The dangerous spectacle of racist violence viral videos: Who are those images for?

By sharing these videos, are we aiding in the racist propaganda that romanticizes Black death?

Published September 21, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

A memorial and mural that honors George Floyd at the Scott Food Mart corner store in Houston's Third Ward where Mr. Floyd grew up on June 8, 2020 in Houston, Texas (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A memorial and mural that honors George Floyd at the Scott Food Mart corner store in Houston's Third Ward where Mr. Floyd grew up on June 8, 2020 in Houston, Texas (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Excerpted from " The Antiracist: How to Start the Conversation about Race and Take Action" by Kondwani Fidel (Skyhorse Publishing, 2020). Reprinted with permission from the author.

My execution might be televised. —Freddie Gibbs

It's hard for many of us to unglue our eyes from phone screens these days. Hourly digesting everything from funny memes, fights, cooking tutorials, to sports highlights, and clips from our favorite movies. Social media is a pile of images, videos, and words that allows us to see what people are thinking and doing, and it keeps us updated with the world's politics. And lately, dead Black bodies have been the main attraction to gain social media attention through retweets, shares, and comments. America does an excellent job at showing minorities their place in this country. It's hard for me to not think about the dead Black bodies that I see on my social media timeline, even after I log off—like a video of George Floyd crying for his dead mother, while the racist killer cop Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck for eight minutes, killing him and not breaking a sweat—the whole world saw it. Mike Brown's lifeless body planking on a Ferguson Street for four hours, after being murdered by the killer cop Darren Wilson. Baltimore police dragged Freddie Gray's limp body after beating him into a seven-day coma, where he later died—the whole world saw it. In a world where the terms "mental health," and "self-care," are more frequently mentioned on public platforms, I can't help but to think how these viral videos are affecting Black people psychologically. What do safe spaces look like for us, when we get constant reminders of what our public execution could potentially look like?

Being Black in America is having to wake up every day knowing there's a fixed image of you in the minds of the producers and consumers of racist ideas, and knowing that they can act on those images, and treat you accordingly. It doesn't matter if you have a LLC, college degrees, or if you drive the latest BMW—if you are Black in America, your freedom is threatened just by existing. Racist cops can murder you, and not get convicted of any charges, and will still be labeled heroes by the American people. The killers with badges will still be able to go on vacations with their families, get discounts on coffee and sandwiches from their favorite restaurants, and still keep their jobs. Being Black and conscious of how racism works is to constantly be in rage. Outside of what you personally deal with, being Black in this country and constantly seeing public displays of racism can take a toll on you mentally.

I was walking down Charles Street in the Station North Art District in Baltimore, and as I passed the Amtrak train station, a huge electronic billboard caught my eye. The billboard read, "George Floyd," with a scribbled heart over the top of it. My mood shifted, but I continued on my journey. A friend of mine put me on game to this app called Pattern and told me that it helps inspire consciousness and empathy through zodiac signs. I had recently downloaded the app, so I decided to check it out, with the hopes of getting lost in it, taking my mind off of the current state of the world. As soon as I opened it, there was a Black Lives Matter statement, addressing their support for victims of police brutality. I closed out my phone and stuffed it back in my pocket. I walked another block or so, pulled my phone out again, and attempted to listen to some music for a little therapy, and when I opened up Apple Music, there was a statement saying that they canceled their usual Beats 1 schedule and directed users to a single streaming station that celebrates what they call "the best in Black music." I shut out my app, logged onto Twitter, and all I was saw were videos of George Floyd being executed. And Black Twitter was advocating for the reopening of Breonna Taylor's case so that her death could be investigated, and with the hopes of her killers getting convicted of murder. Other tweets and videos of police brutality, racial injustices, and RIP posts for people who've died from gun violence also dominated. In minutes, my entire day was ruined, and it was all caused by the constant reminder of the price that we pay as Black people in this country.

