George Floyd screamed for his mother in his last moments. Adam Toledo didn’t have time for it.
Two police deaths. One extended. The other suddenly. Both tragic. These are the haunting bookends that have given us modern footage of police brutality over the past week.
The historic trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-cop who murdered George Floyd, ended in one rare belief. To clarify their respective cases, both defense and prosecutors have replayed traumatic videos of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in 2020, which provide an extraordinary amount of photographic evidence of what happened. The fact that it took so much video documentation of the crime – from different angles, replayed over and over – to produce such a rare moment of accountability says so much about how much our society values the police over black lives.
In the same week of the testimony during this historic process, national news outlets began reporting on it Down Wright, a 20-year-old black driver who was fatally shot and killed by Brooklyn Center police on April 11 – just 10 miles from Floyd. On Wednesday, I watched in horror as the police sprayed pepper spray 2. Lt. Caron Nazariowho is Black and Latino in his military uniform during a traffic obstruction in Virginia. His video has been played repeatedly on all major cable networks.
And see you Thursday, 13 years old Adam ToledoThe Latino appeared on my TV and smartphone screen and held up his hands to surrender to a Chicago cop who shot him dead in less than two seconds on March 29, bringing the scales of trauma to an unbearable pitch for so many.
What can we gain by continuing to watch these videos, I wondered? I’m a social scientist, so maybe I think about it more than most people. For the past 10 years, I’ve studied how African Americans use mobile and social media to document police brutality. Like many, I initially hoped that the rise in this documentary would lead to far-reaching political changes across the country.
This system of American policing has created a diabolical cycle of citizen testimony
I thought that when people could finally see the real horror that many black and brown people face daily in their own communities, change would be quick. Just as the civil rights movement has gained momentum over the terrible Emmett Till Photos, I knew there was power to have visual evidence – or even a visual counter-narrative when the police lielike Toledo’s death and Laquan McDonald’s.
However, the last year has been a breaking point for me. It was too much to watch George Floyd die on prime time television over and over again. It felt voyeuristic – not brave – because I realized that the black deaths were the only ones the news media was showing on television.
Amid the global Black Lives Matter riots last year I expressed concern on how news organizations deal with Floyd’s video. In magazines, on television, and on the radio, I asked journalists to consider the trauma African Americans face when they see the death of their loved one being instantly replayed on television, such as during athletic climaxes. I asked the public to think about before posting Black Death on their social media timelines. I suggested that people equate these deadly police encounter videos with modern day lynching photos that deserve somber respect rather than the occasional viewing.
This message went viral. Journalists from around the world called and emailed me for advice on how to report police brutality without showing these pictures. Many reporters asked me if a still image of death would be more respectful than showing the entire video. I remember being reluctant to say “yes”. But when I saw Daunte Wright frightened in his car or Adam Toledo’s hands surrender, my mind changed. Even the cut videos were traumatizing.
Last week I realized we were asking the wrong questions all along. The questions should never have been: “Do we have a video of this murder of the police?” or, “Was the officer’s body camera on?” Instead, we should have asked ourselves why did we ever demand that marginalized communities provide this kind of visual “evidence” in the first place. Why were black and brown people forced to bring their own murder trials to justice this way? Why was it necessary to counter-narrate the old stereotype of black and brown crime? Why did we ever have to produce a parallel plot an official police report?
This system of American policing has created a diabolical cycle of citizen testimony. First, the cycle requires that a victim’s family share the tragic final moments of their loved ones with the public. Then it invites those moments to be taken apart first by the news media and finally by a jury – and that’s if the case is ever brought to justice. Ultimately, the slain remains buried online, often without family consent. Then the cycle repeats with a new person, a new family, a new headline, and a new hashtag.
The center cannot hold. The same black and brown communities that are asked to be calm, conform, and stoic are the same groups that have observed this January 6th Siege of the Capitol unfold. They watched white insurgents break into a federal building – with the help of many police officers opening doors for them – and lived to tell about it. They also watched as one more child – 17 years old Kyle Rittenhousewho is white – crossed state lines from Illinois to Wisconsin with the intent to shoot protesters against police brutality in August 2020. When Rittenhouse approached the police, carried an assault rifle and killed two people, the police gave him bottled water and sent him later financial donations for his legal fees.
For all of these reasons, I now believe that the proliferation of videos of the deaths of blacks and browns by the police strengthens white supremacy. It doesn’t deter it. These videos no longer reveal a corrupt police system. They are reminiscent of a social hierarchy that privileges the police with qualified immunity, rewards racist vigilantes with Internet fame and money, and punishes color communities with death if they question this arrangement.
I am calling for a moratorium on these videos being broadcast on television and online unless the victim’s family agrees to such advertisements. In the same way as a Amendment to the Comstock Act of 1873 banned the distribution of lynch postcards in the US postal system, lawmakers can use them Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 (BDEA) for good television news and social media platforms that continue to benefit from these traumatic images.
President George Bush handed the BDEA over to Increase the fines for indecency by ten times after the notorious Nipplegate Incident at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. It’s puzzling to think that Justin Timberlake, who popped a piece of Janet Jackson’s corset – to reveal her bare chest on TV – was viewed as obscene enough to inspire new laws while the broadcast of deadly police material is still allowed.
“Watching George Floyd die over and over again on prime time television was too much. It felt voyeuristic – not brave – because I realized that the black deaths were the only ones the news media was showing on television, ”writes Allissa V. Richardson. Stephen Maturen / Getty Images
Removing the financial incentive for the news media to air these horrific videos can force journalists to indulge in more reparative storytelling. That kind of journalism wouldn’t play the Toledo video in slow motion in search of a gun. Instead, it would ask what kind of system failure caused a 13-year-old to be outside at 2 a.m. in the first place. What endemic prejudices caused the Virginia police to wear Lt. Ignoring Nazario and instead looking at his other uniform, his blackness? What kind of systemic cruelty led Chauvin to believe that George Floyd’s pleading for his life didn’t matter? These are the tough questions that politics can answer, no longer police material. This is where journalism has to go next.
The road to reducing deadly policing will be a long one. I believe the news media can help start the process by eliminating the misconception that African American and Latinx communities need to play this game of video empathy before justice. It’s time to just believe in color communities. We have enough evidence. We have enough pain. What we don’t have is reform. And we owe it to so many people, especially those who called their mothers from the sidewalk and those who ran out before they had the chance.
Allissa V. Richardson, PhD, is the author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism. She is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at the Annenberg School of the University of Southern California.