Body Cam

How to reckon with images of violence as an activist who wants to log off

On the morning of July 6, 2016 I started my day with the usual app routine: Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr until the snooze button interrupts my banal flow one too many times — I forget what it’s like to be alone with your thoughts at 9 a.m. On Twitter I noticed my timeline was littered with endless commentary about some guy named Alton Sterling. I checked the trending hashtag, and immediately saw the screen grabs from what seemed like this man’s dying moments. The usual “another one” monologue bellowed out in my soul. Then sadness, utter depression, outrage, grief, and the all-too-common numbness: my own Kübler-Ross model.

To escape everyone’s 140-character observations I made my way to Facebook. I’ve never craved the sight of my old high school classmates’ ramblings quite as badly as that Wednesday, but my feed had another idea. The auto-play of Sterling’s death didn’t miss a beat; it was as though the 46-second clip was for my eyes only. There was blood everywhere. No, wait… his shirt was red, but there was definitely blood trickling from his fresh chest wounds to the concrete. Two cops tackled him, he was on the ground, what else did they want from him? Multiple shots ring out in the Baton Rouge night, the videographer quickly puts the camera down — “They shot him?” — and immediate cries answer his question.

Less than a day later, another trending topic: #PhilandoCastile.
His was more graphic than the father in Louisiana, and instead of a perfect stranger, it was Castile’s longtime girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who hit record on the recent Facebook Live feature. Reynolds calmly describes the chain of events for friends online and even consoles her four-year-old daughter in the backseat. Gun still pointed at Philando, whose last breaths and bloody, white tee are in frame, the murderer arrests the videographer for a crime unbeknownst to the viewers, or to her.

Monday, August 1: #KorrynGaines.
Baltimore County police killed the 23-year-old mother of two after an hours-long standoff with the cops, who had come to serve her with an arrest warrant stemming from a March 2016 traffic stop. Her five-year-old son, Kodi, was shot during the ordeal. Healthcare providers noted Kodi was in “good condition” from his non-life-threatening wounds, but said nothing of the emotional wounds of witnessing his mother being murdered by the men in blue. Gaines had instilled vigilance toward police behavior in her child, directing him to be the sole videographer during the traffic stop. She posted the footage on social media.

Jean-Luc Godard’s eight-part video project, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, which began in 1988, sparked a continental conversation about images and historical trauma. The Holocaust is the nucleus of a series of arguments by European cultural critics, filmmakers, and philosophers about the consumption of archival imagery of suffering. Histoire(s) works as neither documentary nor fiction, instead blending the two formats into a cine-essay where montages are the premium source of visualization and, subsequently, critique. Godard’s larger project is arguing that cinema should be more like a visual newsletter than sheer entertainment: he uses mashup editing of classical cinema with journalistic photography, superimposing an image of Elizabeth Taylor smiling in Place in the Sun with the images of bodies in ovens. Some argue that displaying these images in this way — or at all — risks demeaning them; others hope that it might expose human horrors as a warning.

We are forging a world where evidence of tragedy must be photographed for people to simply acknowledge suffering. What about witnessing death is so alluring to so many?

A Parisian friend explained that the debate ignited by Godard in Histoire(s) is still a provocative one among artistic circles in Europe. Just the idea of a collective discourse about this subject matter and its traumatic effect on the general public is a foreign concept to an American girl like myself. I wonder if there’s ever been a moment in recent American history where we actively critiqued the intake of photographic atrocities, specifically those against black bodies. There was the time W.E.B. Du Bois published images of lynching in the NAACP’s monthly journal, The Crisis. Whereas many anti-lynching activists in the early 20th century tried to conceal photographs, postcards, and other memorabilia of lynchings, Du Bois decided to expose the barbarism of white supremacy through the same visual medium that helped promote it. Adapting images that were used to terrorize black people into a tool of protest has become the foundation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Like never before, imagery of abuse, like the cell phone footage of Sterling’s death, is now a beaconing call to revolt for the black diaspora.

Diamond Reynolds, following the path paved by Du Bois, pressed “record” because she knew it was her only way to maintain a shred of authority over a narrative that would later be twisted against her boyfriend. Everyday people post their run-ins with the cops on their social media platforms to document the realities of state sanctioned brutality. Recording and publishing evidence online are acts of defiance against our oppressors. But once these modern-day lynchings hit the web, they become a readily available spectacle, to live forever in infamy.

What is it about witnessing death that is so alluring to so many? The unfortunate outcome of the democratization of digital technology is that the visual appetite for violence is regularly satisfied with images of atrocity. We are forging a new world where explicit content such as graphic porn is so readily available it becomes ordinary, while evidence of tragedy must be photographed for people to simply acknowledge suffering. It took a photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned alongside his family and washed ashore on the beaches of Turkey, to finally sound the alarm about the ongoing refugee crisis. Death has become an online commodity, and it has become a cancer to my virtual cosmos.

