“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
I remember watching Walter Scott take his last breath on camera. I remember the sounds of him running from officer Michael Slager. I remember Slagger cuffing his corpse as he lay there on the concrete motionless. His 250 pound frame so still. So powerless. I cried for an hour after that video. Something in me begin to break, no, something in me broke. Yes we know that racial hegemony is very prevalent in America. We know that Black people have been stalked, hunted, beaten, ostracized and killed by the legal construction of whiteness. Yet when I saw those images it confirmed what has been apparent for over 400 years; that Black people’s lives, that my life lacked value. After the death of Walter Scott what seemed liked every day new videos begin to surface of Black men and women dying on Camera. As I scrolled through my newsfeed on both twitter and Facebook I couldn’t escape the atrocities that were being shown. I wondered how did the families of these victims of the state feel. I knew how I felt, distraught, anxious and nauseated. I knew that watching murder, after murder, was so traumatizing that I couldn’t sleep at night. But how did they feel? I wondered; if this was my loved one how would I feel if their body was put on display for mass consumption. I thought about the children, the youth who have yet to understand the full scope of America’s racial legacy; how did they feel? What did these images mean? and are they doing more harm than good?
On August 26th, 2015, a Black man by the name of Vester Flanagan walked up to 24 year old news anchor Alison Parker and 27 year old photographer Adam Ward who both happened to be white and opened fire, killing them instantly. Vester a former employee of the news station WDBJ; took to his twitter account and begin live tweeting why he decided to inflict harm upon the two journalist. Vester cited that he had been a victim of racial discrimination as an on air personality and was tired of being bullied for being a Gay Black man. After writing several post unveiling his manifesto, Vester begin to upload videos of what had happen. Yes… Vester taped himself killing Alison and Adam. As the news broke that Lester was live tweeting and several news outlets got a hold of the video, it was clear that their deaths would be shown nationwide. With the ongoing deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement shown continuously in mass media it also was expected. However the major news outlets decided against it and stated it was “too disturbing” to show. This was unsettling for me. Sure, I didn’t wish to see two people dying on camera, but the question that kept popping up all across the board was, why weren’t black bodies afforded the same sense of humanity? That every time extrajudicial killings happened in the presence of a dash cam or camera phone, why were they looped continuously?
Flanagan posted this photo of a newspaper article about the lawsuit to Twitter just days before the shooting. (Twitter)
Since the dawn of chattel slavery and the birth of the lynching era, dead black bodies have always been hyper-visible. According to the Charles Chesnutt digital archive, a database that houses lynching statistics, it is reported that “Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 3,449 black people were victims of lynch-murders.” Ida B. Wells a leader in the anti-lynching party charted even higher figures. It was reported that there were close to tens of thousands of lynch-murders between the end of the civil war and the 1900s. The rationale behind the lynchings was stated to protect white womanhood from the “black brute.”
The myth of black male sexuality, a notion made entirely up of racial and sexual stereotypes of black male genital and body structure ran deep in the American lexicon. These stereotypes helped propel detrimental notions in the public’s persona that black men were threatening, sexually devious, and violent. The assumption of the Black males rabid like sexual appetite kept white women in constant fear and anxiety. A mere assumption since it was reported that out of every hundred black victims who were lynched, 75 to 85 that were accused of rape were innocent. In her book Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), Wells exposed how few lynchings were actually related to rape. In reality, these accusations of rape were a guise to cover up consensual and taboo relationships between black men and white women. Nevertheless the “rape complex” as some historians called it permeated the deep south. Stories of black brutality and the sexual mythology of blackness drove white mob violence. White womanhood, purity and fragility had to be protected at all cost. As Wells wrote “To palliate this record … and excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of a country, the south is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women.” Lynching had become a ritual of interracial sexual dominance rather than justifiable punishment for crime.
Lynchings were carried out like sporting events with specific rituals often seen as performance. A sick and twisted performance where the outcome was pre-arranged. The well established sequences consisted of a selection of the victim, selection of the killers, selection of the location, and selection of the method (hanging, shooting, burning, or the combination of the three). It wasn’t uncommon for spectators and police to watch and assist in the lynch-murders. One’s entire family would come to these “events.” Schools and businesses were often closed and newspapers would display advertisements that provided the date and time of upcoming lynchings. Sound familiar? These same advertisements mirror what’s happening in mass media today. (Neo lynching’s).
