Over the past year or so, we have seen name after name attached to violent, unsettling, and graphic videos depicting people of color shot and killed by police.
It's become almost routine for news stations and yes, websites like this one, to post and comment on those videos. But our collective appetite for them—and the media's apparent reliance on the videos to drive views and engagement—has made Matthew Braunginn, co-founder of the Young Gifted and Black Coalition of Madison, Wi., a little uneasy. His group fights for racial and LGBTQ justice in Wisconsin, a state with some of the highest measurable inequalities in the juvenile justice system, and one of the worst places in the nation to grow up black.
If we are so quick to watch, rewatch, post and share the videos, he asks, are we becoming desensitized to the violence they portray? Are we requiring too much proof to feel empathy for the victims? Are we fetishizing the death of black men in particular?
In an attempt to fully understand what Braunginn is calling for, and what he says are the psychological and social ramifications of watching these videos over and over again, he and I had the conversation below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity:
Fusion: Okay, so I’ll ask you the most obvious thing up front. Are we watching too many police shooting videos?
Matthew Braunginn: Yeah. Very much. I feel that it's almost become public lynching. We don't see other people's deaths being broadcasted like this. I don't have a problem with dashcams or police footage being public record, but a lot of times there's videos of things that the news will talk about but not show the video, or they'll write about but not show in video because it's so sensitive in its nature.
But when it comes to black people being gunned down, particularly by the police, we keep seeing this over and over, and it's being put across our screens over and over, and I can't help but see a correlation between this and that of public lynchings of our past.
Where do you draw the lines then, between something that might be appropriate to share even though it might be explicit, and something that's not in good faith, or even exploitative?
I feel that even sharing these images for the point of trying to show what happened is kind of counter to that, in a way. I heard an argument the other day about what was happening at the [University of] Mizzou and how they shut out the press, and the whole thing was "we need to have open arguments, intellectual arguments about what happens on campus." And the thing with that is, I'm not going to defend my humanity as an intellectual exercise.
We've been proving that these things happen — police killings and mistreatment have been going on for a long time. What does it say that we have to show these videos to prove what is going on, to prove our humanity and the inhuman treatment going on? It takes away from that larger argument, that we shouldn't actually have to do this. That this shouldn't actually be happening. We have the evidence, we've had evidence, I'm done proving my humanity. That's not an exercise that I'm going to be taking part in.
On the flip side of that, let me tell you a story. I live in Miami, where this weekend a white man was shot to death by police in the middle of a main strip. Within two hours of the guy getting shot, pretty much everyone I know had already seen the video, because someone put it on Instagram. So, the basic facts that the police gave were: he tried to rob a bank, he had a huge razor blade, he was a convict who escaped from a halfway house just hours before the shooting.
Without the video, you might hear that and assume that it was cut and dry—that it was a volatile situation, and maybe it's justified. But then when you watch the video, it's very graphic, and it leaves you with the question of, "Actually, why did it happen like that? Did they have to shoot that guy?" Isn't that the power of video that we've seen over the last year or so?
There is definitely value in the way that these things question and confront police narratives. What we know through these videos and through other things is that police departments constantly lie and fabricate evidence and so on. But on the other end, the press in itself has played a part in this in taking law enforcement's word as the "official story," and passing that as truth, and then having this new evidence go counter to that.
But usually the only thing that the media or the public has to go off is what the police say. Don't these videos help people know how to feel about what happened?
Good point. Let's look at the Tamir Rice video, for example. There's still a lot of people who say that somehow within that second and a half of the police officers pulling up, he motioned to his waist, which of course makes the police action in executing him justified. The people who don't see our humanity aren't going to be turned by this video evidence.
I think there's other outlets for the media to deal with these situations in a more respectful manner, and I think CNN has been an egregious player in all this. It's ridiculous how much they played the Walter Scott video and paid no respects. Then there's another thing that happened later with a white victim, and they said "Well we're only going to show this once every 30 minutes, or once every hour," whatever it was, "out of respect, out of sensitivity." (Editor's note: We can't find which case he might be talking about here.) But where was the respect and sensitivity with Walter Scott? Where is it when they're talking about Freddie Gray and his family?
Seeing the differences in how they cover us in our deaths is absolutely heartbreaking, and you have to live it over and over again. There's a balance that has to be struck.
In your opinion, are there privacy or victims' rights issues at play here?
A little background. We have actually opposed police body cameras for a few reasons. The main one is out of concern for undocumented immigrants, victims of abuse, and sexual assault. Myself, I think there should be some semblance of protection of victims in these cases, and almost no police departments have policies on how they will handle that video.
If you were the leader of a news organization and you were coming up with a policy about when to use these videos, what would your standard be?
I would try to refrain from attaching the video to everything. I'd use it more as "this is what the video shows," and do it more like a narrative. First of all I'd try to go a little more old school and do more reporting, and talk to witnesses, and use the video as one piece of evidence that counters their narrative. So I would use it more as a launching point of countering a narrative and really using more words to explain what's going on.
In Chicago, the Laquan McDonald videos should have been released as part of public record. It didn't need to be plastered across the screen as many times as possible. Particularly those online news outlets could easily have viewed the video and used it to counter everything that the police were saying without having to attach the video everywhere. They attach it to multiple articles over and over again. I think it could be fair to write the base article and have that attached to it, but you don't need it much more than that. Especially if you have it and you've seen it, and you already know how it counters it. How much more do you really need to do?
You just made me think of how a lot of outlets cover the horrible things that are going on with ISIS overseas, with beheadings and stuff. They don't really show the videos. They just describe what's going on.
Yeah. I see it as a fetish that we have of showing black death. You do see other violence at times on news outlets, but not nearly the volume that we see when it comes to black death. Not even close. And that's oversaturated to the point where I think I would really call it a fetish.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.