SALON TALKS

Author Marc Lamont Hill on George Floyd, America, "telling the truth and fighting for freedom"

Marc Lamont Hill on how George Floyd's martyrdom changed America, and why cops and prisons can't deliver justice

By D. Watkins

Published May 15, 2022 7:00AM (EDT)

Marc Lamont Hill attends the A3C Conference at the Loudermilk Center on October 7, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Prince Williams/WireImage/Getty Images)
Marc Lamont Hill attends the A3C Conference at the Loudermilk Center on October 7, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Prince Williams/WireImage/Getty Images)

The horror of George Floyd's death seeped into my consciousness weeks before I saw the actual video. Honestly, I didn't want to see it. I tried my best to avoid it. At this point, who wants to see another Black person heartlessly having their life snatched away by some hateful or careless officer –- only to see that shared and reshared over and over again? Unfortunately, the answer is that millions of people wanted to see it, meaning I had no choice. 

No one had a choice. Everybody and their mother was talking about the horrific footage of disgraced Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for over nine minutes — because he was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill. That video was recorded by a young woman named Darnella Frazier. Through her lens we saw Floyd alive and calling for his mom, and then losing his breath and his life repeatedly on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and both local and cable news. Author and scholar Marc Lamont Hill credits Frazier's bravery and details how moments like these have shifted the narrative on race in America in a new book with his co-author Todd Brewster, "Seen and Unseen: Technology, Social Media, and the Fight for Racial Justice."

The journalist and host of BET News joined me on "Salon Talks" to discuss how recorded violence against Black people in America has always been a part of our history, from Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bios using photographs to strengthen their arguments and Martin Luther King Jr. understanding the power of video and television.

Hill has developed a reputation for sharp, nuanced commentary on politics, culture and America's failed systems, but not without facing certtain criticism, so I asked him about that too. "When I was in corporate media more I definitely felt sometimes like it wasn't too many of us," Hill told me. "I felt like I was saying the thing that people didn't want to say, and sometimes it's the thing that people don't want to hear, even our people." Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Marc Lamont Hill here or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I watched you on Black News Channel a lot when you were doing that. When you first started, I was like, "Man, this is the commentary that we need." What is your next move?

I got something coming up in a minute. I can't announce it yet, but some good stuff is coming. We're going to keep the momentum and the energy from Black News Channel. We are going to try and replicate that someplace else. Like you said, we need a place to talk about Black issues every day. We need a place to talk about Black news every day. We need a place to talk about international stuff every day. We need a place to advocate. We need a place to talk about culture. We're going to do all that stuff on my next project and I'm just going to keep pushing forward.

Let's get into your new book, "Seen and Unseen." It's a beautiful cover, extremely powerful. Can you talk about the title and this design?

The cover itself in many ways tells an important story. You see this cellphone capturing George Floyd. Darnella Frazier was the sister who was able to capture Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. We all saw it. We were home. It was a pandemic. We witnessed for over nine minutes, this execution. It wasn't the first one and it wasn't the last one. But when we saw this one, everybody responded. The nation responded. People were in the streets. People were protesting. People were marching. People doing all kinds of stuff. 

"We are challenged to get any kind of justice and democracy in this country. It just ain't there."

Mitt Romney was at a Black Lives Matter rally.

That's how you know. You got Mitt Romney up in the joint protesting. So, if that's happening, the question is what led to it? And for me and [my co-author] Todd [Brewster], the story of George Floyd and the fight for racial justice more broadly is bound up in social media, the hashtags we use, the websites, the live streaming, all that stuff. It's also bound up in the technology that captured it. 

We wanted to tell a deeper story about how technology and media play a role in how we fight for justice, how we tell those stories, and we wanted to show that it didn't just start now. Ida B. Wells was doing it with the camera, the photography, talking about lynching. Dr. King was using broadcast news to show us marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the beatings that we got were witnessed by white liberals who could no longer pretend that they didn't know. We were talking about Frederick Douglass. 

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One thing that technology and media has failed at as we follow these movements and we see these things happening, is the ability to be able to fully talk about who these victims were. You do a deep dive into George Floyd. What were some of the things you learned about George Floyd in that research process?

