It’s fall 2016 and I’m sitting in my critical race theory and praxis class, angry, because yet again, there is a video circulating of a Black person being murdered by a white police officer.
We are discussing the murders of Philando Castille, Alton Sterling and Sandra Bland and I’m angry because I’m scared; I know if I’m not careful, it could certainly happen to me, a Black queer woman in California, minding my business. My classmates and I talk about the prevalence of anti-Blackness and racism in all areas of society and how even though it’s 2016, Black folks are not free. We sit with this reality and cry; we talk about action and share our fears; we sit in silence.
All the Black students are given extended space to share our feelings. All I could share was that this feeling is familiar in my bones; the feeling that I can’t look a white police officer or even a white person in the eyes. I thought about a time in history where this was exactly the feeling that white vigilantes wanted me to have — that I better mind my tongue and stay small. Then, I begin thinking about the highest form of racism and violence, lynching. Suddenly, the belief that I am free and have rights goes out of the window and I am paralyzed with fear, sadness and shame.
“Digital lynching” is a term I use to make sense of how Black people experience viewing Black death on social media and the news. Historically, a lynching was an event where a critical mass of white people gathered to witness a Black person’s death as a spectacle. This act of violence was also meant to send a clear message to other Black people to stay in their place.
I will never forget the first time I saw a dead Black person’s body circulating on the news. It was 2012, and it was Trayvon Martin’s. There was no trigger warning. The story framed him as a thug, and praised the man who murdered him.
I was 23 years old, and a public school teacher struggling to make sense of how to bring this event up to the Black children I taught. I was so incredibly scared, numb, heartbroken. I wondered what this meant for my life, for my Black brothers, my Black father. When I saw images of Trayvon Martin’s body plastered across news outlets, I said to my wife, “Even in death, we have no dignity.”
This was not the first time a murdered Black person’s corpse was treated as “news.” This was not the first time white vigilantes murdered a Black person. This was not the first time justice was obstructed in this way.
We’re still being hunted down like animals. We’re being lynched, just as we have been for more than a century. But when these images are shared, we’re also being emotionally hog-tied and psychologically maimed. You see, a lynching is only a lynching when there are spectators — a crowd hell bent on satisfying their craving to witness and participate in Black death; a sight meant to assert and reassert power over Black people and remind us of our subordination.
I’m reminded of the murder of Will Brown during the race riots of the Red Summer of 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska. Accused of assaulting a white woman, he was taken into custody without any opportunity to prove his innocence. Soon after, a crowd of white vigilantes stormed the police station armed with guns and prepared to kill all who got in their way. They set the building on fire and attempted to lynch the mayor of the city. Finally, the mayor conceded and handed Brown over to the mob, which lynched him, mutilated his body and set him on fire.
The following morning, a picture of his charred body, along with the men who viciously murdered him, was on the front cover of the local newspaper, sending a message to Black people: “The law cannot help you. I am the law. Stay in your place.”
The image of Brown’s body ― the smoke escaping his corpse, the missing leg, bound arms, and the white vigilantes who killed him staring proudly at the camera ― haunts me.
Black people being murdered at the hands of white police officers, with their last moments broadcast for all to see, is no different than white people attending a lynching, and the reproduction of these images the old-fashioned way is just as voyeuristic and objectifying as a white person reposting the video of George Floyd’s death, even while condemning the act of the murder itself.
It’s almost as if some white people (allies included) hold both disgust and fascination in witnessing Black death, without regard for what sharing those images does to the hearts and minds of the Black folks they engage with on and off social media.
These images and messages remind me that no matter how much of an upstanding citizen I am, in the country of my birth, I am disposable and at a moment’s notice could be murdered in cold blood, with no remorse or justice. Would my body and my legacy be protected or would it just be blasted on social media for people to post and repost as they please?
As a Black person, I am numb. I understand that media outlets have a responsibility to report on these things — but what’s the point of showing the images and videos when justice is not going to be served? Yes, we should know about this information, but there are ways to report on it so we are not continually retraumatized and forced to endure further racial battle fatigue.
It’s 2020 and we are living in a historic period; we are living through a global pandemic and yet, Black people are still fighting to be seen as worthy of life.
My challenge to users of social media and members of the press is to stop digitally lynching Black people. If you stand with us and believe that Black Lives Matter, do not post videos or images of Black death. And if you truly believe in transforming the systems and structures of oppression and systemic violence against Black people, share what comes next; cover the fact that white vigilantes often aren’t held to the letter of the law; and fight with us without expecting praise.