Category Archives: Social Media

Black Deaths Matter? Sousveillance and the Invisibility of Black Life

In this recent article for Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media & Technology my co-author K. Mohrman and I are examining the shooting of Philando Castile, and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds’, decision to film his death at the hands of the police, in order to explore the potential of live-streaming applications as a form of “sousveillance” that can expose white supremacy from below. In highlighting the political economy constraints that limit the dissemination of such images, we argue that the geographic and historical context of these videos as well as their integration into social justice movements, are critical for deploying them as effective tools that challenge racial inequality and make black life matter, not just black death.

Below is an excerpt, you can access the full article directly on Ada’s website.

Introduction

On July 6, 2016 Philando Castile, a 32-year-old lunch supervisor at a St. Paul Montessori school, was pulled over by police in Falcon Heights, a suburb in Minnesota. During this traffic stop he was fatally shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Immediately after the officer opened fire, Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, began live-streaming the event through Facebook’s Live application.[1] The video opens with Castile slouched back, his chest covered in blood staining his white t-shirt. Initially, Castile is still partially conscious and is audibly groaning as the viewer witnesses him slowly bleeding to death. Eerily calm, Reynolds directly addresses the camera as the officer continues to point his gun at Castile:

Reynolds: “Stay with me … We got pulled over for a busted tail-light in the back … and the police just… he, he’s covered – they killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed, he’s licensed to carry. … He was trying to get out his ID in his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was… that he had a firearm and that he was reaching for his wallet. And the officer just shot him in his arm.”

Yanez [shouting]: “Fuck … I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his head up.”

Reynolds: “He had…you told him to get his ID, sir. His driver’s license. Oh my God, please don’t tell me he’s dead…” [camera pans to show Castile not moving] (StarkS 2016).

As Yanez yells at her to keep her hands where they are she responds in an obedient, yet firm voice: “I will, sir, no worries, I will.” What viewers witness is Reynolds rehearsing a centuries-old script in which slaves were required to properly address and obey their masters. Reynolds understood that this traffic stop had turned into a matter of life and death: her own survival depended upon complete compliance and obedience to authority, evident in her recurring affirmations of “yes sir.” When Reynolds does start crying in anguish towards the end of the nine-minute video, after she has been put in the back of a police car, her four-year-old daughter can be heard comforting her: “It’s OK, Mommy. It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”

Even as Reynolds is forced to watch the killing of her boyfriend, she understands that the only way to assert that Castile is human whose black life did, indeed, matter is to document and film his death. Reynolds later told reporters that she recorded the video “so that the world knows that these police are not here to protect and serve us. They are here to assassinate us. They are here to kill us because we are black” (Domonoske 2016).

Images of Death

Visual depictions of black death have long circulated in U.S. society both as a reinforcement and challenge to white supremacy. For example, between the 1890s and the 1940s spectator lynching became a form of entertainment for white Southerners. “Attended by thousands, captured in papers by reporters who witnessed the tortures, and photographed for those spectators who wanted a souvenir and yet failed to get a coveted finger, toe, or fragment of bone” (Hale 1998: 202) lynchings propelled images of black death into mainstream U.S. culture as a form of easily consumable amusement. On the other hand, in 1955 Jet Magazine published images of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s severely mutilated corpse, which caused a nationwide outcry and helped to fuel the Civil Rights Movement. Thrust into the role of activist by her son’s brutal lynching, Mamie Till’s insistence that her son’s body be brought back to Chicago for an open casket service ensured that 50,000 mourners witnessed how he had “been crucified on the cross of racial justice” (Bunch cited in Nodjimbadem 2015). In 1992, the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers was recorded on a bystander’s camcorder. While the recording documented the state-sanctioned violence against King, a jury later acquitted the accused officers, despite the taped evidence, causing LA to erupt in riots. These examples demonstrate that the socio-political context in which media images of black death are created and disseminated determines their viability to expose and dismantle white supremacy.

Video footage documenting state-sanctioned violence against black lives has now become ubiquitous: cell phones, security cameras, as well as body and dash cam footage have made the public a witness to the police killings of numerous black and brown people. This article highlights the circumstances of Castile’s death, particularly Reynolds’ use of Facebook Live, to explore the function of the camera and live-streaming applications for exposing and challenging white supremacy. We examine the affordances of these technologies that allow for the inversion of the institutional gaze and enable individuals who have historically been the subjects of racialized surveillance practices to engage in “sousveillance,” a subversive surveillance from below. Unlike past depictions, sousveillance engenders new modalities of visibility that can move beyond the double bind of witnessing and spectacularizing that often follow images of black death. Yet, whether sousveillant images can challenge us to make black lives matter and not simply reinscribe an association between blackness and death depends not only upon their circulation within social media but their contextualization within larger social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

The complete article is available on Ada’s website: http://adanewmedia.org/2016/10/issue10-fischer-mohrman/

Fischer, M. & Mohrman, K. (2016) Black Deaths Matter? Sousveillance and the Invisibility of Black Life. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 10. doi: 10.7264/N3F47MDV

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