 53-year-old homeless man as he slept in Laguna Beach and the death of a 43-year-old Riverside man who suffered fatal head injuries after being beaten by five attackers. By comparison, in 2002, some 36 assaults, including 15 fatalities, were recorded nationwide.

The incidents prompted Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to call for an investigation by the General Accounting Office to determine the extent of violent acts and whether the videos violate standards of decency, said Keenan Keller, Democratic counsel to the House Judiciary Committee.

However, such federal scrutiny would violate free speech rights, said Ryan E. McPherson, one of three producers of the original "Bumfights" video, who were each fined $500 and sentenced to probation by a San Diego Superior Court judge for conspiring to stage an illegal fight. A variety of felony charges, which could have resulted in jail terms, were dropped.

But three homeless men who appeared in the video have filed a civil suit against McPherson and 12 other individuals and companies; that is still pending. Although McPherson sold his share of the original "Bumfights," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he is still interested in filming what he called "harsh reality" but rejected claims linking such videos to hate crimes.

"I've been out filming on the street for four or five years," McPherson said. "Violence has always been around and I don't think that videos such as 'Bumfights' causes it."

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