The Human Toll of Bearing Witness


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Viewers’ smartphone videos, like the one Darnella Frazier recorded a year ago about the assassination of George Floyd, have provided impressive documentation of racism or police brutality. Phones and social media have also enabled people to tell their own stories and have helped draw more attention to the abuse of black Americans.

However, Allissa V. Richardson, professor of journalism and communication at the University of Southern California, says it is enough already.

Videos like the 2014 deaths of Floyd and Eric Garner are important legal and historical records, said Dr. Richardson, but these videos can keep revealing crime victims, their family members, and witnesses to their worst moments. And they can make it seem like black Americans need to produce evidence of racial violence to be believed.

“We don’t need these videos in public anymore,” said Dr. Richardson. “They belong in the area of ​​families and juries.”

Technology gives people the tools to testify, hold those in power accountable, and better understand our world. Dr. Richardson asks us to weigh these benefits against the cost of what happens to the people involved after the recordings are over. Talking to her broadened my thinking and I hope her comments do the same for you.

Dr. Richardson, who wrote the book “Bearing Witness While Black,” put today’s viewer videos of police violence in a historical context. She said there has been a long track record of enforcing racial violence awareness among black Americans, including Ida B. Wells’ reports of lynchings, Mamie Till Mobley’s insistence on showing the public her son’s mutilated body, and the beatings from Civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama. 1965.

In the past, Dr. Richardson, however, that black Americans can sometimes decide for themselves whether and how to tell their stories publicly. That control is now more elusive. Philonise Floyd, a brother of George Floyd, wrote about seeing his brother die a thousand times over the past year. Frazier and Ramsey Orta, who taped a video of Garner’s death, have spoken about the toll the experience took for them.

And Dr. Richardson said photos or videos of violent attacks against mostly white Americans, including the 2017 Las Vegas mass shootings, are usually not played in endless loops. She also said the videos of police violence against black Americans create a gruesome feedback loop where future victims are expected to visually document the violence against them.

“How often do people have to see the same thing repeatedly?” Said Dr. Richardson.

We cannot ignore the benefits of technology that enables people to show their views to the world. But we also can’t overlook the unintended consequences when life – especially our darkest moments – is so public.

Jeffrey Middleton, a Michigan judge, recently attracted attention because he complained that no one had asked defendants or crime victims to participate in trials that were publicly broadcast on the internet. “Some of them are embarrassing, maybe humiliating,” Judge Middleton said last month.

I asked Dr. Richardson, What We Should Do To Mitigate The Harm Of Violent Video. She has written that news organizations should not show videos of people’s deaths without the permission of families and that they should be more careful about how often pictures of racist violence are shown.

In relation to the general public, she suggested reconsidering or sharing videos of violence against black Americans. It might be more productive to take action such as pushing for police reform laws or supporting political candidates whose policies you agree to.

“We should celebrate the people who have the courage and presence of mind to take them on,” Dr. Richardson on spectator videos. “We should question the system that requires them to record them in the first place.”

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