Black lives, white eyes: what's different this time is we're locked down and can't excuse it away

The social progress that's happening now is the result of being stuck at home with no place else to go ... or look

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published June 14, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Matthew McConaughey on 'Uncomfortable conversations with a black man", Trevor Noah from the Social Distancing Daily Show, and the 75 year old man in Buffalo who was knocked down by police (Salon/Comedy Central/Emmanuel Acho/Twitter/@WBFO)
Matthew McConaughey on 'Uncomfortable conversations with a black man", Trevor Noah from the Social Distancing Daily Show, and the 75 year old man in Buffalo who was knocked down by police (Salon/Comedy Central/Emmanuel Acho/Twitter/@WBFO)

As surely as the sun rises, a point arrives in the course of every civil rights movement when well-meaning white people climb aboard and take it mainstream. Their objectives may be pure but their output? Let just say recent examples have left much to be desired.

Over the last several days, white Instagram influencers  have taken to painting their faces brown, purportedly in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. A bevy of Hollywood actors made a most serious, highly sharable black and white social media video in which they went method to take responsibility for not speaking up against casual acts of racism.

The flock including a bespectacled Sarah Paulson, a very sad-looking Kristen Bell, and Aaron Paul, who went from thoughtfully tented fingertips pressed against his face to full-blown guilt screaming.

Elsewhere white people attempted to put their notch in the moment by, for example, offering up a flowery appraisal of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier's cinematic technique in recording the final tortured moments of 46-year-old George Floyd's life. You read that right: an industry trade thought offering a review of a snuff film was a fine contribution to this moment.

That vile misstep aside, most of our conversation is occurring through video, a flood of it. This is not new – the internet is awash with Black Lives Matter protest footage and incidents of law enforcement brutalizing demonstrators, from yesterday and last week, month, the past several years, and beyond.

However, early though we may be in this particular chapter of the America's Giant Book of Racism, it became widely apparent that this time substantively differs from previous years. For the first time in what feels like forever, white people aren't changing channels.

By the thousands across the country and the globe, they are showing up to march with Black and other non-white protesters in a show of solidarity. Untold millions, fingers crossed, appear to be busily educating themselves about race in America, ordering relevant books and watching documentaries and scripted movies on streaming services.

Corporations are on board, at least performatively. And like clockwork, celebrities are showing up to make it known that they too, are very serious about the business of taking responsibility for failing to be adequately anti-racist.

Ridiculous some of these displays are, this is a sign of progress. At the same time, we can't be blamed for wondering: why now?

What is different about this point of time as opposed to 2014, when the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri first erupted, or any of the times since then when footage of law enforcement brutalizing or killing people of color went viral?

It probably has something to do with the fact we, collectively, are separate and captive. Stuck in place, we are relegated to visually experiencing much of our waking lives via screens instead of in the flesh.

Sheltering in place, we take in the data illustrations depicting the rise in coronavirus cases, transforming the country into a mountain range whose terrain consists of curves, rises and plunges, stalagmites made of infection counts and death tolls.  And this time, too, people are seeing their whiteness reflected back at themselves in ways that not only reveal their complicity, but their vulnerability.  

Within all of the racism self-education in which book sales indicate white Americans are engaging, they are likely to keep returning to one refrain. That is, until a critical mass of people accept that a massive injustice inflicted upon one group is wrong, until they realize the same problems could affect them, most choose to ignore or downplay the problem.

Most of us experience protest from afar, through images. It is said that the images of civil rights protesters in the South enduring the full blast of firehoses turned the tide of the civil rights movement among white moderates in the North.

Public perception of the Vietnam War changed, we're told, once grisly footage from the battlefield began beaming into living rooms via the nightly news. Along with that are iconic photos. There have been many demonstrations since then: marches against the Gulf War, 1999's World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, the Women's Marches in 2017.

The successive blows of Ahmaud Arbery's, Breonna Taylor's and George Floyd's deaths playing out before us, in circumstances other than these "unprecedented times," likely would have been bearable to white America once again – if we weren't all rapt, and captive.

The call and response between corporate media and citizens video is fascinating to witness as well. It pings back and forth with a natural and symphonic grace. On May 29 Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show," offered an eloquent explanation of society as "a contract that we sign as human beings with each other. . .  And the contract is only as strong as the people who abide by it."

