If you think a lot about justice, your eyes were probably on the Derek Chauvin verdict last week. It was a moment of profound national and international reckoning, when after just 10 hours of deliberating, a jury in Minnesota found him guilty of second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. It remains astounding to me that this is the quantum of evidence we need to prove that a police officer recklessly murdered yet another unarmed Black man, but perhaps this is a moment for long-fought-for real, meaningful change around policing and the law.
But I can’t stop thinking about that video. That video taken by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier as George Floyd’s life slipped away with Chauvin’s knee on his neck. The video became the irrefutable testimony in this trial. Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post described this footage as the star witness. The existence of the video changed the way even the police themselves talked about, and eventually testified about, this crime. For those who could bring themselves to watch it as it played on an unending loop, the video changed the world last summer, because it made this verdict seem almost inevitable. Indeed, it says so much that videos were the closing argument for both the prosecution and the defense.
But if we start from this proposition that but for the video, there would have been no conviction at all, we start in the middle of this tragedy, because there’s a lot that is wrong in a country that demands the spectacle of Black death to believe what we know to be true. This isn’t just a law problem—although of course, it affects the legal system. It’s a history problem. It’s a media problem. It’s a storytelling problem. We wanted to start there today with this question of what America needs to see before it will believe Black and brown victims and why, and who actually bears the burden of that. To tackle that, we spoke with Allissa Richardson, a professor of journalism and the author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, on a recent episode of Amicus. A portion of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, appears below.
Dahlia Lithwick: What do we do about the fact that citizen journalism, new technology, the ubiquity of the iPhone, all of those things solve a whole bunch of problems—journalistic problems and justice problems and truth problems—but they also create a whole bunch of new problems? You have been tilting, I think pretty hard from your recent writing, into feeling that the new problems being created are really profound and that we’re missing them. That when we say things like, “Oh, the video was the star of the trial,” we’re not seeing all of these cascading other problems, the downsides of making the video the hero.
I also want to step back out a bit and put this in the context of your book, because I think your book is about this notion of bearing witness and ways in which bearing witness when you are Black in America has always required telling stories, but telling stories in the context of, as you lay it out, three phases of American brutality: slavery, lynchings, and racialized police violence today. I think your point is that this act of bearing witness throughout all of this comes both from a place of almost complete powerlessness, but also actually massive power, right?
Allissa Richardson: Definitely. I’m so glad that you mentioned that this bearing witness is active. Doing this is not new. In the book, I write about these three overlapping areas of domestic terror against Black people. I start with slavery and explain how that morphed into lynching and how that then morphed into police brutality, which is often the first gateway, if you survive it, into mass incarceration. Throughout each of these eras, you have people who are working very hard to shine a light on what’s going on and to scream about those injustices through whatever technological medium they have at the moment. I start with people like Frederick Douglass, who used autobiographies and pamphlets, and he wrote not one, not two, but three memoirs to tell us how horrible slavery was and became one of the most famous men in the world because of not only his writing but his book tours and his photography, and just the way he photographed himself so that people could see him as a human being. He understood very early on the power of imagery.
He was a mentor to Ida B. Wells. I was very excited to see that as the different technologies are evolving and newspapers began to become the way we communicate, she picked up that baton in such a seamless way from him to produce all kinds of lynching reporting. She was keeping a tally of all the African Americans who were dying during Reconstruction and beyond as the backlash to the end of slavery rose and as whites who lived in these areas did not want to have to compete with Black people for resources. Her Red Record earned her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize last year, making sure that people knew just how many lives were being lost.
Then, when we think about police brutality, we think about it most visually during the civil rights movement. I can think of, for example, Bloody Sunday and how that was mediated and how the iconic John Lewis was met with a wall of police officers when he was trying to march for anti-Black enfranchisement. John Lewis knew to use television. The visuals had to be right; they had to be compelling. They had to be distressing enough to galvanize people. But it wasn’t looped on a 24-hour basis.
Even before the smartphone, there was one incident back in the ’90s of George Holliday using his Handycam to record Rodney King’s beating. That video turned 30 years old this year. There’s a huge space in time—doesn’t mean that police brutality wasn’t happening—but enter the cellphone, and we see Oscar Grant. We see him lying on the platform in 2009 and more than four people filming from various angles. The police officers abusing him, handcuffed, prone, and then shot in the back. These are the images, these are the touchstones that I use in the book to connect these dots, from Frederick Douglass, to Ida B. Wells, to John Lewis, to today’s brave filmmakers who were just in the wrong place at the right time. They’re all trying to look, but this is the first time in history that they can look in real time. You see during slavery, we could not look at the master beating someone. There’s an iconic scene in the film 12 Years a Slave, for example, where Chiwetel Ejiofor is hanging, and the slaves behind him are sweeping up. They’re doing their chores. They’re not looking at him. You couldn’t, or you would be punished too.
If we think about lynching photography, which was a gloating form of recording or documenting the lynchings that took place across America, white people took those photographs and they made them into postcards and traded them and sent them in the mail. But you don’t see Black people in those photographs either. They’re not huddled in the corner. They’re likely fleeing town in many cases.
This, however, is the first time that we can look in real time. What Darnella Frazier did is something that none of her ancestors were able to do. She was able to stand there as it was happening and say, with her camera, “I am not going to leave you. I’m going to make sure people know what happened to you. I’m going to make sure people know your name, and I’m going to try my very best to get justice for you.”
That is the indelible mark that I think of most: She will live with that for the rest of her life. For me, having African Americans having to pre-litigate their own humanity, and record it and document those last precious moments in order to get justice, shouldn’t even be a prerequisite. That’s really what the heart of my argument is now.
