Videos of black death are all over the internet. Graphic videos showing the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, and many others circulate news feeds and television screens around the world. To a divided nation, these kinds of videos create yet another point of conflict: are these images of graphic violence part of the solution, or part of the problem?
These snapshots of death are unique in documentation only. More than 1,000 Americans are killed by police every year, and every two days, a black American will be killed by an officer. Public outrage pickets around the documented deaths of Sterling and Castile, but their deaths are singled out because they were caught on camera, not because they are rare in their occurrence. Many more deaths happen when the cameras are not rolling.
The girlfriend of Castile, Diamond Reynolds, live streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook.
“Everybody who shared that video, they (the police) don’t want you guys to be a part of this," Reynolds said later in an interview. "I wanted to put it on Facebook and go viral so that the people could see."
Events caught on camera provide video evidence that can be used as legal proof as much as they can be used to fan the flames of change.
"Nothing caught on camera can be denied, it’s right there in front of you — and you can’t question it," said Lee “Q” O’Denat, the founder of WorldStarHipHop, in a 2014 interview. "This country has become so obsessed with trying to deliver everything wrapped up in a nice blanket like we’re in a wonderland, and we show everyone that is not the case."
In the case of Sterling, the video caught by bystanders is the only public record of the incident. According to reports, the police officers body cameras fell off during the event, and the police also confiscated the nearby convenience store’s security footage of the altercation.
Bill Buzenberg of Yes! Magazine argues that viral videos of police shootings of black people are comparable to the documentation of events in history, such as the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and Watergate.
“Ed [Fouhy] once told me that on critical issues like [these], the country eventually arrived at a fair consensus forged by a majority of people clearly seeing the truth. Ed said the nation got through that period of upheaval in part because of what they were seeing and hearing and learning in the photos and videos of that era.”
Buzenburg concedes that, “viewed in that light, as terrible as they are, the videos and images are necessary.” His argument is that, “over time, official violence will become so unacceptable that a new and stronger consensus will line up against it, and then change will come.”
Proof changes minds which leads to action which creates change — right?
There’s no clear answer to this question, and black Americans know better than anyone else that video evidence does not necessarily mean lasting change or meaningful reform.
Broadcasting the violence does not automatically stop it. Videos may relay it to the public, but Marcie Bianco of Quartz writes that, “there is no solace to be found in body cams when black Americans know that the videos are far more likely to be used to broadcast more brutality than they are to stop it.”
Videos also do not exact justice. April Reign, Managing Editor of Broadway Black and the creator of #OscarsSoWhite, writes for the Washington Post:
“While calling attention to the problems of state-sanctioned violence, it does not appear that repeated sharing of these videos has brought us any closer to justice. In the cases of Crawford, Garner and Rice, the grand juries declined to indict the officers involved, despite widespread replay of the videos of their deaths.”
There is also not guarantee that evidence of police violence against black people reaches or affects all viewers equally. One person might see injustice, another victimization, and another a manipulation of the facts.
Reign continues: “Sharing a video on social media or the media will not change anyone’s mind. Either it will confirm what one already believed was true, or a person will look for ways to contradict what they have just seen.”
Rather than revealing an injustice or serving as evidence for movement, such videos might only reaffirm a viewer’s pre-existing beliefs. Bianco finds dark parallels between the spectacle of violence against black people today, and the spectacle of lynching in America’s history. She quotes Amy Louise Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, where Wood explains how lynching is a form of racial terrorism:
“Terrifying images of white power and black helplessness refracted not only into black homes and communities but across the American racial landscape. But even that violence and those deaths themselves were representational, conveying messages about racial hierarchy and the frightening consequences of transgressing that hierarchy.”
Viewers can use viral videos to whatever ends they so choose, and not everyone will react with outrage or consider themselves eyewitnesses to an injustice.
Wood argues that, “the rituals, the tortures, and their subsequent representations imparted powerful messages to whites about their own supposed racial dominance and superiority. These spectacles produced and disseminated images of white power and black degradation... that served to instill and perpetuate a sense of racial supremacy in their white spectators.”
As activist and actor Jesse Williams writes for CNN, “even with videotaped evidence of police destroying black people, many freedom-loving Americans remain unconvinced of a systemic problem.”
When these kinds of videos are circulated heavily around the internet, it’s easy to forget that death is not a spectacle or a source of entertainment. “Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and Emmett Till were not born to be exhibited, sensationalised, peered at, scrutinised or brutalised,” writes Kemi Alemoru of Dazed. “These videos need to go hand-in-hand with your own social action: writing to politicians, going on marches, showing you care outside of the Twittersphere, otherwise please stop circulating.”
Those that do feel shock and indignation after seeing these videos may feel angered in the moment, but be at a loss for how to affect change. Sharing a video is easy; fighting for change is harder.
“Mass shock and outrage do not translate into reform,” writes Robinson Meyer at the Atlantic, “and knowing something is wrong is not the same as understanding what is wrong or how to fix it.”
The bottom line is that we must be willing to fight for change even without video evidence of what we think is wrong. Wrongful black death at the hands of police officers “might seem unbelievable without the video evidence — especially to those who lack personal experience with police brutality,” continues Meyer. But the violence is happening whether or not we see a video of it, whether or not we retweet it, share it, or comment on it. Videos can provide evidence, reveal truth, and be the spark for a bigger conversation around important issues. But these broadcasts are not indicative of change without intentional effort and action toward that end, and replaying violence on an endless loop dehumanizes the victim and reinforces the notion that watching it happen is more important than fighting to stop it.