"And then some members of the society, namely Black people, watch time and time again how the contract that they have signed with society is not being honored by the society that has forced them to sign it with them." This, he says, renders the contract meaningless. "There is no contract if law and people in power don't uphold their end of it."

Later author and activist Kimberly Jones angrily quotes Noah in her response to criticisms about the looting, which "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver uses to close his June 7 episode. There, and back again.

For these hosts and Jones this work is not new. But a segment of their audience very well may be.

* * *

"White people are losing the luxury of non-self-awareness, an emotionally complicated shift that we are not always taking well," Emily Bazelon wrote in New York Times Magazine – not last week, but in 2018, the same year that marked the first appearances of #BBQBecky and #PermitPatty.

Although memes shading these early version of Karens provided excellent fodder for late night monologues and were circulated far and wide, they did not prevent future incidents like them from happening. But they did place new ones in context.

By the time Amy Cooper called the police with a fabricated, urgent-sounding claim of being threatened by an "African American man" – that would be birdwatcher Christian Cooper – we collectively were beyond cute individualized nicknames. She is exactly who she is and has shown herself to be.

Placing this latest display of weaponized white lady fragility in close proximity to Floyd's killing-by-cop showed America the worst case example that could have happened had police answered her call.

The Floyd video went viral not long after we were blindsided by the leaked video of Ahmaud Arbery's hunting and murder by two armed white men who aren't cops. We only had to hear about emergency room technician Breonna Taylor being shot to death in her home by police serving a questionable no-knock search warrant, to believe it; we didn't need video evidence.

Amidst the TikToks and coronavirus Instagram memes these videos are stuck on replay,  shown again on the evening news, floating in our Twitter feeds.

Countless millions saw these back-to-back episodes for what they were, a bingeing of death. And between the pandemic, massive unemployment, recession, quarantine separation and the rest of the hard-knock avalanche that is 2020, mainstream America was made to finally admit, en masse and out loud, that something is very wrong with the system.

Of course, people have been pointing this out since long before Public Enemy had a hit in 1989 with "Fight the Power." They yelled it at the top of their lungs since Trayvon Martin was killed, since Michael Brown was shot down, and then LaQuan McDonald in Chicago, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Since Sandra Bland set out on a drive from which she never returned. The uprisings in Ferguson and then Baltimore drew cameras yielding grainy news footage shot at a safe distance, along with a lot of judgment and very little empathy.

Then came the recordings of police brutality committed in full view of mobile phone cameras – unarmed people being maced, fired upon with rubber bullets, tasered, and for once it's not just Black and brown bodies. We watched CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, a person of color, arrested for doing his job, witnessed the camera continue to roll as it was set on its side, view askew. We gawked as Brooklyn resident Dounya Zayer sailed through the air like a ragdoll after a New York police officer shoved her hard enough to crack her head on a sidewalk.

Buffalo police were caught on video knocking down Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester, also hospitalized with a head injury. The cellphone footage shows Gugino tumbling backward after a push, then lying on his back motionless as blood pools beneath his head. Riot gear-clad officers continue their march, walking around him unfazed and not a one stopping to help an elderly man to his feet.

White Americans have gotten used to encountering videos of Black death and often reason, thanks to years of conditioning via the prime time cop narrative, that the person had it coming. Now this captive audience has been presented with plenty of evidence that these violations can happen to them – to their daughters, their sons, their elders. Now they are acting.

* * * 

"We have to use our imagination. A spectacle can be made, an unmistakable statement outside the war psychology which is leading nowhere. Such statement would be heard around the world with relief." Allen Ginsberg wrote this in an essay which, technically, he defined as "a sort of Press Release Joke to lighten the atmosphere."

The essay was titled "Demonstration Or Spectacle As Example, As Communication Or How To Make a March/Spectacle," and it published in November 1965, four and a half years before the Ohio National Guard shot 13 unarmed students at a peace rally on the campus of Kent State University, killing four of them. It is credited as the inspiration for the Flower Power anti-war movement.

