Channeling Their Discontent

The Rev. Delman L. Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton leads the protest in Northwest Washington.
The Rev. Delman L. Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton leads the protest in Northwest Washington. (By Marissa Newhall -- The Washington Post)
By Marissa Newhall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

More than 500 people demonstrated peacefully outside the Northwest Washington home of Debra Lee, Black Entertainment Television's chief executive, yesterday afternoon, demanding that the network stop airing what they call demeaning and offensive portrayals of African Americans.

Led by the Rev. Delman L. Coates of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, members of the Enough Is Enough Campaign said they will return every weekend until Lee addresses their grievances.

Lee was not home yesterday but said in a telephone interview she was disappointed that several attempts last week to arrange a meeting with the group had failed. Also, in a letter, she said BET plans to launch 16 "balanced" shows by year's end.

The campaign, which Coates began six weeks ago, is calling on corporations to divest from popular culture that portrays black men as "pimps" and "gangsters" and sexually objectifies black women.

Joining protesters from Mount Ennon yesterday were members of the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the head of the National Congress of Black Women and Maryland Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's).

Several security guards blocked three gates around Lee's home in the 2800 block of McGill Terrace NW, while protesters marched and chanted for nearly two hours. Traffic on the otherwise quiet street, tucked into a stately residential area of Woodley Park, seemed largely unaffected. Police watched the protesters, who had been granted a permit, from the sidelines.

In an Aug. 23 letter to Lee, Coates requested a meeting. Lee said yesterday that she did not receive the letter until last week, after she had learned about the protest through a news release. Lee said Coates was told that if he brought the protest to BET's corporate headquarters in Northeast Washington, she would have spoken to him there. "I believe in freedom of speech, but if you really want to have an impact, the best way is to have a conversation -- not to protest in front of someone's house," Lee said. "I'm always willing to talk to our viewers."

Coates, 34, said yesterday, "Her people made a meeting conditional upon canceling the rally at her house."

In describing the campaign last week, he said he was "deeply concerned about the increasing coarseness of American popular culture. At some point, we have to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave to our children."

Founded by African American businessman Robert Johnson 27 years ago, BET has an 18-to-34 demographic. It has long been criticized for airing music videos that some believe perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks. The network, now owned by Viacom, has recently been attacked for such programs as "Hot Ghetto Mess," which had its name changed to "We Got to Do Better" after complaints, and "Read a Book," a satirical animated public-service announcement.

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