I’ve read through this arc of your writing over the years and you’re thinking about this issue has changed over time. You started with the Arab Spring and the lofty notion that people with iPhones could change the world, that they were going to create a testament to violence to change to civil rights that would really reshape everything. Then something changed for you in recent years.
I think you wrote that it was actually George Floyd that broke you. The video of the murder of George Floyd being played on a loop over and over again was having an effect on you that really appended this aspirational idea that technology and these videos and this testimony would take us to a better place. Is that fairly accurate? George Floyd as the pivot for you personally?
Right. I would say that’s very fair. I think that in the very beginning, as I was experimenting with mobile journalism and seeing it light up my students’ faces and just knowing that they probably wouldn’t have had a quick entry into journalism without this inexpensive device, I was very happy about that. I thought this lowers the barrier of entry for people to participate in making news. They don’t need a fancy satellite truck.
But as I’ve traveled through time and have seen the grief that these images have caused my community—and so many people saying, “How many more videos do you folks need to see?”—it really made me investigate why we needed them in the first place. And I came to some pretty grim elephants in the room that no one wants to mention. The first being: Most people believe the stereotype of inherent Black criminality. When they’re looking at these videos, they’re looking for proof that that person did not deserve their demise. That they were a perfect victim, so to speak. What we’re saying is, “I’m going to reserve my sympathy, unless you can prove to me that you were truly blameless in this.” For a long time that has been what’s going on. People have been looking for a modicum of proof that Black people weren’t doing something that warranted their death.
The second thing is that we don’t ask this of anyone else, of any other group of people, and that began to bother me greatly, especially when it came to Floyd’s killing. It was just looped on television and replayed like a sports highlight, sometimes with a trigger warning, sometimes not. In many cases, I didn’t have enough time to turn off the television before my children could see, and I really didn’t want them to, at ages 6 and 8. It began to feel like a new lynching photograph. I said, “Are we celebrating this in some circles?” Everyone is not viewing this the same way. Some people may have incredible sympathy, but then I began to see memes popping up similar to the ones that popped up when Trayvon Martin’s postmortem pictures went up online. People said they were Trayvoning, and they would lay down on the ground like he was. The same thing happened for George Floyd. I saw white men posed like George Floyd, with the knee on the neck and pretending to be officer Chauvin. That bothered me because I thought: Everyone is not looking at this through the similar lens.
I started to talk to some of my friends who happened to be white, and they said, “Well, I don’t identify with him personally because I’m not Black. So I don’t see myself the way you see yourself in these videos or see a relative of yours. And I certainly don’t see myself as the aggressor. I would never do that to anyone. I would never put my knee on somebody’s neck. I’m horrified at what I’m seeing, but I can pop in and pop out.” They realized during the course of our conversation that’s a privilege to be able to remove oneself emotionally from what you’re seeing. That’s why I observed so many of my colleagues eating cereal and watching this, or just talking about it and having it loop in the background without it bothering them. I would enter spaces and say, “Please turn this off. This is a snuff film.” They were just like, “Whoa. I didn’t think of it that way. I’m just trying to educate myself on the issue.” I said to them, “If all of the evidence over the last 200 years that Black witnesses have put together doesn’t convince you that there is a systemic problem of anti-Black racism in the country, then no amount of video will.”
When white people die violently, we don’t ask for video. I’m old enough to have worked in the newsroom in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and I remember seeing people who were white being forced out of the Twin Towers and falling to their death. The videos were scrubbed from the internet and rightfully so. Then as a young journalist, I remember Daniel Pearl was decapitated on camera. I’m glad that those videos are no longer online because they at one time were circulated greatly.
When I think about any number of the mass shootings that have occurred that have largely affected white people, what have we journalists done? As journalists, we have tried to humanize the victims as soon as possible without the gory videos. For example, the Las Vegas music festival videos were at one time online and they were circulated pretty widely. You’d be hard pressed to find them now and rightfully so. We know that something horrible happened that day and we don’t need the proof. But what I did notice about that coverage is that even though it affected a large number of people, the media did their very best to find something humanizing about every single person.
When we think about even the more recent mass shootings that affected people who are not Black, you think about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and what has happened in Georgia, no one said, “Let me see the video. Let me make sure that these folks didn’t do something to provoke these mass shooters.” No one said that. It would be ghastly indecent to suggest.
The fact that African Americans have to pre-litigate their own death creates a diabolical cycle. The first step is I have to produce video to show you that my loved one deserved better. Two, I then have to release that video into the public and let it enter a court of public opinion to be picked apart by journalists and scholars. And then if it even goes to court, which many of them don’t, I have to let a jury look over this. If I choose to sit in that courtroom to support my slain loved one, I have to watch that video over and over and over again. Then even if there is a measure of justice or not, that loved one is then entombed online forever. Those deaths are not removed from the internet in the way that the deaths of the people who died in 911 or Daniel Pearl or any number of the white victims of mass shootings are removed. You can Google Trayvon Martin, unfortunately, and one of the very first images that pops up is his postmortem picture. It bothers me. It’s wrong. I think a lot of it is borne of this stereotype that Black people are inherently criminal and that the video will show us some exceptions to the rule that we can get behind.
Who are these videos for at this point? Are they for people who really are interested in dismantling this form of policing that’s killed so many people, or are there just people who’re looking at this as entertainment? At some point, we have to ask those tough questions.
I don’t want this to be one of the things that people look back on many years later. I don’t want us to be 20 years after saying, “We got a little carried away with publishing low-hanging fruit.” That’s really what this is. It’s lazy journalism. The death is really not the full story.
Yes, we know that people need to be held accountable and that it bears further investigation. But as we move further along in this history of witnessing, we really need to say, “These videos should be for the families and they should be for juries.” Human consumption, I’m hesitant about that, unless the family wants you to see it, in the way that Mamie Till-Mobley said, “I want the world to see what they did to my baby.”