I had the luxury of asking people about George Floyd and learning about George Floyd because of Stephen Jackson, my brother Stack, who loved him and was friends with him and who was able to help us understand to even record this book. In doing the research, I learned that George Floyd was somebody whose life mirrored so many Black men in America. Candace Owens came out and said George Floyd is no hero. He ain't got to be a hero to live. He ain't got to be a hero to not be murdered. But he was a martyr. George Floyd was martyred. Not because he stood up — he wasn't Dr. King and Malcolm X saying, "I'm going to preach this message and be killed," but he still gave his life as a ransom for this racial justice project in America. He was an unlikely martyr.

This is a brother who played basketball. He's a brother that tried to rap, which I didn't know. This is a brother who, like many people, like Mike Brown, went to substandard schools but still made the best out of them. This is a brother who got clean, got his life together and struggled with substance abuse again, and got clean, and struggled again. This is somebody who had encounters with the criminal legal system. All of these things are part of the journey of what it means to be vulnerable in this country.

I didn't realize just how vulnerable George Floyd had been throughout his life. I also learned a lot about his relationship with his children and how important that was to him. In learning those things, for me, it made it even more important to not just tell his story, but to tell the story of Ahmaud Arbery, to tell the story of Kyle Rittenhouse, which one might not expect us to do in this book. All of those stories, I think, are key to understanding the fight for racial justice in this country.

I definitely want to move past Candace Owens, but when events like these happen, people like Owens, who deserve the right to voice their opinions, have a tendency to put the victims on trial. Why is it their place to say if a person is a hero or not? Why is that particular side so hungry to demonize anything Black to try to suffocate any movement? How do we get past that?

It's not just white people and it's not just conservatives. Think about when Mike Brown was killed and everybody was marching. I remember once the video footage came out of him stealing the cigarillo or the blunt from the store, a lot of middle-class Black folks said, "Oh, shit." Think about how few Black women we marched for. We haven't nationwide protested for any Black trans women. We haven't had any for any openly outwardly gay people. 

"For nine minutes America had to watch an execution. White people couldn't pretend to be innocent."

For the Black community, you got to be a certain kind of hero, a certain kind of figure, rather, to be memorialized or to be fought for. We position Rosa Parks instead of Claudette Colvin because she was a teen mom. These conversations have been going on for a very long time, but you are right. What the right does, and same with what we do — I'm not trying to make equivalency here, I'm just saying none of us have been willing to openly advocate for all people irrespective of how their Black lives show. 

What the right does is, and you're right about this, they demonize you in death to defend state violence. So, they'll say Trayvon had weed in his system. Everybody's got weed in their system! I don't smoke, but 90 percent of people I know do and I don't care. It doesn't mean they deserve to die. 

Do you think these cellphone videos are making a difference or is it solely based on what goes viral and what doesn't? 

It's an interesting question. Sometimes it's the timing. The pandemic put us in a place where we were all home. We were all attached to our phones even more than we already were. We all had the opportunity to galvanize around something. I don't know if the Breonna Taylor campaign picks up as much steam if all these other things weren't going on in the world, although it should have. We should have been talking about Breonna Taylor from Day 1. 

I think that some of it is the gruesomeness of it. Unfortunately, we live in a country where Black death is normal, so it can't just be ordinary Black. It can't just be, "Oh, this guy got killed." It has to fit a certain kind of narrative, right? That's why the brother in West Philly who had a knife that got killed in October of 2020, that story didn't make it because, like, "Oh, he had a knife." It's better if we have a story with somebody who doesn't have a knife, even though he shouldn't have been killed either.

Some of it is the sheer gruesomeness of it. When Emmett Till is killed and all this stuff in 1955, his head is three or four times the normal size and his mother has an open casket funeral, using media and technology. Think about it. The cameras were there to show it. Jet Magazine had covered it, exposed it, so the world could see what they did to her boy. That's a tactic that works because even the average person who doesn't give a damn about Black death, when you saw that boy's face, you said, "Shit, something's going on."

