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What I learned about police brutality videos from studying images of lynchings

Openly racist leaders. Voter suppression. Violence. In America today, we're seeing throwback after throwback to earlier decades.

In addition to all this, another classic of American culture is making a comeback: gruesome images of racist violence. It is difficult to avoid seeing the brutalization and murder of black and brown people. Video recordings of such violence often begin rolling even without the viewer clicking play.

How photos of lynchings reinforced white supremacy

At the turn into the 20th century, even without such technology, it was fairly common to stumble upon pictures of lynching victims. Lynching photographs circulated in newspapers, entering American homes along with the day's headlines.

These images also proved profitable as picture postcards. In fact, some photographers expanded their businesses by setting up mobile operations, offering prints to spectators who weren't lucky enough to secure the most coveted keepsakes, such as a lynching victim's severed body parts, bones, or burnt flesh.

Most often, these pictures featured a mutilated body surrounded by a mob of self-righteous whites — no grieving loved ones in sight. Victims appeared to be brutes with no connection to a family or community, or to institutions like marriage.

Framing the isolated figure was a throng of white citizens who felt so good about what they had done that they were eager to be in the picture with the corpse, proving that they took part in this (patriotic) act.

Because lynching photos circulated in a society that constantly depicted nonwhites as noncitizens, the images were interpreted according to that logic. Everything about American society, from entertainment to education, ensured that the black body was not associated with humanity and citizenship, so lynching photographs simply reinforced those messages.

Even if these images sometimes encouraged an acknowledgement of black bodily pain, their circulation did not naturally lead to an appreciation of the community's more enduring losses, including psychological, emotional, and financial suffering.

These photographs were taken by people who were safe at the lynching and did not question the practice enough to disrupt it. Not all lynching photographs featured African-American victims, but they all had a fairly straightforward purpose; they were created by white supremacists and advanced their point of view. Thus, their documentation of the encounters helped spread the message of the event: Whites are citizens, and they can and must keep others in their "proper" place.

Why police brutality videos can't promise justice

Today, recordings of violence against people of color emerge for more complicated reasons. This is why civilians who document these interactions face more consequences than killer cops do. Sometimes victims' families sue for the release of footage recorded by police equipment because they suspect it will reveal that officers used unjustified and excessive force.

Therefore, in contrast to lynching photography, today's violent footage does not circulate simply to celebrate white domination. Whether captured by a patrol car's dash cam, a police officer's body camera, or a civilian's smartphone, today's recordings are often viewed as the best proof that victims did not deserve to be attacked.

Nevertheless, these videos often end up making a statement very similar to that conveyed by lynching photographs: This can be done to people of color because they are not true citizens. And this message is supported by nearly every aspect of American society.

Even if they provide the only evidence that can vindicate dead victims of color — who are so easily demonized by our racist society — there is no avoiding the terror and trauma that such images deliver. Thus, lynching photographs and police brutality videos are similar and different in ways that parallel the resonance and dissonance between the "Rope" distortion of Barack Obama's "Hope" campaign poster and the poster promoting Nate Parker's film Birth of a Nation. "Rope" was created by white supremacists who wanted to remind Obama and everyone who supported him of his "proper" place.

Meanwhile, the Nate Parker image articulates the perspective of marginalized people who refuse to be silent about the injustices the United States inflicts. It critiques the nation's demand that people of color experience injustice but never feel empowered to say aloud that they notice the injustice. Nevertheless, alongside the self-determination and agency asserted through this critique, there is undeniable pain.

And this image is not emptied of its terror because community members are encountering it while people of color are being killed with impunity. Thus, one might find this image disturbing, even while admiring the power, artistry, and poignancy inherent in its use of the American flag.



Targeted communities find themselves in a no-win situation in relationship to images of the brutality they face. They want to prove that they do not simply "feel" discriminated against, that they are treated by police in ways that most white people cannot imagine being treated.

However, being able to provide evidence often fails to yield the desired response not only from the criminal justice system but also from fellow Americans in the form of basic human empathy.

In my own experience, the best way to get an ordinary citizen (usually white but sometimes a person of color) to say something blatantly racist is to express pain and anger over black and brown people being killed for no reason.

When Philando Castile's death by police shooting was broadcast on a Facebook live stream, and I joined the chorus of voices insisting that black lives matter, I received this response from a white mother who probably sees herself as reasonable: "Criminals thinking it's ok to resist arrest, and then resisting arrest — that's what is killing CRIMINALS, black and white and every other race." Castile's "crime"? Having a "wide-set nose."

At the same time that watching the brutalization of people of color fails to inspire empathy, Americans don't need to see white people brutalized to grieve along with their families. When two white journalists were shot on camera by an African-American former colleague in August 2015, media outlets refused to broadcast the footage. And no one had to witness their victimization in order to sympathize with them and express outrage against the shooter.

Furthermore, Americans were not urged to quell their anger toward the gunman by having a "national conversation" on mental health, as happens for white perpetrators, even when their crimes are as heinous as hunting 5- and 6-year-olds at school.

So the nation has decided that while it is indecent to watch white people being massacred, most Americans cannot be expected to believe that nonwhites suffer unless one can see them bleed and die.

Still, the United States insists upon inflicting bloodless violence too, reinforcing its disregard for the humanity and citizenship of people of color. Accordingly, Americans watched police officers choke Eric Garner to death and shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice within two seconds of arriving at a Cleveland playground.

After witnessing innumerable "incidents" like these, terrorized communities then watch as mourning families must put their pain on display in order to have any hope of pressuring the machinery of "justice" to move for them.

