The Ethics of Police Murder Video Exhibition: Democratizing The News Feed, Re-Traumatizing The Survivors, Or Both?

In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, another unarmed Black man crying out “I can’t breathe!” as he was strangled in public, the ethical question of re-posting the videos and pictures of the murder have arisen in social media. This also occurred in April during the initial revelations surrounding the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Marquez Arbery in Georgia, a 25 year old jogger who was chased by several civilians in a pickup truck and gunned down in cold blood.

These videos and online memes are painful. They are causing my post-traumatic stress disorder to fly off the rails to the point I want to crawl below my computer desk so to vomit and sob uncontrollably. Call it a psycho-analytic theory of international solidarity if you will. Every time I see these videos, I have a visceral, uncontrollable reaction. That legacy of pain has always fueled the fire under my ass, fighting like hell to make sure it would never happen to another person because of their nationality or economic standing (always bearing in mind that class in America in intentionally defined as a color-coded affair.)

But I digress…

How did we get here? One can easily consult the corpus of writings since the advent of the #BlackLivesMatter/Movement for Black Lives project published online that make evident the vile history of policing in America as a system of terrorism and control, something borne of the settler colonial project as a necessary manifestation of power, answering one immediate formulation of that question.

No, instead I inquire about the awareness of police murder of Black people on a scale that has never been seen before.

I would start with a symptom of this phenomenon little noticed by even the radical Left in the past 5 years. After the 2016 election, a digital COINTEL-PRO op, manifest in the weird Prop or Not project operated by Jeff Bezos, began to implement a widespread censorship of Leftist websites like Counterpunch and Black Agenda Report. At the time, it was argued by many that this was owing to how favorable these websites were towards the geopolitical moves of the Kremlin in contrast with their animosity towards Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. Certainly Moscow factored into the calculations.

But I always suspected, and have since seen it proved by later internet censorship developments on platforms like Facebook, that a major dimension of this was how favorable these venues were towards the grassroots campaigns opposed to police murder.

While reduction of hostilities towards Moscow would be a serious fiscal blow to the foreign military-industrial complex, heightened solidarity with the police and prison abolitionist movement threatens the foundations of the domestic political economy in totality. The police-prison industrial complex is the domestic manifestation of our Pentagon Keynesian system, imperialism on the home front, and it forms the foundation of private property relations in the United States. The two are inter-linked and fundamentally dependent upon one another.

Police brutality and murder videos have always been a direct threat to the capitalist system. In the era before Facebook, YouTube, and smartphone video cameras capable of extended recording times, an intricate and powerful propaganda system, a kind of racialized form of what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described as the manufacture of consent, effectively created the impression that police brutality was a collection of individual bad apples in a bunch of well-intended civil servants. This was no doubt further buttressed by not just sympathetic dramas, such as NYPD Blue or Law and Order (cf. the important report Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre by Color of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center [1], published January 2020, for further insights), but also comical representations such as Chief Wiggum on The Simpsons. In the earlier era, there existed editorial filters, operated by news desks biased towards the various municipal, state, and federal police agencies, that effectively and successfully limited widespread national pubic knowledge of these murder episodes to once every few years.

The fact that three decades ago the Rodney King video was even exhibited at all is a small miracle in the history of broadcasting, particularly given the later revelations of widespread corruption in the Los Angeles law enforcement agencies (case and point the Ramparts scandal). The Rodney King video, however, in all likelihood perhaps for several decades inspired harder censorship. After the rebellion following the court pardon of King’s assailants, broadcast and print media almost certainly came to form a treaty with law enforcement, promising never to allow the publication of similar revelatory materials so to keep the BIPOC community restrained, unable to gain widespread sympathy and solidarity with sectors of the white liberal and progressive community, which had its blissful obliviousness insured for another 25 years.

