The video of George Floyd’s killing is yet another example in a long line of footage of brutality against Black people.While white people watching these videos see an opportunity to share in a pain they will never experience, Black people see daughters, sons, cousins, and neighbors.Despite 30 years of recordings, these videos have done little to stop the killings and brutality, and it’s time for the nation to think deeply not only about the purpose of sharing these videos, but who benefits from them most.Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
I did not watch the video of George Floyd’s death. Or Ahmaud Arbery’s. Or Sean Reed’s. Or Eric Garner’s. Or Philando Castile’s. Or many of the others before them. I don’t need video proof of police brutality or Black sentience, and the Black death genre has never appealed to me. Maybe it isn’t supposed to. Most recently, video footage of now-former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin pinning Floyd under his knee spread across the Internet and news broadcasts. Black social media users pleaded with the public to stop sharing the video of Floyd’s death, threatening to block any account that posted the traumatizing footage.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
In recent years, a genre of videos once lauded as an alarming, mobilizing force has repeatedly sparked questions about whether such footage does more harm than good. It seems that with each new police brutality video, more and more Black people are condemning their virality, citing a profound emotional toll. So what is the purpose of these videos? And, perhaps more importantly, who are they for?”There is a tremendous toll from the vicarious exposure to this kind of abuse. These images are traumatizing. There can be a vicarious trauma through witnessing these images and can also cause some to relive traumatic experiences that they may personally have had with police,” Brian Smedley, chief of psychology in the public interest at the American Psychological Association, told Insider.
The footage of the vicious 1991 beating of Rodney King was the first of many police brutality videos to spread across the worldThe grainy footage of Los Angeles Police Department officers brutally beating King was broadcast in homes across the country, sparking a national conversation about racism and police violence. We’re still having that conversation nearly three decades later. With the advent of the Internet, countless videos are circulated in order to prove that Black people haven’t been lying about the abuse we’ve suffered. Arguments for sharing these videos largely rest on claims that they lead to justice, and the flawed notion that white people need to see Black people dying in order to care. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that America is slow to dole out justice, and even slower to produce lasting advancements for oppressed groups. Many officers and white vigilantes captured on video murdering Black people have been arrested and charged — much to the surprise of Black people everywhere — but, ultimately, 30 years worth of Black death footage hasn’t stopped these killings.
Rodney King in 2012.
Still, the videos are hailed as resources for raising consciousness and awareness. They exist, then, for white people. It does not sit well with me that Black death has become a resource for white empathy. And we must carefully attend to the inevitable ramifications of casting Black death as an educational tool.
“From lynching postcards to Rodney King to all of the recent cases, the virality of these videos is another form of violence upon Black folks,” California-based organizer Anthony Williams told Insider. Williams decided to stop watching the videos in 2014 and now asks social media users to include trigger warnings when sharing the footage.”Our murders are trivialized as ‘not that bad’ or the ‘exception’ rather than an all-too-present reality. In many ways, all of this just contributes to the desensitization to our murders.”The footage has ramifications for mental health and well-beingA 2019 study found that exposure to such traumatic footage led to depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder among Black people. Dr. Danielle Hairston, president of the American Psychiatric Association’s Caucus of Black Psychiatrists, says she’s seen this firsthand with her patients.The first time she noticed this phenomenon was around the time of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. “My patients who are young adults and college-aged students expressed their ability to identify with the young people being killed and the fear that something like this could happen to them,” Hairston said.
“They started to experience symptoms that we typically see with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Young adults were talking about the impact that these images were having on them. The videos of killings are a lot to bear.”A nation that makes a spectacle of Black death would hardly be concerned about the mental health of the Black people who see these videos, especially if it accepts that this emotional toll is a small, insignificant price to pay for education and awareness.
A woman kneels by a memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
Millions of views do nothing to address and eradicate the underlying racism that make these killings possibleVideos of Black death have worked to spur the masses into action — protests over Floyd’s death have been happening across the country for more than a week. Without a video, we may have never known that North Charleston officer Michael Slager murdered 50-year-old Walter Scott and attempted to plant evidence to support his false statement in 2015. We may never have known that Oscar Grant was held down and shot in the back in 2009. And we certainly may never have known that Ahmaud Abery was chased down and killed by two white men while jogging. These videos led to convictions or charges, but the millions of views did little to address and eradicate the underlying racism that made these killings possible. In fact, Ahbery’s death only highlights the nation’s refusal to do away with racist “stand your ground” laws. And if we are considering incarceration to be justice, we did not need to see Botham Jean’s death in order to convict his killer. And we did not need to see Breonna Taylor’s death in order for the public to demand that her killers be arrested.
Rather than settling for the jailing of racist, killer cops, true justice would be to dismantle the systems that create racist, killer cops in the first place.”If you look at writings from 100 years ago, you see that not that much has changed. There’s no way to bring back the lives that these cops have taken,” Anthony Williams said. “So justice to me would be that no other Black people — no one, period — would be killed by the police. We have to think about justice differently. And justice cannot be synonymous with punishment.” When we continuously see Black death, we get used to Black death”You could be setting a new standard of normalcy. It’s like the repeated exposure used in treatment for phobias to get people to have less of a startled response to stimulus gradually,” Hairston said. Meanwhile, the victims in these videos are immortalized as hashtags, with their lives reduced to their final moments. Videos of police brutality have also begun to serve as a means for some social media users to boost their platforms, amass views, and even profit financially. Perhaps most disturbingly, these videos become fodder for racist Reddit groups. With that, these images serve as souvenirs of white supremacy, much like the lynching postcards of the past.
“The spectacle of white supremacist violence against the Black subject winds up … reinforcing that existing racial, and social, power hierarchy,” Dr. William Horne, founder of The Activist History Review, told Insider, citing Saidiya Hartman’s book “Scenes of Subjection.” “It winds up legitimizing itself in the eyes of the white audience.”
People participate in a protest to mark the five year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2019 in New York City.
For nearly 30 years, viral videos of police brutality and white supremacy have been shared to shock and mobilize, while barely putting a dent in the systems that make this brutality possible. It’s time for the nation to think deeply not only about the purpose of sharing these videos, but who benefits from them most. While white people watching these videos see an opportunity to share in a pain they will never experience, Black people see daughters, sons, cousins, and neighbors. And we can never unsee it. Char Adams is a race, gender, and identity reporter whose work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Vox, Vice, Mic, PEOPLE Magazine, OprahMag.com, and more. She is the digital editor of SUM research at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Follow her on Twitter here.Read more:I gave my Afro-Latino boyfriend the ‘police talk’ before visiting the US. After George Floyd’s killing, I watched his baptism into American life.I’m a Black American Muslim. After the killing of George Floyd, I hope that my community will speak out against injustices faced by Black people.PHOTOS: The ‘I Will Breathe’ rally and march in Nashville brought thousands together to protest against racial inequality and police brutality