Some say sharing videos of police brutality against Black people is just ‘trauma porn’

A small group of Black Lives Matter protesters held a rally on the steps of the Kenosha County courthouse Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where police shot Jacob Blake Sunday evening.
CNN  — 

In powerful social media pleas, some people are asking others to stop sharing videos of police brutality against Black men.

The requests come after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was shot seven times in the back as he attempted to enter the driver’s side door of an SUV on Sunday, according to state officials and attorney Ben Crump. Blake’s three sons – ages 3, 5 and 8 – were witness to the shooting, Crump said.

The two officers involved were put on administrative leave as state authorities investigate the events leading up to the shooting, which was caught on camera by a witness. He remained in intensive care late Monday, Crump said. He is suffering from paralysis from the waist down, his father, Jacob Sr., told CNN, but he wasn’t sure if the condition is permanent.

Five hours after the incident unfolded, Crump posted a 13-second video of the shooting, which has amassed 9.3 million views. The incident sparked protests that prompted county officials to institute another curfew Monday night.

The video and its dissemination have elevated an ongoing conversation about the effects of watching and sharing videos of police brutality against Black people and raised questions what it is doing to the mental health of those watching.

Some argue showing such videos does nothing more than exploit traumatic moments such as a beatings or killings. Others think showing the videos is necessary to hold police officers accountable for their actions.

Jacob Blake with his sons.

Do we need video to hold police accountable?

On Sunday, Eliza Orlins, a New York public defender and Manhattan district attorney candidate, retweeted a photo of Blake and his children with the caption, “It just keeps happening. I will not share the video. No one should have to watch that.”

“I think that it should really be a choice and sharing it again mainly serves to amplify Black pain, and I know that there are people that disagree that we should keep presenting evidence of police violence to bring about change and I think it’s a completely reasonable disagreement,” Orlins told CNN. “But I just think that subjecting people to these painful videos without them choosing to view them is pretty upsetting.”

And while she said she doesn’t fault people for sharing it, she thinks “the case to hold police accountable is already very well established and we shouldn’t need another video to see it.”

“When there’s another video of clear excessive force by police, another video doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that any more than all the videos we’ve seen already and anybody that is still denying that is just choosing to lack empathy or lack awareness,” Orlins said.

Jelani Cobb, the Ira A. Lipman professor of journalism at Columbia Journalism School, spoke during a webinar called “Picturing Black Deaths,” where the conversation focused on the ongoing flood of shocking videos of the killings of Black citizens by police.

Referencing the videos that surfaced of George Floyd, Tamir Rice and Philando Castille’s final moments caught on camera, Cobb asked, “What right do we have, really, to intrude upon someone’s final moments, which is the most personal thing that happens to you … aside from birth?”

After these videos surfaced and circulated, Cobb said in the webinar, “It’s difficult because on the one hand, there was this awakening. … People were going like, ‘Oh wow this really does happen … the things that Black people have been saying for all this time really do occur’ and in order to prove that they occur, we have to further dehumanize the person who it happened to.”

Desensitizing America to Black pain

Destiny Singh, an associate attorney in Atlanta, is calling for an end to what she calls “trauma porn” and said she has chosen not to watch the video of Blake for self-care purposes, having seen so many similar in her previous work.

“While your intention may be to ‘bring awareness,’ remember that America is already aware, it just doesn’t care,” she tweeted Monday. “This is the same country that enslaved Black bodies and gave poor white people the right to police them.”

Singh told CNN trauma porn is “using other people’s trauma to shock our system to galvanize support on the issue of police brutality against Black men and ignite some sort of fire in us, which is essentially what sexual porn does.”

“To me, it’s disgusting,” she said. “These videos and mass circulation of videos and photos of Black and brown bodies being slain in the streets, have existed since the slaying of Emmett Till. So when people say we’re doing this to raise awareness, what are we raising awareness about?”

“Just because we have a new medium to show these killings and lynchings, doesn’t mean these aren’t the same images that have been going around for decades and centuries,” she said.

Singh compared the circulation of these videos to seeing a car accident in the street – car accidents happen every day, she said, oftentimes people are shocked and then they move on with their lives.

“We see them, we’re desensitized to them (car accidents) and that’s what these videos are doing, they’re desensitizing America to our pain.”

For those who want to raise awareness to amplify the voices of Black people, she wants people to “think about the Black people who have to endure these images all the time, who have to worry about sending their sons out and coming back in a casket,” Singh said.

Circulating videos of brutality is a ‘necessary evil’

Attorney S. Lee Merritt said showing these videos is a necessary evil. Merritt is one of the attorneys representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who in February was shot and killed while jogging. Three White men were charged with his murder near Brunswick, Georgia. All have pleaded not guilty.

“I physically had a difficult time watching the video (of the shooting of Blake),” he said. “There is such a thing as collective trauma for the Black community, collective trauma for the American community but it’s necessary.

“We have to unfortunately continue to circulate these very painful videos that is causing collective injury, but it’s a necessary evil.”

In the Arbery case, Merritt said, the video of the shooting was made available to the law enforcement community since day one, but it wasn’t until it publicly circulated more than two months later that people began to voice their concern.

In the early hours after George Floyd’s death, local police released a short statement saying that a male “believed to be in his 40’s” died. They said he “appeared to be under the influence” and “physically resisted arrest” but made no mention of any kneeling.

Hours later, video shot by a bystander showed Floyd struggling for minutes while being pinned to the ground as people around pleaded for officers to let him up.

“It was that public outcry and demand, and feeling that really horrible image of him being murdered that was the difference in the justice for Ahmaud and it’s still not over,” he said.

CNN’s Sara Sidner, who has covered the response to police shootings in Ferguson, Minneapolis and now Kenosha, says people on the ground are of two minds when it comes to sharing these videos of police brutality.

On one hand, “community members say if this is happening in your local community getting the video out there is the way you prove what happened and hope it sparks change after outrage,” she says. “But at the same time the video being played and shared over and over again is traumatic especially for the family but also for the community at large.”

Videos of these incidents are powerful tools in telling the story, according to Merritt, but he said it shouldn’t be the only tool.

“We should be as sensitive to this information as possible,” he said. “Just because we have a video it shouldn’t be on constant loop. The story is important enough to be on constant loop, but there are other aspects that we should focus on here too.”

Merritt said if the tables were turned and Blake were the one who shot at the officers, “we would know about Blake’s criminal background, what he was doing last weekend, what his Facebook pages say, so the video is important, but it can’t be the only thing we focus on.”

During the Rodney King police brutality case that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Merritt said, it only took him a week or two before he could no longer watch “that man being beat on video because it was shown so often.”

“I was seeing something else,” he said. “I was seeing a political statement or position. I would see a national debate every time I saw Rodney King being hit with a baton, and I think that’s the consequences of oversaturating a market with brutal images.”

“People grow numb to seeing violence against Black people,” he said.

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