They’ll Kill You And Say You Enjoy It: On Viral Video and the Spectacle Of Black Death

On April 9, 2015, I watched Walter Scott die upwards of 20 times in 15 minutes. I watched white facebook friends share the video, thinking they were “helping” somehow....

On April 9, 2015, I watched Walter Scott die upwards of 20 times in 15 minutes. I watched white facebook friends share the video, thinking they were “helping” somehow. “This is the country we live in,” their updates said. “Who you tellin?” I thought. I was in shock, but this is the new normal.

The term “lynching” is likely to conjure mental images of an era in this country that most people misremember and many intentionally try to forget. It was “a different time and place,” they say. Lynching is a form of extrajudicial punishment that gains power from its connection to public spectacle. The implicitly threatening nature of lynching is what makes it impactful –– what made it a heinous and powerful form of behavior modification for Black people. Lynching communicated, quite literally, don’t cross the (invisible yet always fluctuating) line, or this could be you. This will be you.

While traditional lynchings are no longer commonplace, the generational trauma remains and lynching itself has taken a more nuanced form. Rather than an angry white mob torturing and killing a Black person to torment the Black population in a single town, police killings are now broadcasted in endlessly looping viral video, without any concern for the traumatizing power that these images have on Black viewers.

The problem does not lie in the existence of the videos themselves, but rather in the endless replaying of them without conscience or context. After all, they give physical evidence of the events that lead to these deaths. In theory, they hold police accountable for the same reason. In theory, these videos should protect the victims from allegations of wrongdoing. However, reality is very different. We’ve seen time and again that in spite of video evidence the offending officers still aren’t charged with any crime. Despite the fact that these videos typically show no wrongdoing on the part of the victim, smear campaigns aimed at dredging up any possible offense, no matter how old or trivial, in order to discredit them still abound.

In her recent Salon article, Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper elucidates the differences between the way mainstream media handled footage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the way it handles the equally disturbing footage of racist police killings.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, parents called into news stations around the country to ask them to stop re-airing footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. News stations complied. Yet Black children got up and went to school this morning, and went to bed last night with video of a white police officer callously killing a Black man running on loop. What about our children?”

What about Black children indeed. There’s no regard for the ways in which seeing ourselves be murdered repeatedly and often without recourse damages both our self-esteem and sense of safety. There’s no concern for the way that seeing another Black body be added to the pile of Black bodies is deeply traumatizing. The way it makes us feel devalued. How it reminds us, as Audre Lorde put it, “we were never meant to survive.”

The day after Michael Slager’s arrest, we were again inundated with a looping video of an innocent Black man being murdered in cold blood. We watched as this footage was run simultaneously with speculation about Scott’s past, including his over 20-year-old rap sheet. Because, if you’re Black in this country, being arrested in the past means serves as justification for murdering you over a broken tail light in the present.

What happened to Walter Scott was no new phenomenon. We watch this play out over and over again –– the traumatizing video evidence that gets ignored, the “thugification” of the victim, and the deification of the murderous police officer –– and hope against hope that this time will be different. That we’ll see a legal conviction from a judge, or moral conviction from the murderer.

But as we’ve learned, time and again, even with their guilty actions caught on video, murderous police officers rarely face charges. Daniel Pantaleo faced no criminal charges for killing Eric Garner, though the chokehold that Pantaleo used to subdue Garner had been banned by the NYPD and was the cause of Garner’s death. In a less well known incident, unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury Jr. was killed in 2004 as he walked up a stairwell because the officer who shot Stansbury Jr. claimed he had been startled. The officer was not indicted.

Despite the fact that the brutalization of Black bodies is more visible than ever, no changes have been made to stop or even lessen state-sanctioned violence. In 2013, Alternet reported that a Black person was murdered by police every 28 hours. As of February 2015, the statistic is now every 8 hours, meaning that police murder at 3 least people a day.

If it’s been established that the existence of video evidence generally doesn’t produce noteable changes in the system, why do we keep playing them over and over? Why have news outlets latched on to this format so? The answer lies in the simple truth that the oppressor is immune to the pain of the oppressed. White people do not believe Black people when we speak about the realities of racial profiling and police brutality. They do not take us at our word. Instead, they need to be able to pull up a seat and watch the lynchings take place over and over. They need to be able hi-speed scrub back and forth through each moment, ignoring the pain and suffering in order to uphold “objectivity” and “rational” analysis. Their need to inspect overrides black pain –– is more important that black lives.