I’ve never before been the type to get triggered, shocked, or even disappointed by how the government disregards black humanity; a history of violence is the fabric of this global empire. The exploitation of black labor and genocide of indigenous people are the foundation of a country that refuses to atone for its sins. Perhaps the only shred of symbolic truth behind the “great” America Donald Trump frequently alludes to is the blood red of his now iconic baseball cap. Red: It’s all I see now. The psychological effects of witnessing black bodies being brutalized hasn’t helped put an end to this plague against a community, or even cultivate empathy within those in power. So if that authority is still killing with total impunity, what’s the point of recording? And if folks are going to debate the mere humanity of the victims, what’s the point of being online?

I made my first email account when I was 10 years old; the Hotmail address is so cringeworthy I can’t even utter it to myself in private. Nearly 12 years have passed and I’ve been active online ever since, from the clique-ish MySpace profile to the regrettable fan-fic friendly LiveJournal, live-blogging my first period, identifying a sexuality crisis, befriending like-minded people from around the world, and perhaps most conflicting: falling headfirst into a political awakening.

It was online that I first discovered the details about the death of Trayvon Martin. A hoodie, a bag of skittles and a can of Arizona sweet tea was all he had on him. I made trips to my neighborhood corner store with the same snack list. Then there was Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi mother of five who was found brutally beaten to death around the same time as Martin’s death, and found next to a note reading, “Go back to your country you terrorist.” A national solidarity protest called Hoodies and Hijabs sprung up around the country, combining my blackness and Muslim identity in a way I’ve never seen before. I desperately wanted to participate but my fearful immigrant mother begged me to stay indoors. Blended images of Alawadi and my mama softened my stubbornness, and I obliged — little did she know that the time I would have spent protesting manifested as hours of online research geared toward understanding the intersections of race, class, empire, and gender. My radicalization process was cartoonishly dramatic, from questioning police brutality to leading book club readings on classical Marxism in the span of a year. Attending weekly meetings at my socialist organization and organizing grassroots anti-racist movements became as normal as turning in an undergrad paper.

My immigrant mother begged me to stay indoors. Little did she know the time I would have spent protesting manifested as hours of research geared toward race, class, empire, and gender

I translated an online DIY education into stone-cold organizing, and that gateway helped dramatically in creating the woman I am today. Yet the need for an online oasis was more critical than ever. I used internet space to document my growth from tween to 20-something activist, but I desperately craved the once innocent cyber realm to harbor my growing complexities. This is the virtual reality of most Millennials: Our collective nostalgia is spread throughout every corner of the web, but with the constant threat of witnessing black bodies being discarded with no shred of dignity or disciplinary action for the perpetrators, my once virtual solace has been replaced with the bleak realities of the world I try so hard to dissolve myself from. With advanced communication comes the ultimate catch-22 conundrum: Where does one go when the internet is just as vicious as the outside world?

Thursday July 7, 2016, I posted on my blog, “Concept: me waking up to the destruction of the police state and not another video of a black person being viciously murdered to be scrutinized until the end of time.” One hundred people appreciated the sentiment, still my one and only public statement about the double murders. It’s a film blog; one that I cherish for its origins in non-political affairs, and possibly my only “private” cyberspace free from political obligations and the prying eyes of loved ones. After making the post, I logged onto Facebook and created a group chat: Friday (07/08) Action against police brutality. In the thread I invited about eight activists from around the city who I’ve had previous experience organizing with — from Tamir Rice-related actions, trans liberation protests, solidarity with the charged Baltimore Uprising, and Concerned Student 1950 — and the event we created attracted hundreds of people from around the city in just hours. I spoke with local news affiliates after drafting a press release, we encouraged attendees to share the event on their various social media accounts, and when all was said and done nearly 2,000 people had RSVP’d.

I let off some necessary steam that night, hugging comrades from around the state who had become some of my closest confidants. One of my favorite things about attending a protest is catching up with familiar faces that you only see at these events — there’s an instant connection, although usually you can’t remember their names. We listened to brutal testimonials from community members, some lukewarm responses to respectability laden Hotep speeches. We were fortunate enough to connect with the parents of a recently killed young man who addressed the crowd with a feverish call to action. We finished the night by singing the Assata Shakur chant, my favorite revolutionary nightcap. I often wonder if the Cuban-exiled revolutionary understands her influence on many black feminists in her birth country.

Protests spread across the country like wildfire: Atlanta was marching in the street for days; Baton Rouge saw some heavy militarization; it seemed like the Dallas police shootings didn’t make a dent in public outrage. Black Lives Matter-themed actions happened in Australia, Canada and England, connecting local atrocities to an international call to action. This movement wouldn’t have hit the universal consciousness if it weren’t for the internet: The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter originates from Oakland community organizer Alicia Garza, who cemented the phrase with an official organization co-created by Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. It has since become the umbrella term for the movement itself.