Propaganda is one of America's most useful tools when sending out messages to the masses. Public lynchings in the late 1800s and early 1900s were used as a method to maintain racial conformity by terrorizing and instilling fear in Black Americans. Black Americans during these times would be lynched for "criminal accusations," which led to lynch mobs putting them to death without legal sanction, hanging them from trees, burning, dismembering the bodies, taking pieces of the bodies home for souvenirs. They took pictures, smiling in front of the hanging and burning Black bodies, and sold photos as souvenirs, too. They invited their friends and family; it was a tradition, a celebration for them. These murders could have easily been private affairs, but they were public for one reason only—to showcase what will happen to you, if you are Black and choose to challenge White supremacy in the slightest fashion, which could be something as simple as acknowledging the beauty in being Black.

Ida B. Wells, a Black woman journalist who was born into slavery, documented the horrifying practice of Black lynchings in the late 1890s. In 1892, three of Ida B. Wells's close friends, Thomas Moss, Will Stewart, and Calvin McDowell, were charged with "maintaining a public nuisance" after protecting People's Grocery in Memphis from an armed and racist White mob. In the middle of the night, a mob of seventy-five Whites seized the three friends from the jail, drove them away from the city, and beat and shot them to death. This was the straw that broke the camel's back—and what sparked Ida B. Wells to challenge the White power structure, which she did by dedicating her life to bring awareness and to combat lynchings in the South. She documented the lynchings and White mob violence through pictures and collected statistics, which we know today as "data journalism." Wells started a newspaper, Free Speech, that was attacked and burned by a White mob in May 1892. In 1893 and 1894, she traveled to England on a speaking tour, attending public meetings and forums to showcase what lynchings looked like in the American South. In 1894, she returned to America to continue her speaking tour. She published a book in 1895, "A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States."

Anyone who takes it upon themselves to fight the White power structure in America is a courageous individual in my eyes. Ida B. Wells's work was important, revolutionary, and a step forward in the right direction toward Black liberation. She brought awareness to the brutal and violent history of White mobs and lynchings in America, conditions that some people may not have ever known existed in the South if it weren't for Wells. I understand the revolution in antilynching campaigns, and even the current campaigns that people have around antipolice brutality, and even gun violence in Black communities. However, for me, it's depressing being forced to see pictures and videos of people who look just like me and my loved ones get tortured and murdered. I know firsthand what getting stomped out by cops feels like. I still hear the sounds of screams in my nightmares from mothers mourning their dead child. I don't need to see videos of Black boys and girls getting murdered to know that Baltimore has roughly 300+ homicides a year—I live here, I walk the streets, I feel it. I don't need to see bloody bodies on the concrete to believe that it's going on, because I know. The Thanksgiving table shrinks in size. The slain don't pull up to the cookouts anymore. Friends in your group photos start to vanish. They won't be screaming congratulations when you're due to walk across the stage on graduation. The numbers you have saved for them in your phone will never ping again. I believe that Ida B. Wells knew that she had to go abroad and speak the truth, because the people in the South were dealing with the lynchings, being threatened and murdered by the noose. Why would they need pictures if they could smell the strange fruit hanging from the trees?

Ida B. Wells's plan to bring awareness to lynchings in the South was strategic and effective. I believe that sharing videos and images of trauma can be effective, but I believe there needs to be a more strategic approach, than just aimlessly sharing the images and videos on social media with no direction. I have noticed that when some people post traumatic videos, they'll have some type of disclaimer or trigger warning, letting the viewer know that the content can be sensitive. Every Black experience in America isn't the same. I know some Black people who have never lost a friend or family member to violence. I know some Black people that never had physical altercations with police, or even grew up loving cops. So their relationship to viral content of murders and police brutality might be different from that of someone who's been directly affected.

