While video of black men killed at the hands of law enforcement can shine a light on racism and support justice, these violent images are also exploitative, a USC journalism professor said Friday as she called for limiting their use.
Images of George Floyd dying while pinned to the ground under the knee of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin — who has since been fired and arrested on suspicion of murder — have played over and over again on television and social media. Floyd’s death has sparked an outcry nationwide — including condemnation from Los Angeles police Chief Michel Moore and county Sheriff Alex Villanueva — and fires, looting and destruction in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“The fact that it’s being looped casually, almost like a sports highlight, is very disturbing,” Allissa V. Richardson, an assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told City News Service.
Beatings, shootings and other violent incidents captured by passerby, activists and citizen journalists have ignited social justice movements in the U.S. and around the world, but they have also been used to reinforce negative messages of white supremacy and casual racism, she said.
“When these images first started to come on the scene from our cellphones, as far back as 2014, many people were grateful for them because we thought, `Oh, great, this will finally shine a light on what the black community has been experiencing for many, many decades,”’ Richardson said. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now is that the abundance of these videos kind of function as black snuff films … and there are many factions on the internet that use them to create memes that are harmful.”
She cited the example of “Trayvoning” by teens posing in imitation of Trayvon Martin’s dead body, using Skittles, iced tea and a hoodie as props to represent the unarmed 17-year-old shot to death in Florida by a white man who was later acquitted of murder and manslaughter.
Richardson, the author of “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism,” said news media handle black and white deaths differently and argues for considering videos of black deaths as sacred.
“We can’t really think readily of a time when we’ve seen white people dying on television news at all,” she said.
That’s true even during mass tragedies, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the 2017 mass shooting at the Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas strip, Richardson said.
“Most of those victims were white, but we don’t have to have the horrific videos and footage to know that lots of people lost their lives,” she said.
Despite the fact that nearly 3,000 people died during 9/11, the only widely publicized photo of anyone dying that day is of a man falling from the World Trade Center. That’s because a concerted effort was made by journalists not to circulate other available images, Richardson said.
A different kind of calculus, both more callous and more distrustful, seems to apply to people of color, she said.
“For black people, we have to do an additional kind of mental acrobatics to say, `Well, OK, is there a video? Let me see this video, and let me see if it’s complete enough. Are there pieces that could possibly be missing that could explain why this person deserved their demise?”’
She argues for putting limits in place.
“In the past, black activists did not just broadcast (these images) and loop them with that casual air that we see now. They used them for a very small point in time … to highlight a social justice issue and then they put them in … a shadow archive (like) a newsroom, a library or a museum,” Richardson said. “So that’s really what I’m calling for us to do is to eventually get to the space where we just believe black people, and we don’t need to have all of these different kinds of videos as proof.”
Until then, Richardson suggests broadcasting the imagery for a short period of time and then pulling videos back from public consumption, in part to spare victims’ families.
She highlighted the example of a photo of migrant man who drowned with his daughter while trying to cross into the U.S. as an example of an image she said would never be used if they had been white.
“It’s really just a question of us constantly questioning, who deserves humanity, who deserves dignity in their final moments,” she said. “For people of color, I just feel like it’s so exploitative to have those images out there.”
She closed the interview by posing another question.
“Do we want to use them to be galvanizing points for meaningful social activism or are we using them as an excuse to look away again?”
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