Sustained grassroots protests brew from the murder and posthumous handling of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but to really trace the origins of the movement you can’t forget the loss of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. It was on the internet, specifically social media, where we forced a public conversation about race, the judicial system, and law enforcement. Since 2013, hundreds of organizations, online personalities, pundits, opposers, revolutionary activists, and apps emerged as a result of the most popular anti-racist American resistance struggle since the Black Power movement.

Unlike yesteryear, the 24/7 culture of connection has made the world a little smaller at the touch of a button. Whereas Civil Rights activists had to canvass entire towns, running the risk of receiving bodily harm from white supremacists in the Deep South to build their base, we simply have to get a hashtag trending. But the surveillance state and decryption of beloved websites has annihilated any shred of a safe space on the internet. Being online is synonymous with being watched, and if every American citizen is under surveillance, then how heavily scrutinized do you think the contemporary activist is?

Many organizers fear they’re entering the lion’s den whenever they log in. If every American citizen is under surveillance, how heavily scrutinized do you think the contemporary activist is?

Documents released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Operations Coordination, obtained by the Intercept, specify that the department regularly collected information about Black Lives Matter activities during the Ferguson uprising, including data from social media accounts. This recalls methods used by COINTELPRO, the FBI counterintelligence program that surveilled and killed freedom fighters involved in political activity — perhaps most famously Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party. More recently ZeroFox, a privately owned surveillance company, monitored and labeled non-violent activists such as DeRay McKesson and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie as “threat actors” during the Freddie Gray-related revolts in Baltimore.

Many organizers fear they’re entering the lion’s den whenever they log in to discuss strategies and contingency plans. Even the most levelheaded advocates quickly convert the slightest technological hiccup into a conspiracy theory. And it doesn’t stop there: every Black Lives Matter action I’ve ever been to has been met with cops recording crowds, corrupting the logic of body cameras by literally pointing the lens at protesters. Large-scale demonstrations routinely have a checkpoint where bags are rummaged through and a camera captures your face. To the well-trained eye, plain-clothed officers can be seen a mile away, but that doesn’t stop their instigation of typically peaceful crowds. Seems like black people can’t avoid the prying eyes of the state, the media, and the internet.

To make matters worse, you still have to shovel out the conservatives, colorblind liberals, folks who openly spew straight-up offensive bullshit, and the condescending Blue Lives Matter crowd. The right-wingers have organized magnificently as of late, spinning revolutionary rhetoric — even the elementary phrase “black lives matter” — into “hate speech.” First- and second-amendment rights have dominated the conservative lexicon, feeding into the hysterical notion that counter movements are out to take away the rights of the privileged. Nobody has trolling down to a science quite like a Twitter racist: they seem to mine social media, converting their findings into metaphorical diamonds to feed the digital mob that threatens the contemporary activist’s well being. In addition to the constant risk of witnessing black death, we also face the threat of heinous insults whenever we post something for the promotion of black liberation.

Possibly more hurtful than the naysayers is the prevalent call-out culture that has shaped online communication in recent years. Whereas fruitful conversation and debate is key in moments of civil unrest, cynical “draggings” commence at the slightest whiff of problematic or questionable behavior. “Because call-outs tend to be public,” Asam Ahmad writes in a brilliant piece for Briarpatch, “they can enable a particularly armchair and academic brand of activism: one in which the act of calling out is seen as an end in itself.” Different tactics and political points of reference are inevitable as movements build, but cloaking this “public performance” as a progressive act is terrifying for its insidiousness. The think-piece economy, void of accountability and humane relationship building, has corroded open dialogue. That is to say, there is a social currency attached to discrediting another person, and an unquestionable benefit to being on the winning side of an online debacle, whether it promotes your product, or increases your follower count. Make sure to have your guard up when you log in.

Through it all, my dilemma cycles back through my psyche: Where does one go when neither the online nor the IRL world is here to see you win? But social media has created a more accessible template for contemporary organizing, thus deleting my accounts could very much be the kiss of death to my organizing career, and I’m not ready to succumb to that just yet.

I’m fighting to get free; I’m fighting for a world free of exploitation and oppression, a better world, a more just society. So maybe the real question I should be asking is: What does freedom actually mean? Is it the absence of, or release from ties and obligations, the privilege of deleting and not thinking twice? Or is freedom, as Assata Shakur wrote, what obligates and ties us? “It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Rooney Elmi is a freelance film writer and founding editor of SVLLY(wood) Magazine, a print and digital radical editorial geared toward curating a new cinephila.