Are the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile videos “Black death porn”?

Vigil in Monument Square - July 8, 2016

Vigil in Monument Square – July 8, 2016

Across the country, millions of Americans are reeling from the untimely deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both of whom were law-abiding African American men who were shot to death last week by police officers.

Black communities, with varying amounts of white support, are holding vigils and protests in city squares across the country. Facebook is full of articles and rants about racial justice.

Who knows what people will be talking about on social media by this time next week – even our culture’s zeitgeist seems to have A.D.D. these days – but for now, it seems that people are grappling with race everywhere I look.

In this age of the Internet, the viral videos that have surfaced of the killings have effectively enabled millions of us to become eye witnesses to each of the two men being murdered.

The videos are graphic.  While perhaps slightly out of focus, they’re real and visceral. This is what it looks like when bullets come out of a service weapon and enter a man’s body. This is how people around that person react.

It’s all right there. Streaming a million times a day. Here are two murders. Last year police killed almost 1,000 people in this country. How many videos can we expect to have lined up in the queue for next month?

How quickly will we forget about them?

My colleague Mosart Nunez, who’s been a committed social justice advocate for decades, decided not to watch the videos and wrote a really provocative post explaining his reasoning. This sentence struck me like a right hook:

The black death porn is a form of terrorism being inflicted on nonwhite people reminding them that they too are here for your entertainment, even in death the black bodies get likes.

It’s all so disorienting.

Am I a witness? A voyeur?

If I’m really honest with myself, is there a sick part of me that’s getting a thrill from watching people die? Are other people? What, exactly, is even happening here?

Mo’s right, I think. This is porn. I don’t know these guys.

If I had a relative who was brutally murdered, I’m not sure how I’d feel if grainy footage of the seconds around their death went viral on the Internet, and suddenly millions of people were watching my loved one die again, again and again on laptops and smart phones across the country.

What are my moral obligations here?

This is uncharted 21st century territory. Crowd-sourced footage. On-demand viewing. Who needs journalists wrapping up murders into 500 word news briefs? Narrative itself becomes antiquated.

Just post the footage where people can stream it.

I’m not sure this is progress. I’m not sure what it is.

I remember the summer I spent volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. One of the projects that I helped with was an effort to record affidavits from people who’d had bad interactions with the National Guard troops who were patrolling the city in the wake of the flood damage.

We were always looking for that perfect case.

Sure, the cops were awful. But they barely ever killed anybody. Mostly they just roughed people up, and there was always some gray area. Some reason that the person wasn’t quite the perfect, poster boy victim.

I remember reading a story that another volunteer had collected from a guy whom a cop had drenched in a huge amount of pepper spray, continuing to spray long after the man had been incapacitated. It was sickening. But the guy had been drunk.  Belligerent. And, anyhow, none of it was on camera. Not much you can really do with that.

When I see one of these videos, like the ones with Alton Sterling or Philando Castile, I imagine just how many cases of equally ugly police cruelty there must have been to get these two perfect cases. Charming, law-abiding men. Not just shot, but murdered. On camera. Practically a unicorn.

In the last couple days, as the last embers of the Bernie Sanders campaign finally burned out in his closing concession to Hillary Clinton, I’ve also been wondering a lot about what I can do, as a white person involved in social justice work, to help build a movement that Black folks will truly feel at home in.

#FeelTheBern, despite featuring plenty of big African-American names who came out in support of Sanders, including Killer Mike, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander, was not that movement.

To take one key example, a few days before the California primary, official polls reported that, among California’s African-American voters, Clinton led Sanders by 21 points — 57 percent to 36 percent.

Writing in the New York Times, Charles M. Blow, described these folks as choosing from among “the friend who betrays you, the stranger who entices you and the enemy who seeks to destroy you.”

This sounds about right to me.

To most Black folks in California, I’m sure Bernie Sanders was, at best, an enticing stranger.

Alien to the Black experience. A white guy from the second whitest state in the country, preaching the socialist gospel. Floating in on a cloud of Facebook memes and 30 second TV ads, largely oblivious to what life was actually like in South Central.

How do we, as aspiring allies, build a movement that won’t feel so alien, but that will actually foster an intangible space in which we can all feel at home?

I think the first step is to honestly and humbly bear witness to the world around us.

All violence is heavy, racist violence especially so. It throws the world off kilter. It upsets the balance of things. It’s never okay for one person to be viciously cruel to another, but when that cruelty is intricately laced into the very fabric of our society, as it is with racism, it becomes staggering even to witness.

By nature of the fact that Black people are on the receiving end of white supremacy, Black people have no choice but to see this cruelty and bear its load upon their backs.

It is their brother whose life is being tossed away by a racist judge. Their mother who is punching the clock for a boss who treats her like an old piece of housekeeping equipment, oblivious to the pain in her step. Even when everything’s fine, there’s always the chance that things could fall apart. Quickly.

They are the ones who inhabit Black bodies. Bodies that many of us white people will always find suspicious, no matter the place or the time of day. Bodies that many of us white people have been socialized since birth to see as untrustworthy, dangerous, savage, threatening. Bodies that are always guilty. Bodies like meat.

Across the country, so many Black communities have been devastated by the actions of white men, men who might well have once lived in the same dorm room as me, who decided they could make more money if they closed the factories and cut the public services that had sustained those communities for decades.

Even outside sites of concentrated Black poverty, many of us white people still discriminate in every transaction we have with a person of color, subconsciously or not, making it that much harder for them to rent a room, get a mortgage, land a decent paying job or just fit into life in a neighborhood.

So much white supremacist violence is carried out every day against entire communities and families of color. Violence both big and small, usually by somebody who would never identify as “racist.” Violence stretching back generations. Violence for which there is rarely, if ever, much justice or rectification.

All of this trauma has weight. It takes strength and community to hold up that weight, so that people can move on. All people need to grieve. They need to be recognized as people in pain and have their experiences held up to the light, elevated out of the moldy swamp of neglect and self-hatred.

This is what it means to bear witness. To bear responsibility. This is the load we’re talking about bearing. It’s easy to take responsibility for something and drop it. Holding it, helping to bear the weight of 400 years of horrific violence, that’s what’s hard.

Witnessing something effectively requires you to do constant work to learn more about what’s happening. It means listening, instead of arguing, when you find something outside of your experience. It means allowing for spaces to remain quiet. It means not getting in the way of communities doing what it takes to hold themselves up up.

A good witness recognizes how little they can actually grasp about what’s going on and doesn’t speak to things they don’t know. They recount what they saw honestly. They don’t just try to offer solutions to fix everything immediately as if nobody intelligent had ever considered these situations before.

Witnesses have to speak loudly and clearly enough for all to hear, but they don’t always have to say very much. Sometimes all a witness needs to do is say, “Yeah, I see it too. And it’s truly awful.”

If all you do is watch the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile videos, you aren’t really a witness. You’re a tourist checking out the sites. It’s hard to see that as anything more than morbid sensationalism.

If we want to build a genuinely powerful social movement in this country capable of really bringing folks together, however, we have to do more. We have to be present for one another. We have to actually show up, pay attention and hold up our part of the weight. If we do that, I’m confident that, together, we can lift mountains.

Rob Korobkin

About Rob Korobkin

Rob is a software engineer, community organizer, teacher and musician. He can often be found at Peloton Labs, staring at his laptop, drafting diatribes and programming software late into the night.