On Thursday the New York Daily News published on its cover a graphic image of the slain body of Alton Sterling, who was killed by a Baton Rouge, La., police officer Tuesday night.
The image was a screenshot from one of two widely circulating cellphone videos of Sterling’s demise, the result of multiple shots fired into his body.
The photo of Sterling’s body was haunting, disturbing and, for many, triggering. Across social media, many people expressed outrage, saying that the image reminded them of a lynching postcard and that it was insensitive to Sterling’s family and friends to show his body so soon. Others pointed out that white bodies are never displayed in the media this way and that the Daily News had gone too far.
These arguments aren’t inaccurate. The repeated murders of black people do seem like modern-day lynchings. And yes, if I were Sterling’s mom or loved one, I wouldn’t want to see the body of my loved one plastered on a newspaper for people to gawk at. And no, white bodies are not often shown this way. Five white police officers were killed Thursday night in Dallas, allegedly by a lone shooter. I’m pretty sure their bodies won’t be on the cover of any newspaper.
Still, while acknowledging the legitimacy of those arguments, I support—applaud, even—the Daily News for making Sterling’s tragic death front and center on Thursday’s cover. Yes, it was a decision made to sell papers, as is the purpose of any publication. But it also served to put the tragic encounters between black people and police officers right in the face of their readers, which is much needed.
Images hold power. “The world seldom believes the horror stories of history until they are documented via the mass media,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said, responding to the role of photographers in the civil rights movement. The power of imagery is why legendary photographer Gordon Parks thought that a camera served as a “weapon” against racism.
The power of an image is what compelled Mamie Till, mother of 14-year-old Emmett, to have an open casket at her son’s funeral, showcasing his battered, bloated body so the world could “see what they did to my baby.” The photos of Emmett’s body ran in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, and the outrage over his gruesome death in 1955 helped to inspire the civil rights movement.
The Daily News’ intent (once again, in addition to selling papers) seemed to be an effort to fall on the right side of history and inspire moral outrage. It forced readers and passersby to really see what’s going on. See, in New York, the Daily News is everywhere. When you walk in the bodega to buy your morning coffee, it’s right there in your face. As you walk to the train or to your office, you’ll pass the cover hanging from newsstands. The paper is unavoidable. And that cover story is unavoidable. Sterling’s death is unavoidable.
Readers of sites like The Root may not need a newspaper cover to inform them about police killings of black people, and it’s likely that all their friends, family and favorite celebrities are discussing it. But that’s not the case for everyone. How many people showed up to work Wednesday or Thursday, and no one mentioned Sterling or Philando Castile? How many of your nonblack Facebook friends are practicing privileged indifference, carrying on like business as usual without a peep about the string of black deaths this week?
I’m writing this article from a coffee shop in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, aka white hipster central. (Don’t judge me. The Wi-Fi is strong.) It’s one of those places where every person here has a MacBook and an iPhone, which means that everyone is plugged in to “the Matrix.” Affixed to the wall of the coffee shop are three copies of the early edition of Friday’s New York Times, which followed in the Daily News’ footsteps, posting multiple images of Castile’s body on its cover. The images are from the video feed taken by Diamond Reynolds, the woman who documented live on Facebook the aftermath of the shooting of her unarmed boyfriend as he reached for his wallet.
At the coffee shop, a white guy walks in with his friend. There’s a line, so as he waits, he scrolls though his phone, engages in a bit of babble with his boy and then, during a comfortable silence, happens to glance at the wall. His face screws up. He walks over to the copies of the New York Times. He looks at the cover images, briefly scans the article and returns to his friend and says, “Hey, this black guy got shot in Minnesota yesterday. He didn’t have a gun.” He says it like it’s the most amazing and uncommon thing ever. Like black men dying from police bullet holes is an anomaly instead of a back-to-back occurrence this week. He wouldn’t have known about it if the image wasn’t on the cover.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She is also a blogger at SeeSomeWorld.com, where she covers pop culture and travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.