Op-Ed: Stop Sharing Viral Videos Of Black Trauma. Do The Anti-Racist Work Instead.
Why does it take traumatic footage to maybe lead to some sort of justice that proves our humanity?
Last week, the world saw 46-year-old George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, repeatedly say “I can’t breathe” in Minneapolis while now-ex-officer Derek Chauvin violently arrested him, kneeling on his neck. Floyd, a former bouncer who was out of work due to the pandemic, was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby grocery store and died shortly after the arrest. (The store owner has since apologized for getting the police involved.) Floyd’s death has led to more than a week of protests and demonstrations in Minneapolis and in cities across the country, where more than 10,000 people have been arrested, according to an Associated Press tally. Chauvin, one of four police officers involved who have been fired, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter on May 29. His charges have been upgraded to second-degree murder, and the three other officers involved in Floyd’s death have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
17-year-old Darnella Frazier filmed the incident, pulling her camera out when she was walking to the store and saw Floyd on the ground underneath the officer. After yet another brutal killing of an innocent Black person went viral, it led to an outcry from Black viewers that showing and sharing this traumatizing video has damaged our collective mental health. Even here, at my own current place of work, we published a 9+ minute video on our social media platforms. On Facebook, it racked up 6 million views, 11,000 comments, and 23,000 shares within three days. Personally, I’ve struggled with watching the video in its entirety, and my job as a journalist is to find ways to share a story that our young audience will understand and appreciate.
This latest video has revitalized the conversation around whether it is necessary for the news media and everyday civilians to publish videos of Black death to raise awareness around systemic injustice and institutionalized racism. For many Black people, a century’s worth of tragedies is a reality we’ve known almost our entire lives; we don’t need video proof to know that this happens.
If anything, these viral videos deteriorate our mental health. In 2018, NowThis produced an op-ed with Black psychologist Dr. Wendi Williams on the impact of these videos. At the time, Williams said: “We know that those types of acts of violence have occurred over centuries, but now they are caught [on camera]...We can watch literally some of the most traumatizing footage, and it definitely has an effect on the ways that we experience life, experience our vulnerability.”
As we’re gearing up for a summer in the middle of a pandemic, with a historically critical election approaching, we know these videos won’t stop appearing in our feeds. Activists, news organizations, and everyday citizens will continue to publish them under fairly good intentions.
Akilah Hughes, co-host of Crooked Media’s What A Day podcast, has responded to the recent uptick of viral videos of Black death on social media.
“The video of George Floyd’s murder was haphazardly retweeted into feeds of Black people everywhere to say, 'look at this horrible thing a police officer did to a Black person,'" Hughes said in the May 27 episode of her daily podcast. “But the voyeuristic nature of sharing Black human beings murdered like it’s just a normal thing on a Tuesday didn’t bring that guy back. It didn’t stop racism.”
The video of Floyd came weeks after another viral video hit our feeds in May. A three-month-old video came to light that showed former football player 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man going out for a jog in Glynn County, Georgia, who was then brutally murdered by a white father-son duo. Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael alleged that Arbery was responsible for several break-ins in the area. The McMichaels were arrested after days of digital outrage and real-life protests — and after the video went viral internationally.
You don’t have to watch viral videos about police brutality and other acts of violence against Black folks and other folks of color. You can still stay informed without engaging with these videos. You can still have these conversations without the visuals. You can still choose your mental health over the trending conversation at the moment.
We need to work towards solutions that tangibly benefit ourselves and the community at large. That doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the reality of what’s happening, but we need actual changes and solutions. For some, it’s working towards defunding law enforcement and abolishing police forces. It’s also sharing resources and anti-racist reading lists, like this one curated by the Chicago Public Library. It’s putting money back into the predominantly Black communities that white people live in, like this spreadsheet of Black-owned restaurants in New York City.
You might ask yourself: does sharing these videos help non-Black people understand the weight of these images? So you saw these videos, and now what?
One could argue that sharing the video of Arbery led to the arrest of three men in Georgia, one of whom filmed the original footage. Viral video led to the swift firing of Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York City who made a false police report about Christian Cooper, a Black man who was birdwatching in Central Park. Amy Cooper’s former employer said it “does not tolerate racism of any kind,” and she has since publicly apologized. Viral video led the officers involved in Floyd’s death to face charges — after days of protests and demonstrations nationwide.
But why does it take traumatic footage to maybe lead to some sort of justice that proves our humanity?
How can white people engage with this kind of content and still feel like they're driving change or helping the Black community? White people need to put in the work to truly understand the impacts of racial disparity. Understand that racism is more than a viral video of violence; it impacts where people can go to school, where they can live, and if they can stay employed.
I think about the countless Black deaths that weren’t caught on camera. According to a database by the Washington Post, 1,028 people have been shot and killed by law enforcement in the last 12 months. This is the closest we have to a national database to collect this information.
I think about the Black women who have died in similar fashions, and their names are not trending on Twitter or Facebook and haven’t gotten the same coverage often because of the lack of video. I think of 26-year-old essential worker Breonna Taylor, who was killed back in March, after three police officers raided her home — the wrong home — looking for a drug suspect in Louisville, Kentucky. It took a couple of months for the nation to learn her name and her story and for people to protest on her behalf.
I think about Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman in Minnesota who a group of cis-gender Black men brutally attacked on June 1, the first day of Pride month. LGBTQ+ focused outlets Out and them. have opted out of sharing or linking to the violent viral video of her attack. Celebrities including Janet Mock spoke out about about Dior’s story, saying, “We must stop centering cis heterosexual men and their needs. We will not ignore the violence some of these men enact on our sisters’ and our siblings’ lives. We need our black cis siblings to roll up RIGHT NOW. We are your family."
Even for those where we have video evidence, I was reminded of Hughes’ statements again: “Did it [the video] make white people evaluate themselves for even half a second? Are there people on earth who are unaware that Black people fear the police because the police disproportionately kill Black people? Do we need videos to prove it? And do the videos even result in justice?”
Think back to every viral video you’ve watched in the last few years of an officer shooting someone or the death of a Black person at the hands of police. Do the research, and see if they or their families got any justice. The list will come up short. So maybe next time you share or engage with a video, think about other ways you can help our community.
Here’s a expansive crowdsourced spreadsheet of multiple organizations and fundraisers you can donate to that are working towards racial equality and justice.