Overnight, we learned the name Alton Sterling. Thanks to a graphic video, we’ve now seen his death at the hands of Baton Rouge police officers in a convenience store parking lot. Taken with a bystander’s cellphone, the video shows Sterling being Tasered, thrown on a car and then on the ground, with police officers on top of him. It cuts away as multiple shots are heard, leaving Sterling’s lifeless body on the ground.
Sterling is one of 122 black Americans shot and killed by police so far in 2016, according to a Washington Post database of fatal police shootings. He joins Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and many others who became hashtags and trending topics on social media soon after their deaths. And like many before him, Sterling’s death can now be watched in graphic detail, shared constantly.
In some ways, the video is helpful. It’s the only record the public has seen of Sterling’s death — reportedly, the body cameras worn by the officers involved became dislodged as Sterling was restrained, and it has also been reported that police confiscated the security camera footage recorded by the convenience store.
But the video is also fodder for a sick sort of voyeurism. These recordings, which are tantamount to snuff films, are shared thousands of times, to the point that they’re hard to avoid — on Twitter, on the morning news, on a TV screen at the gym. For me, these videos are debilitating, senseless violence played over and over again.
My heart aches as I watch family members grieve for their lost loved ones at news conferences. To watch how they died, again and again, to hear their last words as they ask what they did wrong or plead for their life, leaves me feeling powerless. I picture my own family members and dread how one sudden movement, one wrong word, could end their lives. To watch videos of people who look like me being killed only increases my fear that someone I know may be next.
The media is complicit in this morbid voyeurism, when it chooses to be. Horrifying video was shown on morning television of Sterling being killed as a result of state-sanctioned violence. However, when reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward of WDBJ-TV were gunned down on live television, the consensus by the news media was that the video was too graphic to be shown. What distinction was made? Why is the video of white people being killed considered too graphic for replay, but videos of black women, men and children are replayed on a seemingly endless loop to the point of numbness? In the same way that we do not show the lethal executions of prisoners, one wonders how the media justifies depicting the death of non-imprisoned citizens at the hands of the same system.
I would argue that there is no “responsible” way for these videos to be used by media outlets. Sharing them serves no purposes except feeding prurient interests, even if one must voluntarily click on a link for the video to be shown. Choosing to broadcast these videos on television when there may be children in the room seems reckless at best. While I understand that our culture has become increasingly violent in entertainment, I submit that even young children can discern a distinct difference between a fictional character and knowing that someone who looks like your father, your brother, your aunt, has been gunned down.
As activist and actor Jesse Williams eloquently put it, “even with videotaped evidence of police destroying black people, many freedom-loving Americans remain unconvinced of a systemic problem.”
Sharing a video on social media or the media will not change anyone’s mind. Either it will confirm what one already believed was true, or a person will look for ways to contradict what they have just seen. Rather, the dehumanization of black bodies becomes some sort of perverse entertainment as images of our pain are broadcast for the world to see.
The beating of Rodney King by multiple police officers was captured on video 25 years ago. The attorneys for the police officers during the trial played the video repeatedly in a deliberate effort to desensitize the jurors. (Relatedly, the American Bar Association warns that overuse of videotaped deposition testimony can lead to jurors tuning out.) Since the trial when King’s assailants were not convicted, we have seen countless more videos, police officers wearing body cams, dashboard cameras installed in police vehicles and footage recorded by bystanders. While calling attention to the problems of state-sanctioned violence, it does not appear that repeated sharing of these videos has brought us any closer to justice. In the cases of Crawford, Garner and Rice, the grand juries declined to indict the officers involved, despite widespread replay of the videos of their deaths.
These killings are news, and people should know about them. Social media has been instrumental in calling attention to the deaths of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement, and hopefully awareness will spur the public on to fight for justice. But graphic video should not be required to galvanize people to act, especially at the expense of the well-being and psyche of so many. Think of Sterling’s family. His oldest son is 15 years old. He should not be subjected to video of his father’s death every time he logs into social media.
Footage of police killings is helpful — as evidence in a courtroom. But once it’s clear that the video is in the hands of the law enforcement agency that will investigate the killing, continuing to share the video doesn’t accomplish anything positive.