Similarly, with Derek Chauvin's murder of George Floyd it had the power of a still photo, similar to what happened to Emmett Till. Because you're just staring at it, but it was a video. It lasted over nine minutes. For nine minutes America had to watch an execution. They had to watch a lynching. And so, white people couldn't pretend to be innocent. They couldn't pretend not to know. They couldn't say, "Well, what did he do to the officer?" They couldn't say anything. They had to watch nine minutes of a murder. It's virality was tied, I think, to the gruesomeness of it and the inescapability of the moral outrage.

If you gave a damn about Black people, or human beings at all, you couldn't watch that video and be okay with it. You could make the case for Mike Brown if you think Black people are super magical, angry Negroes that walk through bullets, which is basically what Darren Wilson said in his grand jury testimony. You could come up with Freddie Gray and say, "Well, Freddie Gray, he was wild and doing this and doing and doing this." You could say, "The police didn't do anything to Sandra Bland. She killed herself and that was unavoidable." You could tell these kinds of stories, but you can't say shit about George Floyd. 

"I don't think we should make public policy from a place of personal outrage or pain or trauma or rage. "

For me, the virality of stories is tied to what touches our sensibilities. The tough part is the thing that touches our sensibilities the most often isn't the most morally outrageous, but the thing that corresponds to our own biases. So a missing white woman, no matter why she's missing or how she's missing, is going to be on every news channel. Why? Because she's a missing white woman in the country that worships white women.

And nobody's going to get on the news and be like, "Yeah, but you know she had weed in her system."

Exactly.

One thing I always appreciate about you and your commentary is you don't hold back. You listen to the other side and you always present points at the highest level. I always see you as our last real truth-teller. How difficult is that? What kind of feedback do you get?

The beauty is that there are other truth-tellers and so many powerful voices out there who are speaking the truth to power. I always feel good about the platforms that I'm occupying, the spaces that I'm occupying, because I'm sharing them with brothers like you who tell the truth. I'm sharing them with courageous voices, particularly Black women, who have emerged in the last few years as leaders of our movement. I'm grateful for that. I never take that for granted, that's first.

When I was in corporate media more, I definitely felt sometimes like it wasn't too many of us. I felt like I was saying the things that people didn't want to say, and sometimes the things that people don't want to hear, even our people. So, I'm anti-death penalty. When I stand up and say, "Well yeah, I don't support the death penalty, even for Dylann Roof." White people don't want to hear that and I get why. He killed a whole bunch of us, but I got to keep a moral consistency, not because I give a damn about Dylann Roof, but because I care about the thousands of Black people who are going to be killed under the pretext of justice.

Isn't that the problem with the conversation around abolition, too? It's like we talk about abolition, but then someone like Derek Chauvin gets sentenced to go to prison and for some it's celebration time.

What you just said is fundamentally the problem. We are challenged to get any kind of justice in democracy in this country. It just ain't there. As an abolitionist, I say, "Well, this system can't give us justice. Policing isn't the answer. Prisons ain't the answer." We're the ones catching hell for all of it. But then, like you said, George Floyd gets killed and people march in the streets [saying], "Lock them up." I get why: Indict, convict, send killer cops to jail. This whole damn system is crooked as hell. We're sharing this stuff in the street. I don't do that, but I understand why people do. I understand the impulse to do it.

Part of what we have to do as abolitionists, is not be condescending and be like, "Y'all calling for prison." Somebody killed that woman's baby and we don't have any mechanism of accountability and justice right now, except prison, in a lot of people's minds. If the police kill my child I have every right to say, "You know what? I want that cop in jail because that's all we got." But my job as an abolitionist is to fight for something different and build something different and to convince people that another option is possible.

So, I don't fight. You don't ever hear me on the street. When Freddie Gray was killed and people were saying they wanted the officer who killed him to have a higher bail. I'm like, "Hell, no. I don't want him to have a higher bail. Bail shouldn't be a form of punishment." Honestly, if you raise people's bail because you think the crime is ugly, that's our nephews and sons that are going to be the ones that can't afford bail.