Any activist or pillar of the community will tell you that you have to keep one foot in the revolution, and one foot out, and if not, it has the potential to drive you mad. Nowadays because we are stuck to our phones, and have unlimited access to breaking news globally, I believe that it's harder to keep that one foot out of the revolution, when the harsh realities of racism are hunting you down—constantly being shoved in your face. During the years when there were no cell phones, if you wanted access to news, statistics, videos, and images of police violence, you had to actively seek it. Now because we have cell phones, the racist propaganda and the "support" of Black Lives Matter are in the palm of our hands.

Being Black in America and watching agents of the state torture and murder Black people every day, and being forced to watch because it is so ubiquitous, is a psychological media tactic to cause fear and terror and high ratings. When the media highlights White supremacist like Dylan Roof, who killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and was taken to Burger King hours after his arrest because he hadn't eaten, it sends a message. George Zimmerman went free after shooting Trayvon Martin in Florida and later sold the gun he used to kill Trayvon at a gun show for $138,900. From the Black people being killed, to Whites not being held accountable for the killings, all of it is propaganda to maintain racial conformity and takes a continuous psychological toll.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, of all lynchings committed after 1900, only 1 percent resulted in a lyncher being convicted of a criminal offense of any kind: "The vast majority of lynching participants were never punished, both because of the tacit approval of law enforcement, and because dozens if not hundreds often had a hand in the killing. Still, punishment was not unheard of—though most of the time, if white lynchers were tried or convicted, it was for arson, rioting, or some other much more minor offense." Again, I believe that the public display of this trauma can work with a strategy and intent of teaching those who might be unaware, not just aimlessly sharing on the Internet. I believe that this is ideal and the safest approach. One of the most historic public displays of the Black male corpse happened in Chicago at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in 1955.

In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago, had traveled to Mississippi to visit relatives. One day, Till stopped at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, not knowing his trip would be a death sentence. Carolyn Bryant, the White woman who was behind the counter, claimed that Till wolf-whistled and said, "Bye Baby," as he walked out of the store. Carolyn told her brother, J.W. Milam, and husband, Roy Bryant, what Till did, and days later after returning from a business trip, the two went to Till's great-uncle's house. They dragged Till out of the house, and they beat, shot, and murdered him. They wrapped barbed wire and tied a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan to his neck, and dumped his lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River. The two White men were acquitted after the jury deliberated for less than an hour. Till's face was beyond recognition when his bloated body was found. Law enforcement wanted to bury Till's body hours after it was retrieved. Emmett Till's mother, Mammie Till Bradley, was distraught by what those White men did to her son. She said, "Let the people see what they did to my boy," and held an open casket funeral that had 100,000 visitors. Images of Till's ravaged body were posted everywhere from Jet magazine, to other media outlets and news. His mother forced the public to reckon with the brutal reality of racism in this country and wanted the world to see what White supremacy can look like at its highest form. The image of Till's body, the White men not getting arrested for killing him—even after admitting to the murder in an interview—and the nature of his death added steam to the Civil Rights movement—and publicized what was wrong with America.

While Carolyn Bryant was on her death bed, six decades later, she admitted that her claims of Emmett whistling at her and touching her were all a lie. There are countless others who have blood on their hands, without even getting them dirty, and the sad part is that we'll never know how many Black lives they've destroyed.

It reminds us who this country is, what we've done, and what we have the capability to do. That's why when people discuss the White woman, Amy Cooper, who called the police on the Black male, Christian Cooper, in Central Park on May 25, 2020, and explicitly stated that he is African American, I can't help but think of the thousands of Black males who have been jailed, beaten, murdered, and lynched just because some white women didn't want them in their space—some under the same exact accusations as with Emmett Till.

What Mamie Till did was courageous. She brought awareness to an issue that's been on the forefront of Black American minds for the longest time. The sacrifice she made for the world was something that many people wouldn't do. Think about the agony she faced her entire life. She knew what her baby looked liked before his demise, she saw him in the casket, she wouldn't have been able to erase the image even if she wanted to. But not only that, she had to see it in the paper, magazines, and other places promoting the brutal history of America.

