As a Black woman in America, I avoid the many videos that show Black people being murdered. I accidentally saw George Floyd plead for his life and ultimately die in the street, as the video was difficult to avoid online. I will never forget the horror of what I saw, and I immediately thought of my 14-year-old son and have no doubt he had seen the images before I had.
Today, raw and graphic footage of 15-year-old Dajerria Becton being dragged by police at a pool party or video of George Floyd’s airway being crushed under the knee of a nonchalant white officer pops up on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok repeatedly and unexpectedly. After going viral, it is then displayed across reputable news sites, like CNN and MSNBC, with a few words marking it as “disturbing” so as to continue the illusion of fairness.
To be sure, in this latest case, the video of Mr. Floyd’s death has sparked a global uprising to police brutality and racism not seen in generations, but questions remain about why video of such violence is needed when, as Educational Psychology Professor Kevin Cokley explains, there is real psychological harm done to Black people in sharing these violent images.
The reasoning for this visual display of murder is often that people have to see the truth to believe it. Yet, as noted in several interviews, the police brutality within the Minneapolis neighborhood in which George Floyd was murdered had been well-known for decades. Black people did not need video evidence. In fact, for Black people, these videos perpetuate trauma—and intimidation—so visceral that many of us must take complete and total social media breaks to care for our mental health.
Video evidence of police brutality is not new. Rodney King’s beating was in 1992, for example. If videos of Black suffering and death do not change hearts and minds of white Americans, what purpose do they serve? News outlets share in their distribution because these videos get clicks, and clicks create revenue. To abstain from showing these videos would be to decline money for their organizations. In short, Black death and its symbolism are profitable.
As shocking as that may seem, it is important to remember that the profitability of Black death and suffering has a long history in America. One can see it in the death and disease wrought by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in order to build the economy of not just the South, but America. One can see it in the postcards of lynchings white families kept as souvenirs. One can see it in the carnage of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacres 99 years ago that destroyed Black Wall Street, a threat to the white economy. And today, it can be seen in the fervent insistence on “freedom” to open up the economy, forcing Black, brown, and indigenous bodies to work in meat processing while knowing we are dying at disproportionate rates due to the coronavirus.
Recently, a reporter interviewed a white man in Georgia who felt perfectly comfortable stating, “When you look at the demographics,” referring to the coronavirus deaths, “well, I’m not worried.” This same sentiment is apparently in play when white people literally view the brutal deaths of Black Americans on their screens, large or small.
It’s past time for people to understand that the voyeuristic experience of Black pain and death is not justice. White people are already well aware of the reality of police brutality, extrajudicial murder, and racism. It’s why the Amy Coopers of the country choose to invoke the threat of police “intervention” on Black people time and time again. Black people are psychologically harmed by the airing and consumption of Black death and police brutality. Those moments of death and indignity do not need to be aired and shared ad nauseam in order to understand the inhumanity of police brutality and extrajudicial murder.
Instead, we need to better listen and provide accurate and ongoing representation of Black people’s accounts, so that video evidence is never needed. Journalists, as stretched as they are, must stop letting private citizens with phones do their jobs for them. Newsrooms must allow their reporters to deeply investigate and uncover the ubiquitous, long-standing stories of injustice and systemic racism in Black and brown communities every day. And people who care must stop requiring and sharing videos of our suffering and start contacting their representatives and police unions instead.
Over 50 years ago, James Baldwin said, “I am terrified at the moral apathy–the death of the heart – which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human.” Media and the public must understand the incredible power, harm, as well as the history of the images they choose to display. They must decide that Black lives are human lives, and human lives are more important than voyeurism and profit.
Though the collective outrage, sparked in large part by the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder, has brought many to their feet as they march together to fight this seemingly intractable societal ill, it is vital that we ask not only why video was needed (when Breonna Taylor’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s and Tony McDade’s murders did not spark civil unrest) but also how change can be created and sustained without the demand for what some refer to as “trauma porn.”
–Photo by Obi Onyeador via Unsplash