Is sharing viral videos of death raising awareness, or are you running the risk of becoming a voyeur?
When a week is summarised by a body count and leaves you feeling complete despair for humanity, it’s probably best to think about the lessons we can learn. The high profile deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five other police officers’ helped to illustrate the very real tension between law enforcement and black citizens across the pond last week, and since then there has been public outcry and protests in the US and the UK.
Our penchant for being glued to a screen has been vital in highlighting the plight of black Americans on a mass scale. Last week, Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to stream the aftermath of her boyfriend being shot by police. With her four-year-old daughter in the back and a gun still pointed at her through the window, the live broadcast was an unedited, undeniable snapshot of a policeman’s abuse of power. Reynold's has been upfront about wanting the video to go viral so people could see first hand the brutality of American law enforcement. And of course, just the day before, millions watched the moment Alton Sterling took his last breath as he was pinned to the floor and shot in the chest.
But, with the lack of political action and continued delay in improving American policing, these videos are in danger of becoming nothing more than voyeurism. It’s extremely uncomfortable to think that millions of people can watch someone die who looks like they could be your father, your brother, or yourself, and then simply return to watching the latest episode of Love Island. During the subsequent press conference, Alton Sterling’s wife cried as she explained how her 15-year-old son, who broke down behind her, had to watch the video of his father dying “as it was put all over the outlets to be shown”. Sterling’s friends, the peers of his children, and his neighbours will all have to see the video get published over and over. It was shared across the world, reducing his entire life to a short YouTube clip.
“With the lack of political action and continued delay in improving American policing, these videos are in danger of becoming nothing more than voyeurism”
Violence towards minorities, especially African Americans, has taken place for centuries in the US. It’s only the widespread availability of camera phones that’s new. Imagery has been a powerful tool in illustrating violence for those for and against violence. In the age when lynching was rife, postcards were printed with the image of black people hanging from trees as a crowd gazed at it for their own entertainment or morbid curiosity. Proving to be a popular souvenir, the publication of these pictures also worked as a way of keeping the black population scared and intimidated. Then there was the image of 14-year-old Emmett Till, that shocked America in the 50s. After being kidnapped in the night from his great-uncle’s house for apparently whistling at a white woman in a grocery store, he was savagely beaten, shot and thrown in a river with a fan around his neck. At his mother’s request, Jet, a magazine for African American readers, printed pictures of his mutilated body which provided a catalyst in the fight for civil rights.
In recent memory we’ve seen videos of Rodney King getting savagely beaten, Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD, Walter Scott being shot in the back – the list goes on. Each one of these cases went ‘viral’ as they momentarily disturb a willfully ignorant America. But graphic videos don’t instantly lead to justice unless they really inspire change. It makes me feel extremely uncomfortable to see that there has been very little justice served for any of these cases and hardly any changes made to how policemen are trained or reprimanded, yet there is now a growing online catalogue of the final moments of black lives. It doesn’t feel entirely justified for media outlets or individuals to share them without also making an attempt to get involved in campaigning against police brutality and inspire political action. Sharing the video and then carrying on as normal doesn’t solve the problem, especially when you cannot guarantee everyone who sees it will be sympathetic and respectful.
“Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and Emmett Till were not born to be exhibited, sensationalised, peered at, scrutinised or brutalised”
Obviously, recording the police is vital when proving misconduct and in theory, videos should make it easier to hold the police to account. As Vox explains, footage from dash cams and body cameras have shown “how wide the gulf is between what we think is acceptable and what cops are allowed to do.” However, a quick scroll through The Guardian’s police killings database shows you that although we are all aware of high profile cases, little is being done to tackle the problem. Especially when you can see that in the first half of 2016, American police killed 532 people — many of whom were unarmed, mentally ill, and people of colour. Yet, since 2005, there have only been 13 officers convicted of murder or manslaughter in fatal on-duty shootings. This is why it is crucial that anyone affected by the video doesn’t just tweet about it and move on, because lifeless black bodies cannot become a common sight. These images and videos are extremely distressing and traumatising. We are sharing something that is upsetting to viewers and the family of the people involved. Even worse than the constant bombardment of information about violence towards minorities is the feeling of hopelessness of knowing how to stop it from happening to someone you love and feeling like nobody will be held accountable.
We have now seen too many of these pictures and videos. The world has tweeted one too many names that will now be immortalised as hashtags. Now the problem has been identified, it’s also important to remember that the deaths of black people are not a source of entertainment to shock the masses for a fleeting moment. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and Emmett Till were not born to be exhibited, sensationalised, peered at, scrutinised or brutalised. If it was your death captured on camera you would want it to be more than just a spectacle. These videos need to go hand-in-hand with your own social action: writing to politicians, going on marches, showing you care outside of the Twittersphere, otherwise please stop circulating.