We are tired of watching us die

I accidentally saw George Floyd’s killing today. It auto-played on my Facebook feed, exposing me to the image of a white police officer kneeling on a Black man’s neck until he stopped moving. I’ll never unsee it. I’ve seen images like this before. And, I am tired. We are tired.

I decided to stop intentionally watching…

When I decided to stop intentionally watching these videos, it was in 2015. I clicked on a clip of 33-year-old Walter Scott running from Michael Slager. Slager was a North Charleston police officer who shot Scott stopping him for a non-functioning brake light. What struck me about the video was Slager, standing completely flat-footed, pointing his service weapon. He looked similarly to how one would point a rifle at a deer or other wild game. It haunted me for weeks. It still does.

In November 2014, I saw Tamir Rice, just a 12-year-old boy, killed while playing on a playground in Cleveland, Ohio. I specifically remember the way the officer tilted the gun out of the window, not even fully exposing his body, to shoot the child before even getting out of his car.

In October 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was killed by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times. The teen was walking down the street at the time. The dashcam footage of his killing played in bookstores, on campuses, in coffee shops, and on every channel in the greater Chicago area. I found myself racing to change channels before accidentally seeing him die over and over and over again. To this day, I know exactly what his body looked like when it dropped to the ground for the last time.

In August 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed. His body was left lying in the streets for hours. That same month I saw John Crawford, III killed in a silent film from Walmart footage when police shot and killed him for carrying a pellet gun around the store. Other patrons had called the police and followed him while he shopped and talked to his girlfriend on the phone.

In July 2014, I watched Eric Garner pleading to be released from an unlawful chokehold. “I can’t breathe,” I heard him say until there were no more words. I cried seeing his spirit slowly leave his physical body. 

The deaths of Black women and girls at the hands of police often happen under the cloak of darkness. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a seven-year-old girl in Detroit, was killed in 2010 while sleeping on her couch with her grandmother. Rekia Boyd, 22, was killed while standing with friends in a local park in the West Lafayette area of Chicago, a park I later visited to remember her. Sandra Bland, 28, was found dead in a cold jail cell in southeast Texas. Korryn Gaines was murdered by Baltimore police after a six hour standoff that also resulted in police shooting her five-year-old son. 30-year-old pregnant Charleena Lyles was murdered in Seattle, Washington by police officers who shot her seven times.

I didn’t see moving pictures of all of these women’s and girl’s deaths. In some cases, dash cam footage of an arrest and live images of confrontations gave enough context to build a picture of their final moments. In every instance, it invoked the same terror. 

Resisting the cycle of Black Death

This has become my new normal: avoiding stories, pictures, videos, and content that reminds me that, to many police officers, Black lives do not matter. By extension of this, Black lives often do not matter to white vigilantes who murder Black people like Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin in cold blood. I try to avoid seeing videos and pictures of Black people being senselessly killed but I do so to no avail. Our world of twenty-four hour news cycles and “as it happens” news stories encourages a culture of trauma and Black pain porn.

These murders are modern lynchings. While many white people may believe watching them encourages efforts toward justice, the reality is that these images only reproduce the existing racial hierarchies which already organize society. Zoe Samudzi writes, “It does not sufficiently push a critical mass of people toward a crisis of racial consciousness, and it instead feeds into a piercingly mundane echolalia that flows seamlessly into the tapestry of American inequality.”

During the era of slavery, images like these were used to invoke fear into Black communities. They frequently added a specter of death to an already terrifying social condition of servitude and enslavement. Lynchings worked to reinforce white supremacy. Macabre violence was the consequential force awaiting Black people who dared to challenge the existing status quo.

It’s critically important to check-in with Black people right now and always. The emotional and psychological toll of repeatedly witnessing Black death remains impossible to overstate. Even more than checking in, stop sharing images of us dying. We witness our deaths every single day. Often, we live in communities where the tolls of white supremacy and anti-Blackness remain front-and-center like our circadian rhythm. We don’t need reminders that the world is frequently attempting to kill us.

Instead, turn off the Black pain theater. Consider that there are concrete, anti-racist methods to support Black communities during times of inexplicable crisis. Justice takes so much more work than the passive action of viewing Black death.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.