Yesterday, we witnessed (some of us, quite literally) a devastating double homicide at a WDBJ-Virginia taping, where a disgruntled and deranged former employee, Vester Lee Flanagan, Jr. located two ex-colleagues and apparently gunned them down before a live TV audience. I learned of the shootings via social media at the point that Flanagan, known also as Bryce Williams, was the subject of a police chase and half my Twitter timeline was sharing their grief and disgust, with some expressing regret at watching the videos that the alleged killer posted of the actual shootings—videos I went out of my way to avoid.
But, of course, it isn’t just Flanagan’s now-suspended Twitter account that featured videos of the shootings. National news outlets aired images and footage of the incident throughout the day yesterday. Late last night, the New York Daily News, one of the city’s two daily tabloids, was blasted by journalists across the country for a cover that shows the moment that Flanagan apparently fires his first shot at victim Alison Parker; the look of sheer horror on her face is one I won’t forget (and one I would not have seen were it not for this grotesque cover.)
It’s hard to process what happened yesterday and the resulting conversation about the ethics of death imagery when we are exposed to images of Black people being killed on camera by police without any sort of public handwringing from journalists or trigger warnings. The same outlet being blasted for showing what appears to be the last moments of Parker’s life also featured images from the Eric Garner death video on at least two covers last year (the paper’s editorial board condemned the decision not to indict the officers involved and has published numerous stories in support of the family.) Updates related to the 2014 Staten Island death of Garner rarely air on local New York news shows without the incident being looped over and over again, and the footage of Garner’s death been used on many national news programs as well; I can clearly hear Garner’s voice in my mind saying, “I can’t breathe,” despite going out of my way not to watch the video.
I don’t recall any pushback against that paper or any other outlet for the consistent use of still images and video of Garner’s death. So what’s different here? Does the use of a gun change things? That’s not quite reasonable, we’ve seen quite a few videos and images of police shooting Black people. The New York Times infamously featured the video of Walter Scott being shot by a South Carolina cop as he attempted to run away on auto play, meaning that if you went to read the paper’s story on the killing, you were exposed to the shooting before you had a chance to decide if you wanted to see it.
Among those killed on videos that would be shared far and wide: Kaijeme Powell, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Samuel Dubose. These videos are not of murderers and rapists meeting swift justice, but of people who were either guilty of no crime at all, or who had been previously detained for minor infractions. Many of these videos appear on news programs, but are more widely shared online in furtive attempts to convince society-at-large of the humanity of the victims, and to spark members of protest communities to action. And without the existence of these videos, many of these deaths would have been largely forgotten, or in the case of Scott, the police’s version of events would have become the official record and there would not have been charges filed against the officer who shot him. Though most of the families of the shooting victims I named will not receive legal “justice” for their loss, the national conversation around police violence has been largely triggered by videos that make liars out of killer cops.
Yet while one could posit that airing or posting these videos serves a purpose that showing the shootings of these journalists does not, it’s still important to acknowledge how comfortable Americans of all races are with seeing images of Black death. Comfortable, as if it’s supposed to happen, or as if it isn’t tragic or, perhaps, that we have to see this horror for ourselves to believe it. And because these are police shootings, there is still that large segment of the population that believes that cops are perpetually in danger of being killed by Black suspects (a “suspect” being any Black person that they have encountered, of course) and that if they raise a gun to a Black person, they either had to do it or rightly believed that they did.
One of the many paradoxes of American Blackness is not having the space to simply grieve an obvious tragedy and to be outraged at an obvious injustice—two people slaughtered at the prime of their lives before an unwitting audience that included their partners—without bringing with us all the other trauma and mess that we carry with us on a daily basis. We can’t simply be sad for the families of Parker and Adam Ward without also being weighed down by the knowledge that we share our grief for these two souls with many who not only chose not to grieve for Kaijeme or Tamir, but who may find their deaths to be completely justified—laudable even. We grieve knowing that it’s entirely possible that their deranged murder’s claims of racism at that network may in fact be true, as charges of workplace racism are often handily dismissed, right along with the person who made them. And we grieve knowing that the families of Parker and Ward will not be expected to publicly forgive the murderer of their loved ones, lest people question their humanity and right to victimhood.
Thus, the grief we carry following a day like yesterday, or following a crime like the Charleston Massacre which failed to raise any significant, sustained national conversation about the rise of White supremacy in Millennials that are alleged to be so much more progressive than previous generations, is a heavy one. One that complicates our emotions—and don’t you try to share these nuanced thoughts on social media, because the trolls who don’t believe that #BlackLivesMatter are waiting to put you in your place, and to flip accusations of racism towards Black people at the drop of a dime. The people who believe that they need their “country back” will point to yesterday’s event as evidence that Blacks can be just as racist as Whites, despite our lack of power and privilege.
And all of this meets you, or me, at least, when you want nothing more but to simply be sad that two people who should not be dead are, and that two families that were planning weddings are now planning funerals. And when you want for the people across this country who are heartbroken by yesterday to also be heartbroken when a seemingly unarmed Mansur Ball Bey is shot dead just weeks after graduating high school and when Jamyla Bolden is gunned down while doing her homework—yet so many will point to the death of Bolden to excuse the shooting of Bey.
Until we arrive at a place where the humanity of Black and White victims of senseless killings are honored and recognized with the same worth, grieving these losses will remain needlessly complicated by the pain of racism. How many people will we bury in the meantime? How many valid emotions will be silenced by bigotry? How much more can we endure?
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY.com’s Senior Editor. Views expressed here are her own.
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