A 15-second YouTube video begins with a white car passing across the frame. The camera reveals two young white people, a man and a woman. They are on Kensington Ave., the heart of the overdose crisis in Philadelphia. The woman is digging through her belongings, which include sunglasses, a hat and a water bottle; she is smoking a cigarette and putting clothing in a tote bag. The shirtless man writhes or stretches on the sidewalk; he looks like he just woke up.
Posted in October 2022, the video, which has 23 million views and 1,600 comments at the time of this writing, describes the content succinctly: “Kensington Ave Philadelphia, PA. a day in the life.”
This YouTube short reflects a genre of video content on social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok, featuring people who live on Kensington Ave. and are widely presumed to be using drugs, as many judgmental comments reflect.
This voyeuristic lens, devoid of context, makes monsters, in many observers’ eyes, of the people featured.
Apologists could argue that such content draws important awareness to the crises of overdose and homelessness in Philadelphia. But this voyeuristic lens, devoid of context, makes monsters, in many observers’ eyes, of the people featured. It renders them “zombies,” or, as critical researchers have put it, “the walking dead.”
Many videos show people, who are unlikely to have consented, using drugs in ways that posters calculate will provoke outrage or revulsion. On YouTube, “Streets of Philadelphia” (June 2022, 7 million views), depicts a woman apparently injecting a substance into her neck, using a parked car’s window as a mirror. She is fixated on the process, seemingly oblivious to the camera and her surroundings. “Drugs eating the body: Kensington Ave Philadelphia” (April 2022, 19 million views) shows a man pulling his pant leg up to reveal multiple wounds and sores. In such decontextualized clips, the subjects’ dignity and agency are diminished.
“Streets of Philadelphia” (August 2021, almost 6 million views) portrays a lack of bodily control, with Black and white people hunched over and swaying back and forth. A slowdown edit exaggerates the unnatural appearance of these movements. “Streets of Philadelphia” (September 2021, 7 million views) captures a woman who appears to be borderline unconscious, zooming in and out as she nods off. She cannot be aware she is being filmed from a car.
The thumbnail for “Walk Through Kensington Ave” (August 2021, almost 6 million views) includes a man slouched over on a chair; in colorful text, it reads, “Zombieland.”
Zombieland is the entirety of Kensington Ave.—a place visually depicted as consisting of poverty, trash and dirt. It is a meme to play upon the stereotypical fears of white and Black coexistence in urban spaces so often reproduced in mass media.
The content editor even pauses the video on a woman hunched over and adds a “snapshot” soundbite, as if on a safari.
In two minutes, “A Quick Walk” (March 2021, almost 9 million views) shows people on the ground covered in blankets, trash strewn about the sidewalk, and several people warming up with a trashcan bonfire. In “Streets of Philadelphia” (July 2021, almost 7 million views), people are living in tents and using blankets, umbrellas and tarps for makeshift shelter. The content editor even pauses the video on a woman hunched over and adds a “snapshot” soundbite, as if on a safari.
Drug use and homelessness are symbolically equated in Zombieland, producing a landscape of titillating danger for outsiders to peruse through the safety of their computer or phone.
Police stand around, monitoring the presented disorder. Sirens are audible in the background of many videos. As scholar Mark Neocleous notes, police evoke the language of cleaning up “human waste,” “moral filth” and “social dirt,” harkening back to one of the “original powers of police: street cleaning and refuse collection.” The videos normalize police occupation over people who use drugs, and their ostensible role to “clean up” such areas through mass arrests and shutdowns. When police shuttered “El Campamento” in 2017, “a sizable, largely hidden drug-user site in West Kensington,” as Christopher Moraff reported for Filter, this did not reduce drug use but did displace many—sowing crisis amongst communities of people who use and sell drugs.
It is imperative to draw awareness to the nature of the drug supply, to overdose and other harms, and to poverty in Philadelphia, and particularly on Kensington Ave. Some videos do offer such important information, for instance by talking about xylazine, a tranquilizer often found in the fentanyl supply in Kensington (and elsewhere), which may be responsible for the necrotic skin lesions shown in many videos. “Walk Through Kensington Ave” also features an interview with a resident asserting that people who are injecting drugs need housing.
And while many YouTube comments shame and mock the people featured, others are supportive—though often in a defeatist or patronizing manner. “I will pray for them,” “These people need help,” and “This is so sad.”
Ultimately, stigma is anathema to harm reduction efforts. Zombification, then, is deadly.
Yet the depictions and descriptions deployed by this genre dehumanize people who use drugs, and those who experience intersecting forms of marginalization. And they do so for a mass audience. As Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard wrote for Filter, “Language that cements people who use drugs as less than human upholds practices like tearing away their children, locking them in cages and killing them. The very humanity of people who use drugs is at stake when public discourse conflates them with monsters.” And visual depictions can be every bit as harmful as words.
Indeed, the “zombie” media frame, by fomenting public outrage or mockery towards people who use drugs, obstructs meaningful, evidence-based responses to the crises it depicts—including the demands for housing, and for harm reduction provision such as syringe service programs and safe consumption sites (SCS).
Safehouse, the planned SCS that was blocked in Philadelphia by the courts and by local public opposition—its prospects remaining in the balance—is an obvious example. NIMBYism, where housed residents express concerns that “substance use or mental health services will attract undesirable or dangerous people and behaviors into their community,” has been a key factor in preventing the opening of SCS and many other programs.
Ultimately, stigma—including dehumanizing depictions of certain people who use certain drugs perceived as undesirable and dangerous—is anathema to harm reduction efforts. Zombification, then, is deadly.
Photograph of the Market-Frankford line on Kensington Ave. by Dasprevailz via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain