Anti-Blackness as a spectacle is nothing new. White people have long intentionally and joyfully consumed Black misery. Lynchings were common in 19th and 20th century America and were explicitly public occurrences—even family entertainment, with parents and children attending and bringing food and drink, reports The Appeal. Local newspapers would detail the murders, including graphic photos of the victims. Perpetrators and onlookers often took souvenirs from the victims. Prominent white lynchers were lauded by local newspapers and posed with their children near the deceased for photos.
One of the most well-known civilian attacks on a Black person in American history began on August 20, 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Black boy, was accused of flirting with a white woman while visiting family in Mississippi. Four days later, the woman’s husband and his brother brutally beat, shot, and dismembered Till, then threw his body into a river.
His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, rejected a mortician’s offer to “touch up” Till’s body. Instead, she chose to have an open casket funeral exposing her son’s grotesquely mangled form to illuminate the horrors of Jim Crow segregation and anti-Black racism in America. An estimated 50,000 people saw Till’s body during his funeral in Chicago. The national magazine Jet subsequently published photos of his corpse.
While Till’s death was at the hands of civilians rather than police, Till’s killers felt empowered to murder the boy because of state-sanctioned segregation and anti-Blackness. But simply publicizing images of Till’s body was not enough to spark meaningful societal change on its own—it took nearly a decade of concerted, direct political organizing to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To this day, despite Till’s story and photos being taught in school, memorials for Till are routinely defaced and vandalized. The gruesomeness of his murder is mirrored by the callousness with which society objectified Till’s corpse and memory.
Civilian footage started proliferating almost 40 years later. On March 3, 1991, a bystander named George Holliday filmed from his apartment balcony with a home video camera while a Black man named Rodney King was beaten by police during his arrest. Officer Lawrence Powell swung his baton, hitting King in the head and causing him to fall to the ground. Officers Powell and Timothy Wind continued to viciously beat King. Holliday sold the video to a local TV station, which then sold it to CNN. The video became international news and provided explicit, recorded evidence of anti-Black police brutality. The public wondered once again whether this footage would be enough to change law enforcement permanently. But in the decades since, the cycle has only repeated itself. Footage of police officers killing Eric Garner and George Floyd within the last decade sparked international protests but little, if any, structural changes to law enforcement.
Earlier this year, on January 7, 2023, Nichols was pulled over by Memphis police during a traffic stop. Officers dragged Nichols from his car, attempted to tase him, and then chased him on foot. When the police reached Nichols, five officers pummeled him in the head and body. The officers left Nichols on the ground for 20 minutes before emergency responders began treating him. He died three days later. Shortly before the Memphis Police Department released the footage, Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said the officers showed a “disregard of basic human rights.” But in the weeks since, the department has done next to nothing to structurally change the way it polices Memphis, aside from abolishing the small strike-force-style unit that killed Nichols. While that one team in one locality may be gone, many similar units still exist around the country.
These incidents, spanning more than 70 years, each feature the public supposedly coming face to face with the horrors of anti-Black violence. In theory, the visualization of violence against Black people should force viewers to reckon with racism, spurring awareness and change. But these examples instead make clear that no amount of visual reckoning with trauma porn can create change on its own. The nation must dispose of the idea that “activism” means simply sharing videos of police brutality online, as opposed to actual involvement in political organizing or community aid.
The consistent portrayal of anti-Black violence not only solidifies Black people as victims in the minds of white Americans, but also exposes Black Americans to repeated depictions of their own dehumanization. In 2016, clinical psychologist Monnica Williams told PBS that police brutality videos can trigger PTSD-like symptoms in Black Americans. In 2018, a Harvard University-led study found that, when police kill an unarmed Black person, it negatively impacts the mental health of nearby Black residents for months afterward. Combined with the fact that this footage has so far done little, if anything, to change American policing, trauma porn is ineffective at best and immoral at worst.
The only thing that will stop anti-Black violence is rooting out the anti-Blackness present throughout American culture. In the words of abolitionist Angela Y. Davis, “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” We must intentionally uplift Black experiences and address Black people’s needs. There is no need to subject ourselves to the assault or murder of Black Americans in the interim.
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