The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The endless video loop of Black death is doing more harm than good

People hold signs during a news conference on Tuesday in Memphis discussing the death of Tyre Nichols. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
5 min

In his 2014 essay “Nothing Left,” the political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. described what he saw as the political impotence of the left. It “lacks focus and stability,” he wrote, “its métier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity.”

The endless stream of videos of Black people, usually men, being brutalized by police has me meditating on Reed’s work.

On Jan. 3, body-camera footage caught Los Angeles police repeatedly Tasering a Black English teacher, Keenan Anderson, after he had requested help in the aftermath of a traffic accident. He was later pronounced dead at a Santa Monica hospital.

On Jan. 27, Memphis police released video of the horrific death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Black officers. Many of my Black friends and media colleagues said publicly that they would not watch the video and that Black people especially should resist the pressure to watch yet another video of someone who looks like us dying on camera.

I think they’re right. And not just for reasons of self-care.

Follow Karen Attiah's opinionsFollow

Early in my career, I was taught that valiant and noble journalists must bear witness, so we can speak truth to power and hold the powerful accountable. The inherent promise was that if we could shed light on crimes, and if the public could see, the system would change.

Video taken by police body cameras and quick-thinking bystanders now offers the public even more opportunities to bear witness to police brutality. But increasingly, I find it less ethically correct to traffic in images of Black death for the sake of imagined awareness — specifically, White awareness.

Nearly a decade after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — when video confirmed that Brown lay dead in the street for four hours — and after massive racial justice protests following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, not only is our policing culture as corrupt and broken as ever: it has been reinforced by both conservatives and liberals.

On the right, #BlueLivesMatter and the “Back the Blue” movement rose in direct opposition to Black Lives Matter, arguing that attacks against police were hate crimes. On the left, the Biden administration has increased police funding, even as White liberals have winked to the Black community, posted “Black Lives Matter” signs on their lawns and knelt in kente-cloth stoles to show “solidarity.” Supposedly, some of this federal money is meant to “advance effective, accountable community policing in order to enhance trust and public safety.”

Cue another Black death.

“The left operates with no learning curve,” Reed writes. “It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam.” Indeed, we are forced to endure videos of Black death, again and again, not only because the GOP thwarts every effort at meaningful change but because White liberals have run out of political ideas or the power to fundamentally transform policing.

And so Black suffering has become an industrial complex of its own, snuff films as ritual entertainment.

Consider the lead-up to the release of the video of Nichols’s senseless death. The media treated it like the latest blockbuster film — made it fodder for speculation and discussion, clickthroughs and retweets, and, yes, material for columnists like me. We were warned: This video was really, really bad. So bad that the city of Memphis was bracing itself for — another favorite genre — Black protest! And other cities should do the same. President Biden appealed to the people (not to the violent police) for calm and restraint.

The video was released. #TyreNichols became a hashtag, driving up social media engagement, page views and ad revenue. Democrats offered cliche statements about police reform and immediately invited the victim’s grieving family to Washington for photo ops and more empty speeches. Media outlets, including The Post, are covering Nichols’s funeral live, and Vice President Harris is set to attend. Biden has invited Nichols’s parents to the State of the Union.

Now, I’m not saying publicly released videos don’t have value. They can, on occasion, result in legal consequences for individual officers and their departments. We can concede that the past several years of hashtags and videos have elevated Black and other scholars who have long argued for defunding and abolition, and have presented visions of alternative forms of policing.

But why must all this “good” come only after videos of Black people being killed by police have circulated on autoplay?

Little has changed systemically in the decade of #BLM. So how do we, in the media, continue justifying this normalization of Black death? How are the graphic deaths of Black people acceptable to consume? Especially when White death — yes, the police kill White people, too — gets nothing like this treatment?

I don’t have all the answers. But I can’t help feeling that these hellish loops only compound public desensitization to Black death — and are doing more harm than good.