While we wait for the Derek Chauvin verdict, I can’t stop thinking about the role of visuals, of photos, live-courtroom feeds and police or bystander video footage of killings by the police. With “more than three people per day” killed by police during Chauvin’s trial alone, the images are plentiful. And that multiplicity is a bitter, strange fruit with harmful consequences.
Although the videos most likely will not achieve justice for George Floyd or the others, I acknowledge Black Lives Matter and social justice activists circulate these images as strategic interventions in policing and public consciousness-raising about the racial inequities surrounding these crimes.
Others, however, are circulating those same images with the racist intent of creating terror for or at the very least to minimize empathy with Black communities disproportionately affected by police violence, according to scientific journalist Lynne Peeples. Indeed, the activist group InjusticeWatch.org is creating a database of racist memes posted by police based on these images.
Both forms of circulation work together to reinforce an everyday culture of racial terrorism for Latino, Black and indigenous citizens, a culture that goes back to slavery, to Black and Brown lynchings, to indigenous genocide. And it is for that reason I and many of my BIPOC friends and colleagues cannot watch those images.
Yet, I know videos like that of George Floyd’s death once-again presented at the trial of the police officer who shot him – just like that Daunte Wright’s shot by police in Brooklyn, Minnesota and that of 13-year old Adam Toledo shot by police in Chicago, both during Chauvin’s trial – will continue to make the rounds on television, online and social media.
I will not watch or share them for personal, ethical and political reasons. I urge you to join me in that practice of resistance to racial terror and not share these videos.
“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”
As a researcher of media images and race, ethnicity and gender, I understand the potential legal and political role most believe such powerful images can have on our emotional and cognitive response to these acts of violence. And I recognize the common-sense belief that our eyes can be trusted. Indeed, what we see is shaped by our culture, upbringing, and the media. So, the role images play isn’t the role most of us think they do.
Communication effects research Travis Dixon on depictions of crimes finds that journalistic reporting tends to frame criminals as Black and police officers as white. News frames are the language and images used by journalists to frame how the story is told, and those frames “serve to shape the thoughts and attitudes” of audiences.
Dixon’s research on news distributed through digital platforms, which allow audiences to self-select what news they receive, found that internet news is even more “potent in shaping racial conceptions.” And in the same study, he found the amount of social media consumption by audiences held the highest association to holding stereotypical views of Black violence and crime. These findings are particularly troublesome given research by internet scholar Safiya Noble whose work reminds us that the algorithms used by online platforms are scientifically racist thus perpetuating racism and sexism.
Another line of research is needed to tell us whether or not these images are likely to change convictions of police officers.
What we do know about how these images might shape judicial outcomes is also not positive if social justice is the goal. Both a 2021 news report and 2011 government funded research by the Department of Justice point to the conclusion that videos are unlikely to result in arrest and conviction. The National Institute of Justice study examined arrest records for police officers arrested for committing crimes, including acts of violence, from 2005-2010. The study indicated that convictions overall are not the probable outcome. The year 2011 might seem like a long time ago, but Twitter, Facebook, smart phones and surveillance and body-cameras were already prevalent in society. In fact, Twitter and Facebook were reaching peak usage in 2007.
“Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze”
Because today images are viewed, re-viewed, and edited in a never-ending and networked loop weaving together traditional, internet and social media news, an infinite cycle of always available police-shooting videos of Black and Brown people is created. This digital archive of “black death” culturally works in similar ways to the popular drawings and photos of lynchings before them.
In 1939 Billie Holiday brought to life the emotional angst, pain, and horror embedded in the racial project of lynching. The poem’s author Abel Meerpol was himself a Jewish child-refugee who witnessed the genocidal efforts of the Russian pogroms. It reflected his affective response to the photographic depiction of the public executions of two young black men, Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in 1930.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative there were more than 4,800 documented lynching deaths of Black people in the southern and midwestern United States from 1877-1950. contributing to what they term a culture of racial terror. In their report, the Equal Justice Initiative labeled the practice as a form of terrorism “used to enforce racial subordinations and segregation.” Indigenous people, Mexicans and Mexican American citizens in the west, south and southwest experienced a similar fate. In Texas alone, hundreds of Mexican Americans were lynched, beheaded, burned alive.
Lynchings were public, publicly condoned, and documented. In order to produce racial terror, they could not occur in secrecy. As depicted in the photo that inspired Meerpol’s poem, lynchings were shared moments of white bloodlust, of pleasure, of reinforcing familial bonds, of producing white racial identity and privilege. The photos were sold to newspapers and to spectators who desired to memorialize their participation in the killing of Black and Brown people. They didn’t come close to circulating as widely as videos and photos do today, but they contributed to producing fear from those that were the subject of violence.
“Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze”
In making a comparison between lynching photos and videos of killings by police, I am not suggesting the two acts are equivalent. They occurred in different historical moments under seemingly different rules of laws.
However, they both occur under the same racial rules that continue to disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities in negative ways – health, housing, economic, legal, political. Thomas Dichter in his Oxford Bibliography defines lynching as “an act of punishment (usually lethal) enacted without the official sanction of the law (though often with the complicity of the state) and carried out by a group of people (who usually claim to act in the name of justice, “the people,” or tradition).” Under this definition, police-killings are an act of punishment, carried out by people empowered by state and federal laws, and carried out by officially sanctioned agents acting on behalf of justice and the people they serve. One type of lynching is done without the official sanction of the law while the other type of lynching is conducted “lawfully” by state-sanctioned agents.
Instead of photos of beaten dead black bodies swinging from trees, we have body-cameras and cell phones recording the violent deaths of black and brown people at the state-sanctioned hands of the police. The January 6th insurrection on the U.S. Capital has confronted us with the fact that white supremacist are embedded in our police and military forces.
While there may not be white crowds gathered at the moment of killing, anyone can watch that moment, the moment when the last breath of life leaves a black person, on demand, again and again. Anyone can watch from the privacy of their own home or digital device for any reason at any time.
“Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”
Our watching does have a consequence. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall argued the standard forms of representing race and ethnicity that have historically circulated in US news, film, television and social media platforms produce a cultural environment where it is socially acceptable, culturally safe and funny to fear, then hate and punish ethnic and racial minorities.
Beginning in 2015, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President, the political discourses of his campaign have focused on the vilification of racial and ethnic others. Not surprisingly, a study by Nour Kteilly and Emile Bruneau on the effects of Trump’s rhetoric and policies on human empathy found that US citizens who identify as politically conservative and racially white are more likely to “blatantly dehumanize” others different from them.
By blatant dehumanization, the researchers found that conservative white participants were more likely to describe Black people, Muslims and Mexicans in non-human terms as barbaric, savage, and less evolved than themselves. Of greater concern, the study found that once people dehumanize others, it makes it more likely for them to support actions and policies against those they see as less human in ways that cohere with that conservative, racially supremacist world view.
The free and unregulated circulation of videos documenting the police killings of black, brown and indigenous people under the label of factual, journalistic, and “graphic content” contribute to the dehumanization of our communities. It does not matter who does the circulating, through which media platforms, and with what intent – regardless of the reason for why those videos are circulated, it contributes to the dehumanization of black, brown, indigenous, and gender non-conforming people.
Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” as her signature closing song to much public controversy. Her voice is haunting and mournful, evocative of the weariness, ever-present grief and understated anger regarding the routinized, commonplace, state sanctioned-acts of violence and public displays of black death. Some deemed her performance of the song threatening, but she viewed the song as her form of protest. Ironically, lynching would not be federally outlawed in the United States until the 2020 passage of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
It’s less clear today why people circulate photos and videos of the act of killing black and brown people. Some argue it is in the interest of documenting racial atrocities. Others argue the videos are needed to ensure accountability, though that accountability is rarely achieved.
However, it is the thought that others might circulate those visuals out of racially supremist pleasure that motivates me to ask for your help.
If you are not a journalist, don’t click on the video. Don’t share it on your feeds. Don’t participate in the culture of racial terror.
If you are a journalist, place the video behind a pay-wall. Do more than put a caution of “graphic content” on it. Provide a critical narration or context that runs in a voice-over or in a ribbon. Finally, ask whose public interest is served by the circulation of the video? Is it plausible the free-circulation of that video will reinforce the very systemic racism being covered?
If you are a government official, help to put in place controls so the decision to make the video public rests with the family of those who have been killed and not with the media who profit from the spectacle of black and brown death.
Sharing a video of another police killing is not equivalent to Emmet Till’s mother insisting her son be viewed in an open casket by mourners and the media. Mamie Till-Mobley chose to have the world see what white supremacy had done to her child as a political act against Jim Crow laws at time when those images could not circulate so easily.
Given the almost weekly murders of Black and Brown people at the hands of police and the accompanying videos, those images and videos have lost their greater purpose.
Isabel Molina-Guzmán is a professor in Latina/Latino Studies, Media & Cinema Studies and a faculty affiliate of Gender & Women’s Studies and Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.