Black death was the first American pastime. From the late 18th to the early 19th centuries, lynching was at an all time high, claiming more than 2,400 black lives. During that time period, a white family could pack up their picnic baskets and join their friends and neighbors around a tree, where a black person could be murdered, tortured, and strung up before a crowd – as a spectacle. The spectators took pictures, and sent postcards to loved ones portraying murdered black men, women, and children hanging from trees, surrounded by smiling white faces who had the privilege of enjoying the show.
This is a show that is reenacted every time a video of a black person getting shot by police goes viral. This is a show that I refuse to attend again.
Just days ago, a video was released showing the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago last year. Police officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times, for most of which McDonald was already on the ground. Cue the justifications: “He was holding a knife,” “He did not blindly obey the officers,” “He was being black at night.”
While we’re at it, cue the silence of the All Lives Matter” crowd. It would be too redundant to explain why Van Dyke was in the wrong. He was wrong for the same reasons Darren Wilson, Timothy Loehmann, and Daniel Pantaleo were wrong– he’s a racist with a weapon, and he failed to live up to his oath. But instead of focusing on Van Dyke, I would rather learn about Laquan McDonald, without having my knowledge of him being overshadowed by the video of his death.
I simply cannot stomach it. If I watch that video, Laquan McDonald would no longer be human. I will have to dehumanize him all together. How else would I get through all 15 seconds? How else could I watch a real teenager get shot 16 times and fall to his death then go on about my day like nothing happened? I am a human being who experiences sympathy and empathy. I refuse to be desensitized to black death by watching body after body fall victim to overzealous police on a reel, as it is portrayed now. Media outlets show these videos on a loop for days at a time and we consume them. We watch them so many times that they become something that we can shrug off, something we no longer have to mourn. I do believe that videos of black people getting shot were originally used to shock people into having important discussions; however, now these videos are passed around on social media like any other funny Buzzfeed clip and seem to be another sick form of entertainment. I cannot think of another reason why the public insists on watching and sharing death so nonchalantly. People are swallowing morbidity in huge gulps without taking a moment to digest and critically think about the scenes that they have just watched. Black death is becoming another societal norm and that’s not even the scariest part.
Unlike 18th and 19th century lynchings, the crowd is not just white. Viewers of these videos are part of every racial group, and they must be growing less and less sensitive to witnessing these miniature black snuff films. It’s a fact of the matter – regardless of what your skin looks like – watching each of these viral videos makes you less and less empathetic.
I understand that it is hard to be in constant mourning, to remember the names of the hundreds of black people in this country killed by police in 2015 alone, to read every new article naming a new victim and to keep up with the case. It is too draining to invest real feelings into every black death. But I seriously doubt that watching the videos does anything to alleviate that stress. If anything, it teaches you to distance yourself from black death, to treat the death of murdered black people like the death of a cartoon character, devoid of true compassion. Before long, instead of postcards, we might see profile pictures depicting black victims, paying homage to American history by undermining the black body yet again.