That's the hardest part, dealing with the families of victims because these are the people who I care most about having this conversation with. I don't really want to have the conversation with somebody who lives online and has never been through nothing ever. I'm not saying their opinion doesn't matter, but it hits different when they put a bullet in your son.

It's hard as hell. If somebody did something to one of my kids right now, I probably would feel the same way. I don't feel like I am in my best position to make moral judgments when something has happened to me personally. I don't think we should make public policy from a place of personal outrage or pain or trauma or rage. That ain't the move.

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I'm in Baltimore, and I remember when I would have conversations about Black Lives Matter and people were like, "What are you talking about? I've never heard of that." Then I'm like, "Yo, you have a Twitter?" They're like, "No." Then more people started hearing about Black Lives Matter after George Floyd died, and they got familiar and they picked up the books,  books you've written four or five years ago, books I've written five years ago, and they educated themselves and they went to marches. Now we're getting to this place where Black Lives Matter blew up and became this multimillion-dollar conglomerate andhe stories about Black Lives Matter in the media are not about any of the advocacy work, not about changing systems. It's about who has a mansion and who did this and who did that. What do you think is the future for, not just that particular movement, but people who are feeling lost, as if that movement hasn't been what they thought it could actually be?

I think we have to separate organizations and movements. Because some of the controversy that surrounding the Black Lives Matter organization is somewhat different than the broader movement for Black lives, which is hundreds of organizations around the country that do work. We can even go more broader than that and just talk about a broader freedom movement in this country.

I tell the young people and the aspiring activists and the people and my peers. etc., "Don't focus on the organization." I don't know what's going on in BLM. I can't speak to that. I just don't know. They can speak for themselves and people can make their own judgments about it. I've interviewed Patrice [Cullors], who's a friend of my sister, my comrade, I've allowed her voice to speak. Alicia [Garza] can speak. Opal [now known as Ayọ Tometi] can speak, and some of the other people connected to the organization can speak. I let them do their speaking for themselves. 

I'm not affiliated with the organization, but I will say is that regardless of how you feel about that organization, we cannot allow the media to use a particular case to obscure a freedom movement that for the last decade almost has picked up the baton and has a sustained fight against police brutality, against police terrorism, against state violence. We've had an abolition movement that has moved from the margins to the center of public conversation. People are talking about defunding. They're talking about abolition. They're talking about all of these things that we've been wanting since critical resistance and before in the '90s. 

Black trans women are still incredibly vulnerable, incredibly marginalized in any race. At the same time, we're having more conversations about Black trans lives than we ever have before in our movements. So for me, I think it's easy to say, "Well, there's controversy here. There's this person there." But I think that ain't the point. To me, the bigger point is, against the backdrop of the movement's messiness and complications and contradictions, intentions, and battles, which every movement in every era has had, we're winning. We're fucking winning. Prisons are closing. We're developing more humane policies. It's not a clean victory. It ain't the Brooklyn Nets, but the net is a gain and that has mattered to us.

I think that it's also how we talk about those wins. How we promote the positive things, to push back against the negative things? Negative things don't need a PR team. They're going to do PR for themselves.

Fact.

I come in contact with a lot of young people who want to be inspired. The way that these stories are set up and how these movements look, which a lot of times is no fault of their own, because movements have their own haters, they don't feel inspired. They don't feel like they want to connect. 

We need to connect more than ever. We need to celebrate our victories. We need to point out our growth and we need to remind the world that we didn't just survive. We've thrived, man. That's what our work is about. That has to be part of the project, protesting and advocacy, but also saying, "Yo, we did it. Yo, we made it. We won."

What are some of the main points you want people to take away from "Seen and Unseen"?

That the struggle for justice is never neat and clean. There's always advancement. Two steps forward, one step back, but along the way, the powerful have been held accountable by the people. Media and technology has been a big part of how we've done it. The use of technology is moving faster and changing the game and making things better and faster, but this ain't new. We come from a long tradition of Black folk that have used everything at their disposal to tell the truth and to fight for freedom.

Watch and read more of Salon's coverage on racial justice: 


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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Authors Black Lives Matter Books George Floyd Marc Lamont Hill Police Prison Race Salon Talks