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Americans Need to Examine Their Relationship to Images of Black Suffering

9 minute read
Nolan is Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law. Her new book is Don't Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender and the Body. You can follow her on Instagram and on her blog.

Thirty years ago, all four Los Angeles Police Department officers involved in the beating of Rodney King were acquitted. Less than a year ago, the officer who killed George Floyd was convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Both cases involved video seen by millions.

The videos are so ghastly and so widely viewed, that, at the thirty-year milestone of King’s beating, I felt the urge to consider them together, as bookends, maybe, or at least as data points on a cultural map of who we are. I pondered whether the videos themselves tell us why one case ended in conviction and the other in acquittal.

Then came Buffalo. I was still pondering my Floyd/King questions when, on May 14, 2022, a young white man and self-identified white supremacist livestreamed himself allegedly murdering 10 people and wounding 3; he aimed for the Blacks, and Black people comprise 10 of his victims. Buffalo is the utter worst of human impulses not just unfolding, but, once again, literally, and in a very American way, on display. The livestream footage is still moving across the internet, accessible to those who wish to view it. So far, those who wish to view it number in the millions. I imagine some share the murderer’s wrongheaded racial philosophies, but some do not.

It suddenly seemed less important to figure out why some images of Black suffering lead to justice (such as it is) and some don’t. It seemed, instead, necessary to sit with the disturbing fact that we are still, four hundred years into the American project, actively and purposefully watching Black people suffer and die. Is there a way out of this recursive nightmare?

There is nothing new about the visual of Black Americans being tortured, maimed, dehumanized, and killed. It has always been part of our culture. You might call such imagery foundational. From public human trafficking auctions in the 1700s and 1800s, during which Black children, man, and women were displayed before being sold into the violence of chattel slavery, to lynchings, we are a people used to public Black pain and death. Lynchings were so thoroughly conceived as public spectacle that many were advertised in newspapers, and many culminated with photographs of the crowd below the corpse, crowds of dozens, hundreds, and up tens of thousands of people. Entrepreneurial spectators turned lynching photographs into postcards or prints, and the postcards were mailed to friends and family who could not make the live event. From beginning to end, lynchings functioned as powerful visual aids, teaching people of all races how the racial hierarchy worked, and showing them the cost of transgressing—or merely being suspected of transgressing—the color line.

There parallels between lynchings and what happened to King and Floyd are chilling. But the parallels between lynchings and Buffalo are ice-cold, nearly hypothermic and paralyzing. In Buffalo, the murderer advertised his plans in advance, then made sure spectators could watch, and the live footage of his carnage has been viewed millions of times, across multiple platforms, some of which still refuse to remove it.

This is not popular to say, but I believe assaults against Black people are likely to always be part of American life. I hope they become vanishingly rare, and I support, respect, and participate in efforts to make it so–but it is hardly a slam dunk. History, right up to the present moment, has taught me to be skeptical. (As James Baldwin said, “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”) The question I’m asking after Buffalo is whether we, as a body politic, are capable of a response to anti-Black assaults that isn’t glued to the complacency and rubbernecking the flow from four hundred years of hatred, fear and bias.

Here is one way to elevate our response to the imagery of Black people being murdered or savaged by anti-Black violence: stop watching. If you are a non-Black person, just stop watching. This must be the default rule. I can think of two clear exceptions (and there may be more). One: If you have a job that requires you to watch (journalists, law enforcement, attorneys), fine. And two: if a Black person who is proximate to the events asks you to watch it, it creates space for you to consider a viewing, and perhaps even obligates you to.

I’m thinking, of course, of Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, who chose an open casket at her son’s funeral, and asked the Black press to photograph his body, because she “wanted the world to see what they did to my boy.” This act of extraordinary, motherly grit and bravery helped launch the Civil Rights Movement. It was also an act of resolute autonomy, a demonstration of Black choice and resistance in the face of brutal anti-black violence and anti-black terrorism. Her resolve was, in my judgment, nearly holy. And her insistence that we—the body politic—face ourselves, face our reflection in Emmett Till’s face, was the kind of call any human soul should have trouble ignoring.

