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Recapturing momentum on Kony

Invisible Children, whose 'Kony 2012' video about a Ugandan warlord went viral, plans a rally to urge new efforts to catch Joseph Kony, who kidnaps children to use as soldiers and sex slaves.

October 08, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Jason Russell, center, watches a late edit of a new video at the San Diego headquarters of Invisible Children. The video is trying to raise awareness of African warlord Joseph Kony's ongoing torture and murder of children.
Jason Russell, center, watches a late edit of a new video at the San Diego… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — First came the sensation: an activist video that captivated tens of millions of viewers in just a few days with its plea for the capture of African warlord Joseph Kony and an end to his mass abductions of children for use as soldiers and sex slaves.

Then came the scandal: the video's creative director running naked through the streets of San Diego, talking gibberish, all caught on cellphone video by a bystander and splashed onto TMZ.

Six months later, the San Diego-based group Invisible Children is attempting to recapture the lost momentum of the spring with a new video — explaining the naked escapade and trying to refocus public attention on bringing down the messianic Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army.

The new 30-minute video, "Move," was posted on YouTube on Sunday night.

Invisible Children plans a Nov. 17 rally in Washington to lobby the White House and leaders in Africa and Europe to redouble efforts to catch Kony, who fled Uganda in 2006 and is believed to be hiding in central Africa.

For nearly a decade, USC film school graduate Jason Russell has been obsessed with alerting the world to Kony and his atrocities. In 2004, he and two college friends founded Invisible Children and set out to harness the power of the Internet to rouse public outrage, particularly among the younger generation.

But when his 11th video, "Kony 2012," was posted in March, he was not prepared for the tsunami of attention — and criticism — from the mass media and the public.

Always intense, he cracked under the pressure. "My mind betrayed me," he said last week. "There was a PTSD element to my diagnosis."

He ran naked near his home and had a bizarre exchange with a mailman.

"Do you believe in world peace?" Russell asked.

"Yes," the mailman replied, "but put on your underwear first."

San Diego police carted Russell off to a county mental health facility. His family told the press that he had suffered a mental breakdown. The Invisible Children movement plunged from idealism to mockery.

Russell, 33, spent six weeks in care facilities and then months with his family and outside of the media spotlight, what he calls "an extended amount of time that has made me healthy." He sees a therapist and takes medication.

Now, with support from his family and the Invisible Children staff and volunteers, Russell is back at his life's work. He's also learned to laugh about the incident, even the savagely funny "South Park" satire.

"My initial reaction was: 'Oh my God! They actually made fun of me,' " Russell said of the satire. "You have to either laugh or cry every day at how embarrassing it was. I've decided to laugh at it and say, 'Yes, I was crazy and out of control.' "

The incident overshadowed an Invisible Children event that the "Kony 2012" video was meant to promote: a distribution of anti-Kony literature in several big cities in April. The event did not get the large-scale attendance or media attention that the group had hoped.

Still, Invisible Children staff and volunteers rallied behind Russell — possibly because they too had experienced the phenomenal reaction to the "Kony 2012" video.

The highest number of hits from any previous video was 80,000. Russell and others had dared hope that "Kony 2012" might get 500,000 from YouTube, Vimeo and reposts.

Instead it got that amount in just hours. Oprah Winfrey, P. Diddy, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Bono, Alicia Keys, Ryan Seacrest, Ben Affleck and others either sent a Tweet or Facebook message or mentioned the video to the media.

"We thought we were prepared; we weren't," said UCLA business graduate Ben Keesey, 29, executive director and chief executive of Invisible Children. "In the face of a worldwide media storm, our PR staff was one intern."

Russell, the public face of the organization, tried to accommodate interview requests from bloggers and network anchors alike. One day he started doing interviews at 3 a.m. and was still talking at 9 p.m. He took red-eye flights to New York and back.

Russell and his wife and their two sons fled to Palm Springs but felt hounded. "It really did feel like we were being hunted," he said.

Then came the accusations about the motives and honesty of Invisible Children. Jacob Acaye, 22, a Ugandan victim of the Lord's Resistance Army who works with Invisible Children, says he was stunned by the accusations.

"It was so awful," said Acaye, now back in San Diego for the launch of the new video. "People saying this is a scam, but I lived through this war."

Pushed by the celebrity buzz, "Kony 2012" is, by many accounts, one of the most watched videos of all time: 111 million viewings at a recent counting.

Even before the "Kony 2012" video, President Obama had sent a contingent of U.S. special forces troops to advise African troops in their hunt for Kony. But Kony remains on the loose, and his followers, according to news reports, are still killing and kidnapping.

With the new video, Invisible Children volunteers plan hundreds of showings at schools, universities and community halls nationwide. At each session, a pitch will be made for the young millennial generation to join the Nov. 17 rally.

Invisible Children headquarters, with walls covered with ominous photographs of Kony and his troops, is staffed by volunteers and employees, answering phones, preparing pamphlets, editing videos, with all the energy of a political campaign just days before election day.

"I don't want to live in a world where genocide and crimes against humanity exist," Russell said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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