Non-Profit or Spectacle?

The story behind the viral fighting channel Streetbeefs and its consequences

By Alex Diamond

Many YouTube channels are run to make money. Yet there remain a number of channels used for the benefit of society. Many nonprofits educate people with short informational videos or teach essential life skills free of charge on YouTube. Christopher “Scarface” Wilmore’s channel, Streetbeefs, is stuck between the two.    

Scarface founded Streetbeefs in 2008 after a dispute that resulted in the death of a friend. This sparked the beginning of Scarface’s “Guns down, Gloves up” campaign, in which those susceptible to gun violence were presented with the opportunity to solve disputes in boxing contests, preventing the sort of disagreement-inspired shootout that could cost lives. Streetbeefs captures the essence of the campaign, “When we started out, it was me filming the fights on a flip phone,” said Scarface, reflecting on the early days of the organization. Those early videos, the first of which was posted on YouTube in 2009, are footage of people solving disputes with their fists. Many are difficult to watch, but Scarface considers them incredibly raw, and in his eyes, they laid the groundwork for the now multimillion-subscriber channel. 

But the channel’s success did not come from the viewer’s appreciation of what they saw. The growth came from the entertainment value of the content – this distinction is at the core of a key conflict within the organization, one focused on the intentions of Streetbeefs. Is Streetbeefs an organization trying to create social change or generate profit?  

The conflict between business and good intentions is often what makes each Streetbeefs video so difficult to watch. In this context, viewers watch artificial entertainment instead of footage of harm-reduction tactics. This is especially true for the bouts involving people with disabilities. Scarface has made it clear that accessibility is an important part of Streetbeefs, saying, “We have had many special circumstances and bouts in our history because, in the end, we’re all wired for combat, and we all need a chance to experience a fight, everybody deserves to experience a fight.” Despite these intentions, these fights can often be reduced to a spectacle. For example, Streetbeefs wheelchair bout between “Gorilla” and “Hell on Wheels” has received over seven hundred thousand views, with many comments taking delight in what they perceived as a joke fight.   

Questions also surround the recent renovations to the venue in which these fights take place, specifically a new cage with three new camera angles. Scarface explained the expansion of his organization, saying, “We have fans, and we need to keep them entertained, keep their attention, and people want the higher quality cameras with more angles,” a justification based on business logic suggesting the move might’ve been financially motivated. This movement towards a more conventional business model can also be seen in the Streetbeefs merchandise store, where people can buy phone cases and tapestries. 

It’s unclear exactly where the profits go. Money cannot be given to contestants, as that would make the bouts illegal unlicensed professional competitions, and upkeep costs for the venue are seemingly low. Even when considering the salaries of paid workers like Scarface himself, this leaves a considerable profit margin. 

Scarface himself countered these points of potential financial gain with comparisons to other fight club organizations, most of which weren’t founded with social change in mind or haven’t made nearly as much of an impact on their communities. Furthermore, Streetbeefs claims to be safer than these other organizations. Scarface was quick to make this point, saying, “Y’know, with these other fight clubs, safety is an afterthought.” He was especially focused on the use of concrete floors for fights, a recent phenomenon to which he is deeply opposed, saying, “It’s dangerous, and it’s just stupid.” This focus on safety is at the core of Scarface’s philosophy, as he said, “The first question I always ask is ‘Is it safe?’ and if it’s not, I make it safe. The biggest fear I have is some kid dying in our cage.” He added to this, claiming, “We’re head and shoulders above the other fight clubs in terms of safety.” These words aren’t empty. Even in early videos, volunteer doctors were present to clean cuts and ensure the fights were as safe as possible – that is to say, for an underground street fight to be safe.

Whether or not their founder emphasizes safety, participant health remains a concern. With each viral knockout or uppercut, a fighter is receiving a severe blow to the head, and in the words of CTE researcher at Boston University Stephanie Gil, “with any severe blow to the head or head injury, it can lead to devastating effects.” Chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, is a degenerative condition that occurs as a result of repetitive impacts on the head and can lead to symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, such as memory loss, mood swings, difficulty thinking, and increased confusion.  

Gil continues, stating that “the effects can be in the short term with headaches and things like that or even long term severe cognitive impairment and changes in mood, it can have life-altering effects physically and psychologically.” These repercussions are worse for those who participate in multiple bouts, for example, “Vandall,” a recurring star on the channel, has participated in 22 Streetbeefs fights, putting him at possible risk of CTE.
Despite the best efforts of Scarface, Streetbeefs may continue to be seen as a dangerous institution. Controversy still surrounds the surface the fights take place on, and  the quality of the arena. Every contestant may still be at risk of life-changing injury.

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