The state-sanctioned desecration of black bodies by police officers is a reality that plays on a haunting loop throughout the United States.
We learn their names. We tweet their hashtags. We watch them publicly executed in grainy surveillance or cellphone recordings. Then we wait for another judge, cop or politician to tell us that we didn’t just witness a lynching by service weapon—or, in the case of Eric Garner, banned choke hold—right before our eyes.
This was the case with 12-year-old Tamir Rice, gunned down on the playground by Officer Timothy Loehmann, an unfit and unstable thug with a badge. It was the case with 22-year-old John Crawford III. And most recently, it was the case with 50-year-old Walter Scott, who was fleeing after a traffic stop when Police Officer Michael Slager fired eight rounds at his back. Slager lied and said he feared for his life, but bystander Feidin Santana’s video shows him fatally shooting Scott with chilling casualty.
Kill. Rinse blood. Repeat.
Every day in this country, African-American communities are occupied by police officers infected with racial bias so entrenched that we know the next bullet could have our son’s or daughter’s name on it simply because they exist while black.
For that reason, many of us can’t look away when video of another extrajudicial killing is uploaded to the Internet or repeatedly shown on television for public consumption, feeling that it’s our duty to bear witness to the indignities inflicted upon black flesh.
It is what Tanya Brown tacitly asked of us when she said of her son Brandon Tate-Brown, who was fatally shot in the head by a Philadelphia police officer last year during a traffic stop, “I told the funeral director not to put him in any makeup because I needed to see his face. I needed to see what they did to him.”
And 60 years ago, it is what Mamie Till asked of us when she displayed her son Emmett’s disfigured body in an open casket: “I think everybody needed to know what happened to Emmett Till … I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.”
Some critics believe that consumption of these videos and images not only disrespects the dead but also exposes a glaring difference between how black lives are devalued in comparison with their white counterparts. This is a valid critique and one I’ve wrestled with myself as the bodies of black people continue to pile up like characters on a morbid reality-TV series.
Click. There’s Trayvon Martin’s body in the wet grass, his vacant eyes staring into America’s soul. Click. There’s Michael Brown’s body facedown in the middle of the street in a rivulet of his own blood. Click. There’s Tamir’s little body dropping out of sight behind the police car. Click. There’s John Crawford skidding across Wal-Mart’s floor before a second shot by Officer Sean Williams causes his body to go limp. Click. There’s Antonio Martin dropping to the ground at a gas station in Berkeley, Mo. Click. There’s Eric Garner wheezing, “I can’t breathe” while his killers surround him as if he is the one who poses the threat.
Where is the line between spreading awareness and necrophilic voyeurism, particularly when mainstream media outlets, who are often complicit in shaping narratives of black criminality, exploit black death for page views and Nielsen ratings? How do we, as black people in America, reckon with our need to visually amplify evidence of consistent and brutal injustice, while also understanding that “If it bleeds, it leads” media tactics often consist of packaging black dehumanization for white audiences who won’t give a damn past the 6 o’clock news unless it’s to say they deserved it?
Even as we acknowledge these questions, it is difficult to turn away from the full brunt of brutality on display in those videos. It’s almost impossible not to let it seep under our skin and into our bones, to shoulder some of it and, in some ways, subconsciously attempt to build emotional armor against it in preparation for the next time that inevitably always comes.
So, does our need to see the violence make us complicit in minimizing the sacredness of black life?
“No, I believe we should be able to see the videos, as hard as they are to watch,” said best-selling author Denene Millner, founder of MyBrownBaby.com. “We need to bear witness to the savagery of the animals who murder American citizens in our streets so that we have an accurate accounting of our humanity and their brutality, hatred and lies.
“I’m reminded of this when I think about witnessing the lynching photo exhibit, ‘Without Sanctuary,’” Millner continued, “which showed the grotesque American tradition of picnicking around and photographing the public burning, mutilation and lynching of black Americans in the early 20th century. While it was heartbreaking to see the broken bodies of my people, it was the savagery of the cold-blooded killers that I needed to see, to remind me of mainstream America’s penchant for black blood and disregard for human life. It wasn’t about the inhumanity of our people; it was about the inhumanity of those white folk who killed with impunity.”
There will never be any easy answers here because behind every hashtag memorial and media report, there lived a human being. And the desire to protect the sanctity of their bodies in death when they were denied that dignity in life is instinctive.
Still, Scott’s last seconds are a microcosm of black America’s existence within both the historical and contemporary confines of white supremacy: murdered by racism, handcuffed in the name of justice and framed as a threat even in death.
And the flagrant and systemic disregard for black life is something that we can never look away from—even when, especially when, it’s uncomfortable.