TRodney King was beat by four Los Angeles Police Department officers over thirty years ago. In less than a year, George Floyd was killed by a Los Angeles Police Department officer. He was convicted in three separate cases: second-degree killing, third-degree execution, and second-degree manslaughter. The video of both cases was 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. The videos might tell us the difference between the cases that ended in conviction or acquittal.
And then came Buffalo. While I was still contemplating Floyd/King, an unidentified young white supremacist streamed his alleged murder of 10 people, wounding 3, and then he went on to livestream. He aimed at the Blacks and ten victims were Blacks. Buffalo, the worst of human impulses, is not only being shown, but also literally and very Americanly. It is available to all who want to see it. The number of people who have wished to see it has reached the million mark. 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 was more important to be aware of the troubling fact that four hundred years after the American project began, Black people are still suffering and dying. Do you think there is a way to escape this terrible recursive nightmare.
The sight of Black Americans being killed, tortured, maimed and dehumanized isn’t new. It is a cultural tradition. This imagery could be called foundational. Public human trafficking auctions were held in the 1800s. During these auctions, Black children, men and women were shown before being sold to chattel slavery. Lynchings followed. We have been a society that has suffered from public Black pain. Lynchings were so elaborately planned to be a public spectacle, many of them were published in newspapers. Some culminated in photographs of the crowd below the body, including crowds of hundreds or dozens of people, as well as tens and thousands. Entrepreneurial observers turned the lynching photos into postcards and prints. These postcards were then mailed to family and friends who couldn’t make it. 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.
The parallels between lynchings, King’s death and Floyd’s fate are alarming. The parallels between Buffalo and lynchings are chilling, almost hypothermic, and paralyzing. Buffalo was the victim of a murderer who advertised in advance his plans, making sure that spectators were able to see them. The live video of his brutality has been seen millions upon millions on multiple platforms.
Although it isn’t popular to admit, I think that assaults on Black Americans will always be part 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. My history, up to this moment, taught me to remain 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.
This is one way we can raise our awareness about the images of Black people being killed or savaged in anti-Black violence. Don’t stop looking. You don’t have to be a non-Black individual. This is the standard rule. There may be other exceptions. Fine if you are required to observe (journalists or law enforcement officers, lawyers). You can also ask a Black person if they are proximate or obligated to view the event.
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. The act was also a display of Black independence and resistance to brutal anti-black violence. I found her determination almost miraculous. 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.
It is not Mamie Tilly-Mobly’s Buffalo killing. He created footage of an entirely different type and degree. 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. These images are not new. You are likely to be familiar with American history and what these images 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 other ways you can remember our deceased.
True, the Floyd and King videos provoked a remarkable outpouring from citizens of all races, including whites. At least some people will take similar actions with the Buffalo video. 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. The majority of whites said no three months later. 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. The murders of Buffalo victims were possible despite the national outrage. They were, however, not impossible or unimaginable.
Aside from rare occasions when it brings justice, the footage of suffering and black death simply leads to more people watching, which highlights 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. Despite the discomfort, they are all united in viewing Black Death. It is what they see. Their responses are different—but somehow that is not quite enough for me to feel safe and satisfied. Their shared experience of Black death still has a strange, unnatural quality. They live in an environment where it is displayed, which they enjoy. It has been viewed by modern whites with an extraordinary level of sensory richness, and viscerality. This is a nod to both the photographs taken at the lynching scene, as well as the slave-owners who witnessed it. This is how Black suffering films bend time. The films of Black suffering press progeny towards ancestor. The experience of seeing Black death 2022 in this new century is eerily reminiscent of the past centuries, when progress seemed impossible because it was trapped within the realms of dreams and wishes.
I picture a Southern woman, white, running her errands—one of my ancestors, perhaps. They are there. To make sure they are shining in the sunlight, the animals were shaved and treated with palm oil, animal fat, and palm oil. Rust and gunpowder was applied to the skin to conceal bruises. They’re made to dance to project vigor and health, to stretch their limbs and smile unnaturally to reveal their teeth. They’re 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. You can make horrors seem normal by repetition and exposure. Exposure and repetition are two of the best ways to make horrors normal.
You should stop looking. Or if you must watch, don’t you dare StopYou can also watch.
How can I balance the semi-nihilistic, creeping dread of these realizations and the rest? Books about anti-racism are examples of evidence like 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. We are responsible to take action, regardless of the likelihood or certainty that a grim outcome will occur. 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. The arc of morality is one tiny, small hand. It might never be the same in the end.
Yes, but I don’t believe so. Yes, video seems to “prove” a victim’s story. But when you really get down to it, why should video—even in the dramatic case of Buffalo—mark a sea-change, when, for instance, seeing Emmet Till’s bloated, lifeless, fourteen-year-old face did not? Emmett Till was not brought back by it. It did not prevent King’s beating, or Floyd’s death, or the Buffalo shootings, still making their way across the internet. However, it did not erase the apparently impervious white dominance’s surface. It is not a mark for Mamie Till-Mobley. It’s a mark for America.
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