The wife of Jason Russell, co-founder of the Invisible Children charity, has blamed her husband's sudden hospitalisation on stress brought about by the extraordinary global attention garnered by the organisation's work exposing Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.
Russell, a devout evangelical Christian, was detained by police in San Diego at about 11.30am on Thursday after being spotted apparently nude in the street, screaming and interfering with traffic. Police said they had received several reports of him making sexual gestures or masturbating.
The development came at the end of a remarkable few weeks for Invisible Children and its trio of telegenic young American founders. After one of the charity's videos about Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army went viral across the internet, the organisation found itself at the centre of massive global attention. While millions of supporters flocked to its cause, especially over social media websites, the group also faced a torrent of criticism from aid groups, academics and media figures.
Russell's wife, Danica, issued a statement to American TV network NBC in which she said the pressure had simply become too much for her husband. "We thought a few thousand people would see the film, but in less than a week millions of people around the world saw it. While that attention was great for raising awareness about Joseph Kony, it also brought a lot of attention to Jason. And, because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard," Danica Russell said.
After spending more than six years largely under the media radar in its work highlighting the problem of Kony, a single 30-minute video, Kony 2012 – narrated by Russell who features in the film with his son – has now been viewed more than 80 million times.
Cash flowed into the charity as new supporters bought Invisible Children's "action kits". Scores of groups popped up across America, especially on college campuses, highlighting Kony's use of child soldiers, rape and mutilation of civilians.
They are preparing for a day of action next month when organisers hope to put up more than a million posters across the US under the "Kony 2012" slogan. The group was even able to get a resolution in the US Congress calling for more to be done to bring Kony to justice. The group's work was hailed as a triumph of online activism in the modern media age.
But critics jumped in too. Analysis of the group's accounts raised questions over financial transparency and just how the group was spending money, forcing Invisible Children to release a new video defending its operations. Some critics, including elements of the Ugandan government, slammed it for over-simplifying a complex problem, not least because Kony is no longer active in Uganda itself. Attention was paid to hefty donations to the group from rightwing American fundamentalist groups, including those who fund anti-gay rights campaigns. A photograph also emerged of the children's founders posing with guns with soldiers in southern Sudan, which sparked widespread criticism.
But no one can have expected the next twist in the story to take the shape it did, with Russell's apparent and very public naked meltdown.
Now, in a grim mirror image of the group's initial burst of viral internet success, Invisible Children's cause again trended on Twitter. Hollywood gossip website TMZ swiftly obtained an alleged video of the incident in which a naked, blond man can be seen shouting and angrily pounding the pavement with his fists. That video too has gone viral.
In San Diego, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the group's offices were besieged by journalists while young activists inside wept. Invisible Children chief executive Ben Keesey appealed for privacy for his colleague. "We are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time," Keesey said.
That statement was also put up on Invisible Children's Facebook page and within a few hours had attracted more than 4,000 comments. Some were full of support for Russell and the group's work. "I understand this Jason fellow was under an immense amount of pressure. Anyone would lose it if they were in the position he was. C'mon folks give this guy some slack," posted Lisa Shears, who lives in Quebec.
But that was an appeal that fell on deaf ears for many. "If someone in your community did the same thing, would you respect them? What if a teacher at your child's school did this? Would you be okay with them returning to the classroom?" asked Jamie Bronczyk in a comment on the Keesey statement.
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