Shaun King And The Question Of Too Much Black Death

December 15, 2015  |  

Man, Shaun King has really pissed off some folks within the social justice sphere of Twitter.

No, I’m not talking about that, silly.

I’m not touching that…ahem, critique…with a 10-foot pole. I’ll just wait for the real tea to be spilled in the various memoirs, which I’m certain will eventually come out of this movement.

But for the sake of background info, I encourage you to read about the war of words between King and fellow activists Deray Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, here.

However, what I would like to touch on is the critique that (sort of) started it all. More specifically, the idea that King’s efforts to draw attention to police brutality, including tweeting out endless loops of images and videos of Black people being killed by the police, is actually more traumatizing than it is helpful.

It should be noted that this critique is is not exclusive to what King is doing. In fact, whether or not to show graphic images of the dead is an unresolved issue in quite a few mainstream journalistic circles as well.

But it is also a critique that I’ve personally shared before. In particular, in a piece I wrote back in July of this year entitled, “I Am Tired of Talking About Black Death.”

In it, I wrote:

I don’t care if you call it race talk fatigue, but I too am tired of seeing images of Black people getting harassed, threatened, beat and murdered by the police. I want to virtually yell “enough already” at every single person who posts the videos, articles and ruminations. It’s constant, overwhelming and depressing. I’ve got my own life, which comes with its worries. Like these bills. And these moves, which have been taking way too long to make. It’s a struggle to get through the day dealing with my personal drama, and now I have to think about the extermination of Black people too?

For the record, I offered those sentiments out of concern for my own mental health as opposed to any attempt to provide an excuse as to why I should not care about the very real threat to Black people across the country. I do care. But watching Black people being murdered on a constant loop at the same moment you are experiencing hardships, can make one feel both helpless and hopeful.

Yet, in yesterday’s op-ed piece for the New York Daily News, King provided a counternarrative to the fatigue many of us feel from consuming too much Black Death.

As he explains:

Are you familiar with the cases of Albert Davis, Bennie Tignor, Darrius Stewart, Spencer McCain, Brandon Jones, Bobby Gross, Naeschylus Vincent, Thomas Allen or Jeremy Lett?

These were all completely unarmed black men killed by American police in 2015. Most didn’t receive hashtags or national press coverage.

Most of us don’t know their faces, couldn’t tell you where they’re from and don’t even recognize their names. This year will come and go and their stories will hardly be a blip on the news radar.

The one thing they had in common? None had viral videos.

King goes on to compare those unfamiliar victims with more notable victims who had the “privilege” of having their deaths filmed. More specifically, the video of Nicholas Robertson’s death. He was fatally shot by the LAPD just this past weekend. King said that the video, which he posted on his Facebook page and that has been seen more than a million times, forced the LAPD to hold a press conference to address concerns about the killing. This is something that King contends would not have happened if folks did not watch, connect with and eventually share the video.

As King writes:

A record 1,134 people have been killed by American police so far this year. Ninety nine percent of officers who kill someone, though, are never charged with any crime.

When they are charged, it is almost always because a video of some kind has gone viral. In fact, of 2,242 people killed by American police these past two years, almost every single widely known case is known because some type of video went viral. If most of us scrolled the list of casualties, the names would appear completely unfamiliar. They weren’t filmed.

He also adds (further down in the piece):

When police officers are violent, though, justice is slow and rare. Videos of their brutality are one of the only tools we have to cause police departments, prosecutors and politicians to even take the violence seriously.

You’d be hard pressed to name a single case of police brutality that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders spoke about publicly that didn’t have a viral video.

Local news outlets have deep relationships with police departments. If you ever watch the local news on television you’ll see that a certain percentage of their stories, every single day, morning, noon, and night, come from the police. In a strange sense, they are business partners. Consequently, it’s rare for local press to be critical of police departments because they have to work together on a daily basis. Viral videos of police brutality are often what force local outlets in those cities to even cover it with a slightly critical eye.

I will not deny that King is making a salient and fair point. Without Ida B. Wells’s relentless pursuit of the truth, would our government and, eventually, our history have recognized the unjust lynchings of Blacks in the South?

Still, I do wonder if the constant stream of Black Death is also working to desensitize us to the issue of police brutality in general.

Now I understand how one might feel the answer to this may be muddled within all of those other concerns, which shall not be named, that folks have with King. But I honestly do not think there is any right or wrong answer here.

But what is disheartening is the overall need for the videos to exist in the first place. Particularly, the mere fact that these truths of what Black people have known for decades have to be consumed ad nauseam in hopes of persuading a large chunk of society, in particular, White people, of the injustices and humanities committed against us.

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