The Buffalo murderer is no Mamie Till-Mobly. The footage he created is of a different degree and a different kind. His actions deserve your attention; his footage does not.

Viewing Black death does not make you an activist or an ally–it makes you a viewer. Remember: there is nothing new about these images. If you are familiar with American history, you know what they contain. You don’t need to see them to summon empathy any more than you need to see another Coke commercial to summon the memory of its syrupy taste. There are better ways to honor our dead.

It is true that the King and Floyd videos triggered an unusual outpouring of political action from everyday citizens, especially white citizens. I expect the Buffalo video to spur similar action, at least among some. This counts for something—but for how much? A swell of sudden I can’t believe what I just saw outrage does not guarantee longevity or results. Floyd’s murder led to a surge of political action—and yet the energy that drove that political action appears, at least among white people, to be fleeting. According to the Pew Research Center, in June of 2020—a month after George Floyd’s murder—60% of white Americans said they supported Black Lives Matter. Three months later, a majority of white people said they did not. Fast forward to May of 2021—one year after Breonna Taylor and Floyd were killed—and, according to Creative Investment Research, the $67 billion pledged by corporations for “racial justice” simply had not materialized. And, of course, the murders in Buffalo were still possible even following the swell of national outrage; they were not, yet, unthinkable and undoable.

Indeed, I worry that, except for the rare instances in which it leads to justice, footage of black death and suffering simply creates more and more generations of watchers, highlighting the reproductive nature of systemic white-dominance. To be clear, the crowds who, for example, watched George Floyd’s murder and then took to the streets in protest are vividly different from the crowds who watched lynchings in the 1900s and 1800s. They are not morally comparable—the former abhorred what they saw, the latter relished it. But, uncomfortable as the fact may be, these viewers are united in the physical act of viewing Black death. They are united in seeing it. Their responses are different—but somehow that is not quite enough for me to feel safe and satisfied. They still share a grotesque, unnatural overlap: they live in a world where Black death is on display, and they have viewed it. Modern white people have viewed it with a level of sensory richness and viscerality that eclipses photographs, harkening instead to the crowds at a lynching, to the forebears who walked by slave actions. These films of Black suffering bend time. They presses progeny to ancestor. They make the experience of viewing Black death in 2022, in this new century of real, measurable progress, eerily similar to the bygone centuries when progress felt impossible, when it was trapped in the realm of wishes and dreams.

I picture a Southern woman, white, running her errands—one of my ancestors, perhaps. And there they are. Greased with animal fat and palm oil so they shine in the sun, shaved to remove the age-revealing gray hair, rust and gunpowder rubbed on their skin to cover bruises. They’re made to dance to project vigor and health, to stretch their limbs and smile unnaturally to reveal their teeth. (They are my ancestors, too.) Purse in hand, errands to run, the white woman walks on by… One reason encountering a “slave auction” did not wake her from her antebellum slumber is that the auction’s very existence worked as proof of its normalcy. She’d seen so many. They happen because they’re part of life. They’re part of life because they happen. Even horrors can be normalized through repetition, through exposure. Especially through repetition and exposure.

Please stop watching. Or if you must watch, don’t you dare stop at just watching.

How do I reconcile the creeping, semi-nihilistic dread of these realizations with the other evidence? Evidence like books about anti-racism on the New York Times bestsellers list. Evidence like those protestors who, after seeing George Floyd’s murder, put on their Covid masks and marched and howled, at least for a time. To be honest, I don’t know–but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I’m not sure our disease can be cured—but we still must try to manage it. Neither the possibility nor likelihood nor certainty of a bleak outcome erases our responsibility to engage. That is why, even if those Floyd protestors have since quieted down or grown silent, even if Emmett Till’s face was not enough to wake us, even if tech companies could not summon the moral (or algorithmic) courage to swiftly remove the Buffalo footage, even if videos reify the very harm we beg them to prevent, I’m still here, speaking. One tiny, tiny hand on what I pray is the arc of the moral universe. Even if, in the end, it may always be this way, unchanging, like a video rewound and replayed forever.


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