Who shall look at our dead?

Last year was a horrific year for young men of colour — as indeed is every year in the United States — as numerous cases of terrible police shootings made the headlines and confronted white people in the US with the reality of what it’s like to be Black in this country. Images of pain and sorrow spread across the country, and I was reminded of a piece many years ago about how death and pain are represented in the media; specifically, I was reminded that some deaths and some forms of grief are presented behind curtains, while others are laid back bare, exposed, for everyone to see.

There is a trend to be followed in global media coverage: if the dead are white and middle or upper class, their bodies are hidden, shown only in shadows and flashes, behind ‘explicit content, click through’ notices. When people who are grieving are white, images are tasteful, striking, beautiful, designed to be compelling and graceful without being intrusive, honestly depicting the emotions of the bereaved without being exploitative. Photojournalists with awards for this kind of work.

When those bodies belong to people of colour, when they’re situated in communities of colour, when mourners are people of colour, when they are the bodies of the poor, they are laid out on display for people to look at. They aren’t hidden behind curtains or jump cuts, they’re just presented, and there’s a dehumanising element to it. These aren’t people, not even in death, these aren’t real lives, real human beings, even real bodies, but a kind of strange fiction. They are Billie Holiday’s ‘strange fruit,’ hanging from the poplar trees of the public imagination, a spectacle to be observed rather than a marker of tragedy and horror.

Images of angry and grieving communities of colour overtook the media last year, which was a welcome change from the usual silence on the subject. But some of those images were deeply intrusive, pushing into private and sheltered moments, demanding that mourners perform for the camera as well as engage with their own communities and process a series of horrible, troubling, and emotionally devastating events. Instead of being respectful, there was something ghoulish about it, something troubling in newspapers and television media taking death and turning it into a public spectacle, bread and circuses for the masses.

There was also something deeply disturbing in how the media handled Black bodies. The Tamir Rice shooting video was endless reproduced, discussed, analysed frame-by-frame. It was ubiquitous, sometimes even embedded in autoplay video so that unwary visitors would be forced to watch, or at least to listen to the chatter overlying the death of someone’s child, another human being, a person who was alive one moment on the video, and wasn’t the next.

I can’t tell you precisely what happens on that video, because I haven’t watched it. I made a concerted effort not to watch it because I was deeply disturbed by the idea of watching another human being, a child, someone’s child, a member of someone’s community, die. I chose not to engage in the spectacle that the video became and I found it deeply troubling that the police department released the video, wondering if it would do the same for the white victim of a police shooting. It could be argued that showing the public what happened was an important part of discussing the case, but how much say did Rice’s family have in whether they wanted to see the death of their son plastered across the media? How did they feel, knowing that just a few months later, people were pasting up images of Black people to use as targets on the shooting range?

In 2004, the beheading video of Nick Berg was circulating around the internet. This was before such videos had become almost commonplace, when they still had shock value — as horrifying a thing as that is to say. Some friends and I debated for several days whether we wanted to watch the video, just as we’d debated whether we wanted to see the Abu Ghraib images that had, militants claim, precipitated it. This was an era in which these kinds of images weren’t so ubiquitous and it was still possible to avoid them; they weren’t splashed on every website and discussed everywhere on prototypical social media. It was possible, almost unbelievably, to decide not to watch another human being suffer under horrific conditions. We had a choice.

We’d eventually looked at the images on the grounds that we should know what our country was doing in our name. There is, of course, the famous photograph of a hooded man, arms out, standing on what appears to be a box, but there are more. I don’t need to describe them to you. Either you’ve seen them or you decided not to, and it’s not my place to shove them in your face. And ultimately, we decided to watch the Berg video, too, thinking that it would give us some kind of understanding.

But it didn’t. It was just a grainy, murky video of a man who was alive one moment and dead the next. He was seated, and he told us who his family was, and then he was dead. That’s all it was. We didn’t reach some sort of higher plane of comprehension by watching it, it didn’t galvanise us to political action. It just left us mutually stunned and in a state of quiet horror, wondering what we had just watched, but, more importantly, why we had just watched it.

I think about Nick Berg when I see these images and videos circulating, wondering whether people watch them for insight or macabre enjoyment or because they’re forced to by the very structure of the internet and the way it makes things inescapable. Thus far, I’ve managed to avoid watching Tamir Rice die. I hope I can always avoid watching Tamir Rice die. That is not something for me to see — and not having seen it doesn’t mean that I am not angry about the brutal murder of a young man who had so much ahead of him, doesn’t mean that I don’t care about making the United States a better place, doesn’t mean that I’m not prepared to fight for reforms that will make life here safer for people of colour. It just means that I haven’t seen another human being die, an intimate, intense event that should only be witnessed by consent.

Photo: Justice for All DC Rally, Stephen Melkisethian, Flickr