A young white couple attends the lynching of two black men in Grant County Indiana. Some of the crowd took cloth souvenirs from the corpses. Photographs of the lynchings were made into thousands of postcards and sold for fifty cents apiece.
On July 17th 2014, Eric Garner was approached by plainclothes officer Justin Damico. Garner who had previously broken up a fight warranted the officer’s attention do to his selling of “loosies.” A passerby by the name of Ramsey Orta took his camera phone and began to tape the ordeal. On video you can see officer Damico arresting Garner, Garner waves his hands away asking to not be touched. Then Officer Daniel Pantaleo begins to put Garner in a choke-hold, a technique that has been prohibited for 20 years. You can hear Garner saying “I can’t breathe” eleven times. A deafening sound of helplessness as air escape his chest. He is then placed on the sidewalk, his head faced down, handcuffed and unresponsive. Garner died outside of the beauty supply store at 202 Bay Street in Tompkinsville, Staten Island.
When the news story broke of Garners death the video provided by Ramsey Orta was shown continuously on major news outlets. The pictures of Garner’s dead body was passed around like trading cards. News anchors worldwide begin to report the time the video would be shown and what to expect after its viewing. This “ritual” echoes centuries of lynch-murders birthed on American soil. The constant need for people to watch black victims of the state being abused is not only dehumanizing for the victim as well as the family, but ultimately denies the victim AGENCY. The denial of agency and autonomy postmortem is violence. Reality is watching Garner’s death on camera didn’t bring about a significant rise of awareness to an ongoing issue. Watching him exclaim “I can’t breathe” didn’t cause people to believe any differently about extrajudicial violence. Many stated that watching videos like these “were proof that Black people were being targeted disproportionately by the state.” This viewpoint would be credible if it were only true. Do to the history of lynching in this country and the onslaught abuse of black bodies you don’t need a video to confirm what has been documented for years both in text and video. In Jill Nelson’s book, Police Brutality: An Anthology (2001) violence inflicted on Black bodies by law enforcement is a staple of American society. “The notion of the Black male predator is so historically rooted in the American consciousness that we have come to accept the brutalization and murder of citizens by police as an acceptable method of law enforcement.”
This very ideology that is enmeshed in society proves that videos of Black people dying at the hands of police doesn’t bring about any change in the minds of the people, there is no ‘Ah ha” moment that produces policy reform or total disbandment of law enforcement. This idea of making our plight palpable to the masses and intelligentsia through videos is dangerous. Images of Black victims postmortem doesn’t change the historical origins of Americas policing institution, an institution birthed out Jim Crow legislation.
Watching Black victims die on camera is not only exploitative but pornographic for some. In her book Eating the Black Body: Miscegenation as Sexual Consumption in African American Literature and Culture Carlyle Van Thompson proposes that racial violence occurring both during slavery and beyond is often sexual and sadistic. “The sexualized racial violence that Black people experienced during the enslavement period and beyond constructs the trope of eating, which links the violence to vampirism- a human being becomes the source of another’s sustenance.” When people digest photos and videos of Black bodies being abused on camera, they are literally eating them limb for limb. These neo –lynching’s causes one to be predisposed to viewing Black people only as objects voided of thought and feelings. People’s need for proof is ahistorical because the proof has been recorded, typed up, and housed for centuries. Furthermore there is no amount of proof that will affirm our humanity in an institutional Anti-Black society.
I’m against weaponization of Black pain for awareness. I am against showcasing Black bodies in an effort to rehabilitate sheer ignorance. It’s time to reevaluate how we look at mass media and social platforms. Questions that should be asked in hopes of garnering change are, “Why don’t we ever see mass graves of white bodies?” “Why are brown and black bodies shown for awareness when state violence has been happening for centuries?” And “Why do mass media outlets always bring up the unrelated criminal history of the victims?” These questions need to be examined with a critical eye. We need to start thinking about how this constant display of violence causes more harm than good. These images simply reinforce the notion that we do not own our bodies, that we live in a constant state of disembodiment and that in itself is terrorism. As these new videos surface, and they will, I ask that you not to watch, not to entertain what is already known. I ask that you protect yourself. Self care is so important in times like this. I ask that you remember the families of those slain. We are human. We are real. For not only does Black lives matter but so does our feelings.