Approximately 24 hours before writing this article, 17-year-old Antwon Rose was shot and killed by an officer of East Pittsburgh Police Department. Antwon was not armed nor did he pose an immediate threat to law enforcement. Since, a 17-second video of the tragedy has been linked on major news outlets including the Huffington Post and New York Times. Before the family was able to heal, videos of their son's last seconds alive circulated around social media like an open casket. I hope that, during this time, Antwon's family is grieving and they receive the justice that they deserve. Rest in peace, Antwon Rose.
A simple Google search can give internet users access to hundreds of videos of black people being held at gunpoint, brutalized, and even fatally shot. If acknowledged at all, those killed are turned into hashtags and accompanied by an onslaught of horrifying images, chilling audio, and graphic videos of the violence these black bodies endured before their last breath. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter L. Scott, Freddie Gray, Samuel Dubose, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Joseph Mann, Terence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, Charles Kinsey, Stephon Clark, and Danny Ray Thomas are just some of the many slain black individuals that have had their caskets forced open and circulated around social media.
They will not be linked here because the purpose of this discourse is to go beyond recreating violence and death.
Originally, the circulation of graphic videos served to spark a national conversation about race and policing. However, these instances of deadly force by police officers rarely even result in justice for the slain. At this point, the images of black death don't confer or confirm black humanity on the suffering black body. There have been countless images of beaten, bruised, and bloodied bodies and, if there is still a question of whether racism and the horrors of police brutality exist, the images aren't making the violence of black subjection undeniable. Images Instead it contributes to what Jesse Jackson calls "an amazing tolerance for black pain... a great tolerance for black suffering and marginalization."
The toll of witnessing these reoccurring acts of violence has the power to produce psychological trauma and fear in black viewers. While many viewers would consider themselves desensitized to the violent images, they can manifest in many ways in daily life. Licensed clinical psychologist Monnica Williams studies the epidemiology of PTSD in minorities and explains that it can be incredibly traumatic for people of color, particularly African-American children to see black death in the form of these violent police encounters. In a Psychology Today article, Williams wrote that "much research has been conducted on the social, economic and political effects of racism, but little research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color."
Williams goes on to explain that the one major factor in understanding PTSD in minorities is the impact of racism on emotional and psychological health. The link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder is known as race-based traumatic stress injury. Williams' work acknowledges both those who have been directly targeted by racial aggression and those who experience it vicariously, or eternally, through a third part – like social media or news outlets.
Activist and journalist Shaun King previously defended The New York Daily News for using an image of a bloodied, dying, Alton Sterling on the front page of their paper. King cited that Mamie Till, Emmet Till's mother, made the decision to open her son's casket and allow The Chicago Defender to publish pictures of Emmet's beaten body. Her decision brought national attention to the plight of African-Americans in the United States.
Williams also agreed that censorship of the images is not the answer and stated "These things have been happening for centuries. It's really important that it's getting out there — exactly how bad it is and what's happening so that we can as a society begin to make some changes to our system and hold those accountable who are doing these things."
I am arguing that the risk of potential trauma outweighs any benefit to people of color watching the videos. If the current videos that have been circulated of mutilated black bodies have not made it clear that black lives matter and change is needed, then there is something fundamentally wrong — the black body being inherently linked to transgressions by the dominant society. The videos in circulation are intended to show the dominant society graphic evidence that racial violence is a reality. This is not something black people need convincing of — we already know. So if, even after we have opened all of the caskets and bared our bones for the world to see, there are still innocent lives being taken, what's next?
I urge social media users to be aware of the harm that circulating videos of black death can cause to black viewers. I also urge people to assess why they choose to share the videos and see whether they are participating in a practice that turns black suffering into a spectacle.