As it turns out, white people are as disconnected from the realities of Black lives now as they were during the “different time and place” of the Jim Crow era. In the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson, a Pew study found that 80% of Black Americans polled believe race to be an important factor in the case. The same study found that only 37% of white participants felt that way. In an article for The Guardian, author Isabel Wilkerson explains that this disconnect on the part of whites is “due in part to de facto segregation and a majority status that does not require engagement with those outside their own group.” She proceeds to explain how “racial isolation, combined with the negative messages embedded in American culture, create a lack in empathy that allows otherwise well-meaning people to turn away from the plight of fellow citizens.”

This implicit anti-blackness runs deeply through every institution and every facet of American life. From the school to prison pipeline that is claiming more black children every day, to the increased difficulty of finding employment with a “black sounding” name to the stigma placed on black mothers using public assistance, though white people are far more likely to take advantage of such programs.

Anti-blackness runs so deeply, in fact, that it even affects a white persons’ ability to perceive pain when it is inflicted on a black body. A study at the University of Milano-Bicocca found that when white people were presented with images of a needle piercing another person’s skin, they experienced “a more dramatic, measurable, physiological” response when white skin is inflicted with pain than when black skin is.

It’s easier to watch someone be fatally shot when you literally cannot feel their pain.

I’m not saying that these videos should not be made. I’m saying that there needs to be more thought and responsibility given to their presentation. After all, these videos also pose a danger to the brave citizen journalists who film them and often make those people even bigger targets than their race and socio-economic status already dictates that they are.

Ramsey Orta captured the now infamous video of Eric Garner putting placed in a chokehold by Daniel Pantaleo. Shortly thereafter, he became the victim of a police crusade to ruin his life and place him behind bars. Following Garner’s murder, Orta became an outspoken advocate for his friend, hosting memorials and speaking at vigils. He even gave testimony at Daniel Pantaleo’s grand jury trial.

During that time, police began tailing Orta. He told Vice that officers would cruise by his mother’s home, where Orta also lived, in the middle of the night and shine their floodlights in the windows. Lisa Mercado, Orta’s aunt and chief supporter, has said in interviews that police followed her whenever she travelled to Staten Island from her home in New Jersey.

Orta wasn’t the only witness in the Eric Garner case who was harassed by police afterward. Taisha Allen filmed the second video Eric Garner video, the one that depicts law enforcement refusing to administer medical treatment to a struggling Garner. In March 2015, Allen police apprehended Allen for “being in a park after closing time.” While in custody, Allen stated that police attacked her, covering her in bruises and injuring her arm. Allen said in an interview with Pix11, that officers recognized her and said “You’re that little girl from the Eric Garner case.”

Even more recently, Feidin Santana, the man who filmed the murder of Walter Scott, stated that he thought long and hard before deciding to release the video under his own name. Santana feared that his connection to the video would make him a target for police violence and strongly considered releasing the video anonymously or even just deleting it. Following the video’s release, Santana’s mother told Fox News that she feared for his life. Those fears are not unfounded in the least.

So what can be done? What do Black Americans want? The answer is complex and varied.

When I attended a lecture given by Laverne Cox in 2014, she quoted Dr. Cornel West, who famously said “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” She added, “Black people need a lot of love, need a lot of justice.”

In short, we don’t want to have to see another video, we need an end to police brutality. We don’t just want more indictments for white officers who murder us, we want an end to the system that allows them to kill us with impunity. We don’t want more proof of that pain, we just want the violence to end. We want to stop fearing for our children’s lives when they go to the corner store, or play on the swings, or listen to music in the car with their friends.

We want #BlackLivesMatter to be an universal understanding, rather than just a politically convenient slogan.

SourcesPew Research Center: Stark Racial Divisions in Reactions to Ferguson Police ShootingNew Republic: Videos of Police Killings Are Numbing Us to the Spectacle of Black Death

Salon: Black death has become a cultural spectacle: Why the Walter Scott tragedy won’t change White America’s mind

The Guardian: Mike Brown’s shooting and Jim Crow lynchings have too much in common. It’s time for America to own up

Vice: Nine Months After He Filmed Eric Garner’s Killing, the Cops Are Trying to Put Ramsey Orta Behind Bars

Frontiers in Psychology: Racism and the Empathy for Pain on Our Skin

Huffington Post: Who Gets Food Stamps? White People, Mostly

Fortune: In Hiring, Racial Bias Is Still A Problem

Adreanna Nattiel – Contributing Writer

Adreanna Nattiel is a writer, activist, and queer feminist based in Athens, GA. Her primary interest is media and pop culture studies and how they intersect with body politics for people of color. She is a real-life witch, aspiring cat lady, and horror junkie. Her plan is to take over the world, one flawless brow at a time.
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Adreanna Nattiel

Adreanna Nattiel is a writer, activist, and queer feminist based in Atlanta, GA. Her primary interest is media and pop culture studies and how they intersect with body politics for people of color. She is a real-life witch, aspiring cat lady, and horror junkie. Her plan is to take over the world, one flawless brow at a time.