Like so many folks in the United States, I went to bed Wednesday night grieving the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of law enforcement in Baton Rouge only to awake Thursday to a new horror — the murder of Philando Castile by a police officer in Minneapolis. The hurt I felt was raw and not new. We have seen these types of deaths before with Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown and Freddie Gray, just to name a few of the Black men and women whose deaths at the hands of police and in police custody gained public notice but no vindication in the courts of law.
Not only have we seen these deaths, we have heard them. And we have heard the pain of their aftermath — the sobs, for instance, that Sterling’s fifteen-year-old son voiced as he keened and cried out for his father at the family’s press conference.
The murders of these two Black men ask us, yet again, to think about the experience of seeing and hearing Black death. Sound is, and has always been, central to Black America’s expression of intense pain, fierce pride, and incredible and radical perseverance. It was the spirituals that Fredrick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois identified as truly American music, conveying simultaneous hope and despair rooted in the unlikely but inspiring survival of Black people in this country.
Since the rise of visual mass media in the mid-1800s, however, these aural testimonies have shared the spotlight with visual depictions of Black suffering and survival. The abolitionist movement and the antilynching movement alike utilized engravings and, increasingly, photographs to expose the violences that greeted the Black body and soul — during the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Counsel similarly made press coverage an essential strategy. In some instances, the camera rolling provided insurance that the police would not severely cross the line (though, as the Selma march and the Birmingham “riot” show, this was no guarantee). But if exposing to truth, and demanding fair witness, are possible outcomes when the sound and image of black suffering circulate, certainly there are other, more costly, outcomes as well.
Sound can be infectious, like when we catch the groove and give in to riding its wave. For that very reason, sound can be too much, especially when the soundtrack is someone’s death. It is why documentarian Werner Herzog, after hearing the 2003 audio recording of grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard being attacked and killed, initially told his producer, “I think you should not keep it, you should destroy it. I think that’s what you should do, because it will be the white elephant in your room all your life.” (He later regretted this statement, clarifying that a “wiser” gesture would be to consign it to a bank vault.) It is why reporters who heard the tape recorded rape of ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey, a victim of the Moors Murderers, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, in 1964 required psychological counseling afterward. Neither of these audio recordings was ever released to the public.
Thinking about the trauma caused by these audio recordings made me think about my own response to the images I have been faced with this week. I studied images of Black bodily destruction in close detail when I researched the history of how visualizing suffering served pro-Black advocacy in the United States. I recognized in that history the special circumstances—namely, Black control of the image and its exclusive objective of gaining justice for Black people—that warranted the viewing and displaying of destroyed Black bodies.
But none of that education justified or sufficiently steeled me for the photos of Sterling’s execution at point-blank range or of Castile’s slumping, bleeding body and his girlfriend’s horrified narration. I have still not seen nor have I listened to the videos of these deaths.
And yet this week a host of mass media outlets, including the major news organizations, have made available the full videos of Castile’s and Sterling’s murders. And while Castile’s girlfriend, Lavisha Reynolds, did broadcast his death live on Facebook, her motives of self-protection are entirely distinct from those motivating the circulation and repetition of the video.
We can reasonably trace the origins of the current pattern of video circulation not to the strategic use of press coverage by Martin Luther King Jr during the Civil Rights Movement, but instead to the footage of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers—officers who, despite the visual evidence, were acquitted just as so many officers accused of beating and killing Black citizens since have been. The King video appeared in the first stages of what is now known as the 24-hour news cycle. Before cable news laid the groundwork for a dedicated news channel equipped to report news as it broke and in heavy rotation, video recordings of news events were restricted to movie theater newsreels and network news break-ins to regular programming. With the appearance and proliferation of cable news networks, video footage could be repeated ad nauseum and packaged as news. The expansion of news programming to the internet has meant not only that even more video information can be delivered to news consumers, but that the content can appear anywhere, at an moment—in news feeds, in inboxes, in social media timelines—regardless of one’s desire to see it.
The images and videos of Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths are coming fast and furious. They find us in our homes, in our offices, at the supermarket—anywhere we have access to the internet. Those of us who live daily with the knowledge and fear that we and our kin are hated and hunted, that we are not safe and that the police are often the cause of that sense of insecurity, are dealing with the trauma and indignity of the visual and video reminders of our own precarious lives. We are enraged, we are disgusted, we are mourning, and we are terrorized by the uncritically circulated spectacles of our destruction.
Being forcibly confronted with auto-played videos online and on televised news broadcasts and with, as one print outlet offered, a full-color, front-page photograph of a Black man murdered by those, the police, who insist they are our best hope for peace and safety and who will most likely not be found at fault for their actions by a court of law is the twenty-first century equivalent of having to endure the lynched body’s circulation through town by members of the lynch mob (as happened to teenager Jesse Washington’s corpse in Waco, Texas in 1916).
As I noted above, we have seen these images of Black destruction before when they were put into service for a Black liberationist cause. However, in those instances, the harrowing images were contextualized and controlled by pro-Black advocates like the anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people. In its antilynching circular, the NAACP printed an explicit photograph of a lynching and used the caption to further manipulate the image’s reception. The caption instructed readers quite clearly. “Do not look at the Negro,” it read, “His earthly problems are ended. Instead, look at the seven WHITE children who gaze at this gruesome spectacle.” Both Wells and the NAACP reproduced images of the “gruesome spectacle,” but their doing so in the Black press, in an explicitly antilynching context, counteracted the then-more frequent and popular circulation networks for these images which were expected to be kept in and controlled by white hands.
The videos and photographs of Castile and Sterling, like the videos and photographs of Garner, Brown, Scott, and Bland are not being kept and controlled by Black hands or even by institutions invested in the protection and defense of Black bodies. The contexts of care and of justice are absent and at times anathema to the mass media entities that carelessly circulate these images for titillation or profit or some bad faith interpretation of the exposé. As long as these images and videos are published alongside cries that blue lives matter and queries about black-on-black crime and recitations of the victims’ irrelevant criminal histories, they have no place in the public sphere. And they certainly have no place on my screen.
Courtney R. Baker is the author of HUMANE INSIGHT: LOOKING AT IMAGES OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN DEATH AND SUFFERING (2015). She is Associate Professor of American Studies at Occidental College.