When I see footage of Black murders, I feel horror and anger not only at the life that was violently taken, but also the idea of vacant and immune gazes transfixed on an unrealized destiny, a muted future, someone’s son, daughter, or father. There are some who, despite the graphic nature of these images, will watch with no sadness and no outrage. They will not see a person, only an object — objectified in life and objectified in death.
It’s not unlike historic photos of lynchings, with white crowds gazing at a lifeless Black body. Instead of lynching photos, today we have lynching videos. In fact, Ahmaud Arbery’s father referred to his son’s death as a modern-day lynching. By definition a lynching is, “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.” Lynching is not limited to hanging: When a group of people act outside the bounds of their legal authority and kill someone because they feel justified or empowered to do so, it’s a lynching.
Today it’s almost taboo to speak of lynching, as it conjures up a historical memory of an era that the nation would like to put behind it, while bringing the relics of that era forward. But Eric Garner (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), and George Floyd (2020) are all examples of lynchings. We continue to see deceased Black bodies in the media; America has not escaped the historical pattern of objectification of the Black body. The effect of these images perpetuates objectification in two ways: Black death as an object and therefore exempt of the moral standards and sensitivities typically granted death, and Black death as an object to catalyze justice and systemic change. The media gives more prioritization to the latter, perhaps without consideration of the former.
While it’s clear there’s a historical and present-day disregard for Black life, we must not overlook the other side of the coin – the devaluation of Black death.
Prior to the rampant killing of Black bodies that has transpired over the past eight years, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina reminded us of the national perception of Black death. At the time of the hurricane two thirds of New Orleans’ residents were Black and one third of Black residents lived below the poverty line. Hurricane Katrina massively devastated New Orleans’ Black and lower-income residents. Media coverage of the hurricane interspersed pictures of deceased Black bodies, in deplorable conditions, largely uncovered and recognizable, amid the flooding and destruction of the city.
Juxtapose this with the 2012 death of Jonathan Thomas, a white man, whose untimely death provides a legal and moral context for public portrayals of death. Jonathan died in a car accident after being stung by a bee and was pronounced dead on the scene. The Emergency Medical Technician that responded to the call took pictures of Jonathan’s corpse and shared the photos on the internet. Jonathan’s family filed a lawsuit, stating, “The offending photographs clearly depicted identifying features of Jonathan Thomas as well as his mortal wounds ... they were unsightly, intrusive and outside the bounds of decency.” The general premise of the lawsuit was that there was something morally wrong about images of their son’s death being made public — an assertion that most of us would agree with.
So where are the “bounds of decency” for depictions of Black death? A Google search on Hurricane Katrina death images produce pages callously titled “Hurricane Katrina Bodies, Stock Pictures, Royalty Free Photos” and a Pinterest page tagged as “71 Best Hurricane Katrina Death Images.” And when modern-day lynchings occur, we are flooded with media images of Black death.
Of course, there’s an obvious tension between assertions for morality versus legal recourse. It’s like being asked to choose between eating and breathing — the Black community needs both; we deserve both. Unfortunately, it’s often the videos of Black murders and the subsequent broadcasting by the media that catalyzes the legal process, even if that process doesn’t always lead to justice. Absent the media broadcasts and public outcry, Black lives remain expendable and our wrongful death invisible. Ahmaud Aubery was killed in broad daylight on Feb. 23 , but it was only after a video of his death was distributed on May 5, and the subsequent public outcry, that his killers were arrested on May 7 — more than two months after his death. In cases where there was no video footage, like for Breonna Taylor, public outcry has been slow and the justice process even slower.
Recorded proof of wrongdoing isn’t always needed to evoke the investigation of alleged criminal offenses. In 2018, a Starbucks manager called the police on two Black men for trespassing because they were sitting in the store without yet placing an order. Despite witnesses highlighting the issue as racial profiling to the police, the accusation of the Starbucks manager prevailed and the police handcuffed and arrested the men. Just last month African American mother and son Marvia Gray, 68, and Derek Gray, 43, of Missouri were brutally arrested based on accusations that they stole a TV from Sam’s Club. The allegation was false. In both of these cases, police action was swift, sharp, and wrong. But Amy Cooper understood the pattern of whose claims get heard and who disproportionately is perceived as culpable, when she called the police to falsely accuse Christian Cooper, a Black male birder, of threatening her in Central Park.
So we are left to weigh the prospect of justice with the devaluation of Black death, in a nation that has been taught by history, stereotypes, and propaganda to view Black people as objects. And the question remains: How do we seek justice when the tools of justice obscure the bounds of who is entitled to decency and subjects the last few minutes of someone’s life to vacant and immune gazes? Justice implies impartiality.
The answer to this question is a paradox, with no easy answers without a national rehuminization of Black life and subsequent revaluation of Black death.