The Black male corpse, and the death of the Black male, are always used to make statements, and to show the world the injustices going on in America. Images of dead Black people have been and still are one of America's methods of propaganda to promote racial conformity, and its harsh realities. They can be used as ammo, and as hype for racists to see, love, and crow over our deaths. But another harsh reality is that today, we who share those videos are doing the job of perpetuating the racial spectacle by constantly posting and sharing images of Black injustices, and a fine line develops between raising awareness and stoking that spectacle. It's these images of police brutality that are finally exposing, for all Americans and the world at large, what is happening in our streets and homes. But again, the spectacle is lamentable.

Even when race isn't involved, being in constant reminder and seeing public displays of death, tragedy, and even mourning can cause harm. Earlier this year we lost Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash. Kobe being one of the greatest and most popular basketball players to ever live, and his daughter being a basketball player, too, I'm pretty sure they had billions of people mourning their deaths. Many of those mourners took their feelings to Instagram, not fully understanding how this would harm Vanessa and Natalia Bryant, Kobe's wife and younger daughter. During this time, the two made their Instagram pages private, and blocked the Kobe and Gianna fan pages, to keep others from reposting their pictures. "This makes it 10x harder to deal with our loss. We hope that people understand that although these fan pages have good intentions, they make moving forward harder since they are constant reminders," wrote Natalia in her Instagram story. Vanessa made a similar statement: "I have unfortunately had to block fan pages because it's been really hard to go online and constantly see pics of our beloved Gigi and Kobe under every single square of our explore pages. . . . We [love] you all but please understand that we had to do this for our own healing not because we don't appreciate your [love]."

If it's losing a loved one to a freak accident, or to police brutality or gun violence, seeing excessive images and videos of those tragedies has the ability to take a toll on anyone's mental health.

People like myself don't have the luxury to take ourselves out of "harmful" environments, because it's where we make a living, eat, take care of our families, go to school, and repeat. We can't hit the block button on real life. We can't change the factory settings of our lives to "private," when crooked cops disguised as public servants terrorize us daily.

I can't help but question whether I am an accomplice as racist White Americans carry out their propaganda mission to instill fear, continue racial conformity, and keep us in check, by sharing the videos. Am I aiding in the propaganda of racists romanticizing Black death? Racist don't have to go out and take pictures of burning and mutilated Black bodies, because we do it. They don't have to hold celebrations and ceremonies around lynchings, because they can kick back in the comforts of their homes, eat casserole and popcorn, drink champagne, invite other racists friends and family over, and watch us die on their phone screens. Why should racists do the work, when we can do it for them? Remember, that they want us to feel like and be seen as victims, because again, lynchings could have easily been a private savagery ceremony for racist Whites, but they chose to make them public. The public slayings of Black men should not be the backbone of "moving in the right direction," when it comes to race relations in this country.

Haven't we had enough? Do we—one nation under God — need to see yet another and another public slaying of a Black man or woman to keep "moving in the right direction" when it comes to race relations? These spectacles should not be counted on to keep sparking our passions whenever there is a lull in interest and activism around racial issues. We as a nation don't need to see any more shootings, any more knees on necks, any more murders. We've been immersed in these visuals. Our focus must remain steadfast and resolute on dialogue and action to ensure that the violence ends.

By Kondwani Fidel

Kondwani Fidel has used the power of storytelling to confront education reform and civil rights all over the world. Fidel was honored in the "Best of Baltimore" issue of the Baltimore Sun for his courage, innovative thinking, and leadership in local schools and communities. Fidel is the author of "The Antiracist: How to Start the Conversation about Race and Take Action," "Hummingbirds in the Trenches" and "Raw Wounds." He received his BA in English from Virginia State University, and his MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. Fidel was honored with the Baltimore City 2018 Civil Rights Literary Award.

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