Seventeen. I have seen the footage of the murder of George Floyd at seventeen times. I did not want to watch it even once, but it seemed that every major news outlet has had the video repeating in the background over the last year as they recounted the event and the trial. I could not escape its views on social media either.
The publication of Black death at the hands of state and vigilante actors reinforces two messages. For Black people, it suggests that their bodies are disposable and inferior to those of whites, who generally make the laws, enforce them, and ultimately decide the fate of those who deviate from their structure of society. For white people, it emphasizes that their power to judge and rule over others is inherent and accountable only to the code of racial hierarchy.
Often, the spectacle of Black death has been orchestrated and narrated by white people to inflict terror and humiliation. Rarely has the documentation been interpreted as a damning reflection of the enforcers of white supremacy themselves.
Derek Chauvin’s trial is one rare instance that proves differently. Chauvin was found guilty of two counts of murder and manslaugter. George Floyd’s murder was undeniable. Medical professionals testified that his death was a homicide – primarily caused by the restraint of oxygen forced by Chauvin’s kneeling on his neck. Black Americans have not been able to catch their breath from the repeated incidents of public death at the hands of “justice.” Was Floyd’s public death necessary for Chauvin to be found guilty of the perniciousness of police brutality?
Most of the images of Black death are perpetuated by the white dominant media or by the carriers of “justice” themselves. Few times in history have the victims found agency in these deaths to call for radical action. Mamie Till famously had an open casket funeral for the horrendous murder of her fourteen-year-old son Emmett Till. She told PBS in an interview, “When people saw what happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before. People became vocal who had never vocalized before … He was the sacrificial lamb of [the Civil Rights] movement.” The public viewing of his body illuminated and symbolized the darkness of racial hatred in the U.S. No one could be indifferent or neutral after examining Emmett Till’s body, a message that is still stunningly relevant 65 years later.
Michael (Mike) Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden was not given that choice. Police officers left Brown’s body out in the hot Missouri sun for four hours before emergency services removed the body from public view. Yet again, a Black body was left on display for media consumption. There feels like a proliferation of Black death that we cannot escape.
Publicizing Black death has been ingrained in American culture since slavery. The practice of lynching was a method of terrorizing African Americans. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, over 4,400 lynchings were documented between Reconstruction and World War II in twelve Southern states. Lynchings were intentionally gruesome. Black bodies were severed by the parts, lit on fire, and dragged in the street by cars. Their corpses plastered on postcards as souvenirs of the violence. The public spectacle of the dead Black body was a gruesome warning to some, and a celebratory event for others.
The Civil Rights movement provided horrific images of the brutalization of Black bodies. Law enforcement used water hoses, dogs, and batons to attack African Americans peacefully protesting for equal civil and social rights, with aims to physically destroy and beat any hope and determination out of them. These tactics were sanctioned by the state, so there were no repercussions. Such was the case 30 years later with Rodney King. The officers who publicly assaulted King in 1992 were acquitted. His case continues to haunt the memory of Black people today, who worry that visuals of blatant injustice against them still will not be enough for them to be seen and respected as human and worthy of protection.
It feels too casual to have Black death be so public. Black people have repeatedly witnessed and observed Black death at the hands of the enforcers and beneficiaries of the law. It is exhausting and dehumanizing to witness your people being destroyed. It is traumatizing to not only witness these horrific events, but question the longevity of your existence and wonder whether you too will be caught on camera and documented for others to see. At least with the recording of these events, we can get more of the story than just that of the survivor. Having people see our pain was supposed to corroborate what Black people already knew to be true – that police harass and kill Black people. Seeing these images has shifted public discourse towards abolition with conversations like #DefundthePolice; but not in the halls of the top policy schools.
During my first year at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), a joint ethics-negotiation-leadership exercise centered the shooting of a young Black male. The exercise was designed to help us negotiate across differences by taking on a variety of roles that held different perspectives on crime, officer-involved shootings, and racism. Not only was the portrayal of the death of a young Black male by law enforcement an exercise in blatant insensitivity, it also fictionalized the very real danger and fear that Black people face in this world. Daunte Wright, Tamir Rice, Jacob Blake, Michael Brown, Botham Jean, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Michelle Cusseaux, Kayla Moore, and so many others taken too soon by the hands of state actors are not characters in a play. Their lives matter. Their deaths do not need to be legitimized by body cam recordings or gruesome photos. Their deaths do not need to be intellectualized or debated. The brutality that Black people face by law enforcement is real and endemic in the United States.
HKS was wrong for choosing such a subject to practice communicating across differences. These disasters should not be exploited. Instead of prompting students to revel in racist rhetoric, HKS needs to encourage students to interrogate their own understandings of safety and harm and deconstruct the existing structures that make this world unsafe for too many. Professors and the administration need to cultivate these necessary conversations without placing the burden on students who experience this violence intimately. Class discussions should work to understand how the criminalization of minor offenses and mental health crises is racist, gendered, anti-immigrant, and ableist. They should interrogate why such images of Black death instigate justice for some but not for others. Instead of perpetuating harm and vicarious trauma, HKS needs to foster discussions about dismantling inequality and oppression. The work to reframe our understanding of a new, just world for us all begins now.
Why must the ritual of Black death continue to be a public affair to ignite rage at racism and structural injustice? The verdict of Chauvin’s trial feels like some small achievement in accountability – but not enough. Without the wrenching images of Floyd’s last moments captured by seventeen-year-old Darnella Fraizer, it’s unclear that Chauvin would have been rightly convicted. There must be consequences for the harm police produce, but the public consumption of Black death should not be the deciding factor for such results. It is too high a price to pay for our dignity in the movement towards true justice and liberation.