Use the resources created by the Witness Media Lab when considering posting or sharing videos of police brutality.
If you feel resourced, reflect on what you’ve learned – and unlearned – about the fight for racial equity over the past year. How can you continue to advocate for change? Use this article for guidance on identifying your role in your community.
One year ago, George Floyd was murdered by a member of the Minneapolis Police Department. A video of his death, recorded by then 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, generated tens of millions of views in the following days and has been shared repeatedly across this past year, reigniting the everlasting fight for racial equity (NowThis). It’s undeniable that the video, and the conversation that sparked from it, fundamentally shifted society. It’s also re-ignited discussions on the role of violent videos available for public consumption, particularly regarding their impact on communities of color.
Note: this is different than advocating for the release of bodycam videos to the public. Bodycam footage, designed to hold police officers accountable while on the job, should never be withheld from a victim’s family and community.
But violence against Black people has also been used as a commodity, bartered and sold throughout time. I can’t help but think about how, just decades ago, lynchings were treated as a public attraction. Crowds would gather to partake in festivities surrounding the unjust killing, posing for photographs and taking home pieces of the person’s corpse as “souvenirs.” Postcards would be created and distributed as lasting memories. Learn more in a previous newsletter. Videos taken by police bodycams and shared widely have a similar feeling; digital souvenirs of violence protected by social and political norms.
But user-generated videos, like the one recorded by Frazier, have a different intent. Although still difficult to watch, they’re the recordings of what an everyday person was forced to bear witness to, individuals rendered helpless in the face of violence. Recording a conflict can be a form of bystander intervention when other options are limited. And social movements across time have been sparked by marginalized communities leveraging whatever channel they can to ensure their voices are heard. In this case, user-generated videos are journalism, a testament to the stories that define generations.
Author and professor Allissa Richardson, who advocates for citizen journalism and encourages everyone to consider their role in documenting the world around them, refers to it as sousveillance. This is the opposite of surveillance, created by body cameras, security cameras, and other public, often state-sanctioned forms of recordings. Sousveillance is people capturing stories with their own devices (usually smartphones) that will likely counter or disprove the facts presented by those with more power and privilege (Nieman Lab).
It’s no surprise that journalism leaders are calling for Darnella Frazier to receive the Pulitzer Prizes in Public Service for the video she recorded that changed the world, undoubtedly exemplifying content that “roots out corruption and contributes to the public good” (Nieman Lab).
Regardless of their intention, though, these assets need to be shared with sensitivity, as they exacerbate the trauma that people of color experience regularly. A study found that 20% of Black people who watch a video are “significantly affected” by it, experiencing lasting effects, including stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, or vicarious PTSD (Yahoo). These only elevate the race-based trauma that people of color experience in their daily lives (PBS). In an article written by Arionne Nettles, Alfiee Breland-Noble, the founder and director of mental health organization AAKOMA Project, notes how Black adolescents deal with vicarious trauma from watching the videos (ZORA).
Instead, cellphone videos of vigilante violence and fatal police encounters should be viewed like lynching photographs — with solemn reserve and careful circulation.
Leon Ford, who was shot and paralyzed by a police officer during a traffic stop in 2012, also urges us to consider the individuals and families of the victims. “These people have children. These people have cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, who can’t live a normal life…even though I don’t watch those videos, I can feel that energy. When I see somebody posting, I scroll past it. It still sticks to me” (Yahoo).
Some will argue that it’s necessary to share because we will never be able to fight for justice without them. But what does it say about us that justice can only be pursued for the most atrocious cases, and only if they were captured on video and circulated broadly enough to create public outcry? Why is justice only justified when the crime is warranted worthy of national attention? Most urgently, when will we take action not to share, but change the social conditions to ensure that these instances never happen again?
That will take us changing our behavior. We must channel immediate outrage into a persistent commitment to long-term change. Media platforms are taking note; more have chosen not to post the videos on their social media feeds and create multiple news articles highlighting the event – one including the video footage, one without. And as individuals, we can do the same. Instead of sharing to elicit strong emotions like shock or disgust, consider sharing the information sans video. More importantly, we recommend sharing proactive ways your community can address policing and public safety issues, like upcoming city council meetings or alternatives to calling the police. It’s action – not awareness – that will prevent these videos in the future.
The U.S. has a long history of distributing assets depicting violence on marginalized bodies
The circulation of police violence videos often exacerbate stress, anxiety, vicarious trauma and PTSD in the Black community
We need to evolve beyond sharing for shock and awe and take action for solidarity