Yet most often, convincing local authorities (or even the Department of Justice) to investigate simply begins a series of less bloody — but no less violent — scenarios in which the citizenship of victims and anyone who cares about them is disregarded.

#CarefreeBlackKids2k16 and the power of affirmation

Denying black and brown citizenship is something the United States does very well and quite consistently, however, so marginalized communities have developed traditions to affirm themselves in the midst of both physical and institutionalized violence. At the last turn of the century, black-authored lynching plays were part of that tradition for African Americans. One-acts published in periodicals, such as the NAACP's Crisis or the Urban League's Opportunity, were read aloud in black churches, schools, barber shops, beauty salons, and living rooms.

Rather than focusing on white-authored violence, playwrights highlighted the injustice of it and the fact that families and communities were grappling with tremendous losses. That is, while mainstream discourse insisted that lynching victims got what they deserved and should not be mourned, these plays acknowledged that families were grieving and encouraged them to do so in community.

Today, black and brown communities continue in-person traditions, but they also use the internet for public mourning and self-care. Without question, marginalized groups are forced to encounter terror online, but many flock to social media daily because, as early adopters and influential users, they have created online spaces for self-affirmation.

Hashtags often memorialize those unjustly killed, but they also emerge as a form of self-care. Heben Nigatu, co-host of the podcast Another Round, created #CarefreeBlackKids2K16 to help people deal with the deaths of Castile and Alton Sterling as well as the demonization of black and brown communities that so easily followed the shooting of Dallas police officers.

Parents and caregivers of color must consider when to have "the talk" with their children about being aware of how others see them because other people's fears and assumptions can kill them, but this hashtag encourages community members to enter a space where those concerns are suspended.

Similarly, Erica Garner's frustration after President Obama's CNN town hall on "policing and race relations" prompted Feminista Jones to create #LoudBlackGirls. It acknowledges the countless ways in which black women and girls are silenced and taught to silence themselves.

It also calls on them to celebrate moments when they overcame the pressure to be quiet by understanding the value of their own thoughts, experiences, and voices.

Those needing to find life-affirming messages can also visit (and contribute to) hashtags like #BlackManJoy, #BlackJoyMatters, #GrowingUpSalvadorian, #SoyRebelde, and #NoMames (which can be translated as #NoJoke). Likewise, Muslims who face hate for their religion often use #Islamophobia to critique both structural and personal discrimination, and #CreepingSharia can be a space for even more levity as community members highlight the absurdity of claims about impending Islamic "takeovers."

As importantly, indigenous populations demonstrate that they were not decimated, despite relentless efforts (in both the past and present) to destroy their communities, languages, and cultures. Hashtags such as ‪#DearNativeYouth‪, #TheNewNativeIntellectuals, and #NotYourMascot sustain connections and educate non-natives who are willing to learn, bolstering the work of media outlets, such as Native Trailblazers.

A particularly powerful use of social media for self-affirmation that did not involve a hashtag was the dance studio video made immediately after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

To similar effect, popular culture commentator Kid Fury took to Instagram and to his wildly successful podcast with Crissle West, The Read, to assert the importance of continuing to be fearlessly queer, given that anti-LGBTQ aggression did not begin with the Pulse shooting.

Long-term projects associated with hashtags like #PrettyPeriod, #BlackGirlMagic, and #BlackGirlsRock provide sustenance regardless of the latest headlines, and the fact that so many of these projects focus on women and girls resonates powerfully with the legacy of black-authored lynching plays of the 1910s and 1920s. Often, African-American women were excluded from leadership in political organizations like the NAACP, which was led by black and white men and white women, so they maximized alternative forms of activism, including creative writing.

A parallel today might be President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative and the ongoing need for the African American Policy Forum to apply pressure from outside the White House — explaining #WhyWeCantWait, insisting that #BlackGirlsMatter, and demanding that Americans #SayHerName. By design, My Brother's Keeper operates as if racism only affects men and boys, and it ignores the material impact of sexism on women and girls who are not white.

Scholars and activists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Melissa Harris-Perry have provided extensive research demonstrating that concrete solutions for women and girls of color are urgently needed, but these realities are too easily overlooked in a racist, sexist society.

The women of color affirming each other today have more in common with their activist forerunners than political exclusion, however. When lynching was at its height, mobs did not limit their attacks to men — women were lynched too. And the people leading efforts to help their communities cope were often female survivors.

Of course, "surviving" lynching did not mean that women were not victimized. In addition to trying to control black women with the threat of violence against the men and boys in their lives, white supremacists used rape as a tool of terror.

Given the hostility that American culture made sure black women felt, it is important to note that they were often on the frontlines of not only resisting brutalization but also providing self-affirmation. After all, self-affirmation empowers people to withstand the attacks that never seem to cease, no matter how much righteous protesting takes place.

Given the similarities between the last turn of the century and this one, it makes sense that targeted communities are continuing the tradition represented by lynching plays of the 1910s and 1920s. As gruesome images of victims circulated in newspapers and as picture postcards, dramatists focused on dignified representations of their communities.

These playwrights placed a spotlight on black families who were loving each other, which sometimes meant mourning each other, and they did so in the same spirit articulated by Ieshia Evans, who was arrested on July 9, 2016, after calmly standing in the middle of the street.

As police officers in riot gear approached her, she had a very clear message in mind: "We don't have to beg to matter."

Koritha Mitchell is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, a literary historian, and an avid runner. Follow her on Twitter @ProfKori, or at her website, KorithaMitchell.com.


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