On May 26 of this already hellacious year, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer and his accomplices in Minneapolis. I am tired of talking to and explaining basic concepts to white people. They know right from wrong; it’s why they wait until the hoods are ready or the badges are bestowed. Anonymity or immunity has long been required as the uniform of slaughter. I want to talk to us.
We as black people in this country have adopted several white traditions into our cultural sphere: Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, urban sprawl, conservatism – and, now, the circulation of the visuals of murdered black bodies for entertainment.
Murdering black people randomly and racially became an American pastime directly after 11 Southern states spent four years committing treason, when poor white folks no longer had to fear rich white folks in regards to “destroying their property.” When black people no longer belonged to anyone, we started being hunted for sport and out of spite.
As soon as the photograph became accessible to Americans, one of the most eagerly photographed things was the corpse of a murdered black person. Pictures of “strange fruit” began to show up in newspapers and postcards. Men, women, children (some still alive right now) even posed and smiled by the bodies. In some areas, a rite of passage was taking a white child to see a public murder. Black death was just as much of a pastime as it was a tool of oppression.
Somewhere along the line we as African Americans internalized this as acceptable and normal. In the smartphone era we have picked up a tradition that had to be abandoned by a nation whose leaders no longer felt like explaining it at world conferences. Every time a black murder is recorded, the video or picture is shared by us all over our platforms. You can see Mike Brown’s body in the street. You can witness Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s last moments on this earth.
There is no legitimate reason why we need to circulate murder tapes between us. It doesn’t make anything hit home anymore with the tape than it does without it. Death does not need any more descriptors. You are biologically wired to do everything possible to keep yourself alive; there is no stronger will than the will to live. Murder is already suitably outrageous as a concept; there is no need to make it visual.
In 1955 Mamie Till decided to open the casket at the funeral of her son Emmitt. She made this decision at the sacrifice of a bit of her sanity for the greater good of us as a people. But it was her decision. We blatantly disregard the wishes of wives, mothers and children and add upon their trauma and grief by sharing the death of somebody they love. We claim it in the name of raising awareness when it’s really just commandeering the life and death of a person who never volunteered to be a point for anybody’s cause.
This isn’t Martin’s body. It isn’t Malcolm’s body. You didn’t know who any of these people were. You don’t own the body, and you don’t own the grief. The decision to share isn’t yours.
It speaks to a disturbed psyche that one would be curious to willingly witness somebody else dying. It shows a lack of communal self-esteem and a devaluing of our purpose. It’s disconcerting that one of us can be murdered and we can decide in that moment that we can define his purpose and disregard the thoughts and feelings of a family just to entertain ourselves.
And I mean entertainment. After you viewed it, you did absolutely nothing besides share it and talk about it – just like a cat video. We aren’t any more advanced for watching that video than had we just read about the incident. We must stop seeing our bodies both alive, but especially dead, as not belonging to us. We are not for consumption, in life or death.
Michael Jones is a native St. Louisan and co-founder of The Free Roots Project.