This all was changed when activists realized the power of their long-time recording devices combined with social media. With the murder of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, suddenly not only were the floodgates broken but the entire edifice was demolished in toto. The treaty between news media and law enforcement was vaporized overnight. It may well go down as one of the most important revolutionary moments in motion picture and journalism history, even dwarfing early broadcast media revelations about the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War, precisely because it removed the control of the media from the hands of the sympathetic publishers and directly manifest control in the hands of the people. This is exactly the process of democratization that was boasted about by internet gurus in the 1990s, only in a form and fashion that has ended up terrifying the white supremacist masters of capital in Silicon Valley and their allies on Wall Street.

Prop or Not. “Fake News.” Facebook’s Community Standards and its International Fact-Checking Network. Google’s adjustment of impression metrics in order to lower website traffic.

All these devices and others like them must be seen through a lens tempered and adjusted with acknowledgement that their design includes an attack on the police and prison abolition movement’s growing currents of solidarity in the past decade.

This must all be acknowledged before we can truly grapple with the ethics of representation on these platforms. I would not dare to suggest a conclusive answer but would indicate further historical context.

For example, Emmett Till’s mother Mamie intentionally and with great audacity made a public exhibition of her son’s open casket, demonstrating a body deformed by lynch mob brutality, precisely so to prick the conscience of sympathetic whites who otherwise would be oblivious to his murder.

Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were compelled, despite their liberal sympathy for state’s rights, to engage the federal government’s protections for Civil Rights protests after the news broadcast of police dogs and water cannons horrified the nation.

As a counterexample, I recently viewed the classic miniseries Eyes on the Prize, a documentary on the Black liberation struggle. Strikingly, PBS now only sells the first season of the show, which concludes with a moment that gives the impression of amicable and perpetual solidarity between the entirety of the African American population and the Democratic Party. PBS now prevents the public from viewing the second season, which chronicles the development of the Black Power project and other militant formations, episodes of few successes and more disappointments in electoral politics (due in no small part to the malfeasance of white Democrats), and further historic moments that lead the audience to a much more nuanced and complicated understanding of American liberalism and our Federalist system.

The Caribbean revolutionary philosopher CLR James, disenchanted with Leninist vanguard politics, argued that the working class as a revolutionary formation required no training by a socialist party and that instead their exposure to the brutality of capitalism created within them the revolutionary consciousness.

Simultaneously, white exhibition of brutalized Black flesh in the name of spectacle and amusement is a phenomenon dating back to the days of lynching and the so-called “buck breaking” torture regimen of the plantation. It remains a sickening undercurrent still demonstrated in a large majority of American action pictures. Do we risk approaching the day when we becomes sensitized to police murder and the public becomes collectively so sadistic that these videos elicit cheers of approval, not unlike how the reality show Cops functioned in the pre-digital era? Will we find ourselves one day in a moment when the gladiatorial glee expressed towards professional wrestling begins to seep into our reaction to these videos? Films like Training Day, wherein Denzel Washington played what amounted to a re-incarnation of the blackface stereotypes from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, elicit visceral positive reaction to the archetypal Bad Black being ostracized and then brutalized by white society, eventuating an Oscar win for the star who was scandalously snubbed for his performance as Malcolm X.

Much as settler colonial racial slavery is the foundational crime of American liberal democracy, the foundational crime of United States national cinema was its willing participation in postbellum American apartheid hegemony. Simultaneously, Lenin proclaimed “You must remember always that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.”

We cannot define this issue in terms of iron laws and principles. Human life is far more complex than a simplistic Marxist dogma and the state-sanctioned extinguishing of one of those lives is a tragedy beyond words, let alone maxims.

We can only stand in solidarity and speak truth to power using any and all forms of communication effectively. Spectacle, failure to realize that this media has an immediate utility as journalism until a definite expiration date, sensationalistic engagement with this media that reduces the tragedy to a snuff film, these are the ethical questions of paramount import. What does it mean to be a radically accountable news media in the digital age?

Decolonization is always a violent event. -Frantz Fanon




Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.