Last weekend in Philadelphia, a kindergarten teacher named Zoe Sturges climbed over a barricade placed between protesters and police, running over to an assembly of National Guardsmen to offer them stems of fresh daisies.

According to a witness who posted about the event on Reddit, her point was to prove that the police will not only decline to tolerate the most non-threatening of actions, but that people can disobey and survive.

Philadelphia Inquirer staff photographer Charles Fox captured Sturges' contribution to the growing gallery of protest images from start to finish. The first photo captures her gifting the flowers. The second shows her kneeling, hands up, bouquet on the ground, as Philadelphia police take her into custody before releasing her shortly afterward without a fine.

Intentionally or not, this was a modern-day recreation of photographer Marc Riboud's iconic photograph of Jan Rose Kasmir, whose image Riboud captured while covering an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. in 1967. Kasmir's 17-year-old self is forever immortalized gently cradling a chrysanthemum blossom inches away from the tips of a National Guard's bayonet.

In a 2014 first-person account published in The Guardian Kasmir said she had no idea that her photograph was being taken. This is the main difference between her image and that of Sturges: "Yesterday I practiced civil disobedience and crossed the guardrail to give flowers to the police and national guard to show my students to never be afraid to fight for their rights," Sturges posted to Facebook on June 7.

She probably also did it for the 'Gram. This is only a guess, submitted with nothing but admiration.

One presumes that as an educator with a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Sturges meant to echo the Flower Power photographs of Vietnam War-era protesters like Kasmir in the late 1960s, images that live on all these years later as non-verbal exemplars of non-violent demonstration as performed by white people.

This was a flare sent up to grab the Boomers' attention. Who knows if they saw it? Sturges' homage is rendered in stills, not video. Like all the other protest media it moved down the stream; I happened to catch it.

Thus far it has not become the new "Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge," photographer Jonathan Bachman's indelible image of Ieshia Evans, a nurse, serenely offering her wrists to police officers in riot gear running over to arrest her in 2016. But there doesn't need to be this year's version of that moment.

What appears to have been deleted, thus far, is the obsolete protest chant of "The whole world is watching." That need not be said. In its place is something better: the catchy remix of Johnniqua Charles' improvised rap, delivered via a viral video which has come to be known as "Lose Yo Job." In front of police lines, outside of city halls across the country, it bounces: "You about to lose yo job/ You about to lose you job, get this dance!"

When we think about what's different now we also cannot forget how early we are in this process. And there are worthy and necessary efforts being made in the name of righting racist wrongs that have too long gone unchecked. This week Paramount canceled "Cops," and A&E, following a period of dithering, cancelled "Live P.D.," but only after word got out that the producers destroyed footage of a Black man, a father, being tasered to death.

Critics and viewers are re-evaluating their relationship with the omnipresent police procedural. The NFL has finally acknowledged that after years of blackballing Colin Kaepernick for peacefully taking a knee in protest of police brutality against Black people that, hey – he might have been on to something.

Not all celebrity entries into this dialogue are tone-deaf. Retired NFL lineman Emmanuel Acho's online series "Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man" welcomed Matthew McConaughey for its second episode for an honest, even-keeled conversation about prejudice in which McConaughey proved by example that everyone has skin in this game.

As one has come to expect, the conversations initiated by Noah and others are essential viewing, but they always have been. An older online video in which he talks with his audience features him answering the question what we wishes could be transplanted from South Africa to America.

His answer: his country's general ease at talking about race and racism. Noah explains that South Africans are healing from Apartheid via its process of Truth and Reconciliation, which he says put everything out there regardless of how painful the conversations were and continue to be.

"It helps to be able to have conversations about those things, because it helps you understand how you got to where you got to. But if you can't have those conversations, then you just have to operate in a blind space of, like, 'How did this happen?'"  

We've existed in that blind space so long and are feeling our way through it right now. We are still locked in place, so many of us, and watching more TV than ever.

The conversation between corporate media video content and citizen-created and uploaded video has defined this movement. If one were to think of Ferguson as the beginning of this – and I assure you it is not; Black people have been filming acts of state violence against them since cameras became a standard feature on cell phones – Frazier's video is if not the end, a towering marker of a national shift. Of what exactly? It is too early to say for sure, and at the same time arrives at such a late hour.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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