Trauma and Spectacle: Antiblack Violence and Media
The subjugation of Black people will never end until white people confront their desire to see Black bodies suffer.
Like many political writers and activists, I rely heavily on social media platforms for my work. While social media is a critical tool for most jobs these days, it is virtually mandatory for activism. Social media is not only the primary way most people access the internet, but where we get much of our current information on the state of society, and the medium through which we build and maintain our activist communities.
Unless I am asleep, I am always connected to the internet. Either I have my phone in my hand, or I am in front of my laptop. That’s true of most people in both my local and online activist communities. So when the latest news about a Black person being killed at the hands of a police officer or vigilante hits the news, the story is all over my Facebook and Twitter timelines. I will often see hundreds of articles, videos, and posts from dozens of media outlets about the same story throughout the course of a couple of days. There are articles that focus on the forensic details of the killings, or the progress of legal investigations, or featured interviews with surviving family members, or blog posts that analyze the cases and their impact on society, or statements from activists who are demanding justice for the murdered Black person and organizing in solidarity with the deceased and their community. I often receive dozens of Facebook event invites for solidarity marches and rallies around the country for the latest killing —“Justice for Eric Garner,” “Justice for Tamir Rice,” “Ferguson Solidarity,” “Charleston Solidarity,” etc.
Facebook and Twitter are usually how I hear about a Black person’s murder. I found out about Trayvon Martin’s murder on Facebook nearly two weeks after it happened, when it grew into an enormous news story in the wake of a Change[dot]org petition demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman. With Michael Brown, I found out on Twitter instantly as the response to his killing was happening, when public reaction grew from a vigil of the apartment complex residents into massive nightly protests all over Ferguson. With Eric Garner and Walter Scott, I found out when the graphic footage of their murders was unearthed and made public, after police attempted to lie and misrepresent these deaths as simple “officer involved” killings. Black people who shared the raw cell phone footage of Garner’s and Scott’s deaths did so as a way to prove to white America and ourselves that yes — police kill Black people everyday in cold blood. However, mass media treated the footage of these men taking their last breaths as just another controversial spectacle.
Usually there are multiple antiblack killings in the news at any given time, so my social media timelines are often a roll call of Black death and mourning. And Black death and mourning is big business in US media. Graphic footage of shootings, assaults, and dead and injured Black bodies drive massive amounts of traffic to news and information websites, social media platforms, and cable television news shows. The standard twenty-four hour cycle of mass media means that millions of people stay up all hours of the day watching, sharing, linking, retweeting, reblogging, and emailing seemingly endless hours of footage of Black people either being physically violated or losing their lives. These stories about Black people’s deaths generate massive amounts of capital for the white-dominated multinational corporations who own these media outlets, giving producers, editors, and general managers a major incentive to sell antiblack violence as a product.
It seems like Black people are worth more to the system as dead bodies than we are alive.
Even when Black people survive the filmed assaults on their bodies, the media still manages to be creepy and intrusive in how they report on the violence. This is especially true if the victims are Black women, who are allowed even less autonomy over their bodies than Black cisgender men. In fact, Black women, Black girls, and Black LGBTQ people are routinely erased as victims of antiblack violence, not only by police and media but by racial justice activists within the Black community. The widespread erasure of Black women as victims of state violence motivated Black feminists to create the online #SayHerName discussion hashtag as a response. In addition, Black trans women who are victims of extralegal violence are not only victim-blamed by police and media when they are harmed, but also endure the pathologization and delegitimization of their identities as women. Even though media guidelines for reporting on transgender subjects are widely available, media outlets routinely misgender and deadname trans women who are assaulted or murdered. These media outlets then justify their errors by citing deliberately inaccurate police reports and statements.
When the story of racist harassment at a community pool in McKinney, Texas hit the news last month, I couldn’t go five seconds without seeing video or screenshots of a white male McKinney police officer assaulting a bikini-clad teen Black girl. No matter how much I tried to hide or mute the constantly looped footage from my social media timelines, I could not avoid seeing these images without stepping away from social media altogether. Even critical articles and analysis on McKinney that I wanted to share with friends and followers used screenshots from the teen girl’s sexualized assault to illustrate their content. Mass media use of these images was no doubt a decision on the part of newsroom editors to boost SEO rankings and page clicks. The violation of a Black girl by an adult white man became simply another marketing tool for mass media. Yet, this is justified by saying that seeing graphic footage of antiblack assaults is necessary so that the public is educated about the violence Black people face.
Mother Jones, an institution of so-called progressive journalism, compiled footage of no less than thirteen police killings that were caught on surveillance video. MoJo heavily promoted this video feature all over social media this past May. The thumbnail that illustrated the video feature was so graphic—a policeman’s hand pointing a semiautomatic pistol at a prostrate Black man’s head—-that it literally resembled the poster for a snuff film. In fact, that’s exactly what several commenters on Facebook called it, not that MoJo’s FB moderators were heeding the criticisms. I don’t think I have ever been so angry at progressive media hypocrisy in my life: this hallowed magazine beloved of the white left engaging in the same exploitative bloodsport worthy of CNN or the Daily Mail. No matter how much I tried to avoid MoJo’s website and FB page, I could not avoid the video itself because so many Facebook and Twitter users were sharing MoJo’s post complete with the violent thumbnail.
What’s in this for white people?
I ask myself this question often. Obviously, white-dominated mass media wants to boost SEOs rankings and profits. And white-dominated political sites like Mother Jones want to be known as good citizen journalists, which is why they cover stories about antiblack violence and other forms of systemic oppression. Also, white people who aspire to be antiracist allies share information about antiblack violence in order to educate themselves and fellow white people.
But as for white people as a whole, what is the real reason for consuming Black death?
In a sense, Black violation and death has always been a fetish object for white people. The widely circulated photographs of lynchings in the early twentieth century are a well-known example of how death and desecration of Black bodies were turned into racist spectacle for white viewers, both as spectators on the scene and as consumers after the fact of lynching photographs. Photos of lynchings were so common that white people sent the images as postcards through the mail, a notable fact considering how notorious the US Postal Service was for censoring controversial materials. Socialist, labor, and reproductive rights literature was regularly seized by mail officials, yet the postmasters seemed nonchalant about distributing graphic images of Black people being stripped, asphyxiated, mutilated, and burned through the mail.
Finding out about so many antiblack extralegal killings in real time over the last five or so years has had a detrimental impact on my emotional state. Instead of obvious outward signs of stress or rage, I experience an internal punch that escapes my own perception at first. Then the dread and fear sets in and I feel like I’m carrying a massive emotional weight, and no matter what I do I cannot put this weight down. To an outsider, this internal distress wouldn’t be obvious. But every time I find out about another Black person falling victim to antiblack violence, the despair grows deeper. Many Black people I’ve talked to have had similar experiences to media coverage about antiblack violence.
If white people were simply outraged about Black people’s murders, then they would do everything in their power to stop other white people from killing us. Since that has not happened, righteous outrage cannot be the sole reason. In fact, I’d argue that outrage is beside the point when it comes to white people’s gaze over Black death and Black violation. After all, education has served as the pretext for white people’s fascination with antiblack violence ever since the days of slave narratives. Whether white people are sharing antiblack violence to profit or to educate, they are still consuming the suffering of Black people. And it is this consumption of Black suffering—whether for sadistic pleasure or for supposed enlightenment—that fuels the contempt for Black life at the very heart of white supremacy.
For me, the lesson of history is clear: the subjugation of Black people will never end until white people confront their desire to see Black bodies suffer. Not a moment before.