George Floyd, whose May 25, 2020 death while in police custody was captured on video in Minneapolis. Photo credit: Twitter

Video of black men killed at the hands of law enforcement can shine a light on racism, but these violent images are also exploitative, a professor argued Friday.

Allissa V. Richardson, an assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, called for limiting the use of such video.

“The fact that it’s being looped casually, almost like a sports highlight, is very disturbing,” she told City News Service.

Broadcasters have replayed images of George Floyd dying Monday as a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground. The video also has been widely shared on social media. New video surfaced Friday that appeared to show other officers holding Floyd down.

Floyd’s death has sparked an outcry nationwide, including condemnation from a raft of officials, including police chiefs and county sheriffs in San Diego and Los Angeles. Protests erupted in Minneapolis and cities across the country, including Houston and San Jose.

Prosecutors filed murder charges against one officer in connection with Floyd’s death. Three others await word on potential charges. The Minneapolis department fired all four officers.

Beatings, shootings and other violent incidents captured by passerby, activists and citizen journalists have ignited social justice movements in the U.S. and around the world.

Richardson argues though that they also have been used to reinforce racist messages.

“When these images first started to come on the scene from our cellphones, as far back as 2014, many people were grateful for them because we thought, `Oh, great, this will finally shine a light on what the black community has been experiencing for many, many decades,”‘ she said.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now is that the abundance of these videos kind of function as black snuff films … and there are many factions on the internet that use them to create memes that are harmful.”

She cited the example of “Trayvoning” by teens posing in imitation of Trayvon Martin’s dead body. They used Skittles, iced tea and a hoodie as props to represent the unarmed teen shot to death in Florida by a white man. A jury later  acquitted him of murder and manslaughter.

Richardson, the author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism, said news media handle black and white deaths differently. She argues for considering videos of black deaths as sacred.

“We can’t really think readily of a time when we’ve seen white people dying on television news at all,” she said.

That’s true even during mass tragedies, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the 2017 mass shooting at the Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas strip, Richardson said.

“Most of those victims were white, but we don’t have to have the horrific videos and footage to know that lots of people lost their lives,” she said.

Despite the fact that nearly 3,000 people died during 9/11, the only widely publicized photo of anyone dying that day is of a man falling from the top of the World Trade Center.

That’s because a concerted effort was made by journalists not to circulate other available images, Richardson said.

A different kind of calculus, both more callous and more distrustful, seems to apply to people of color, she said.

“For black people, we have to do an additional kind of mental acrobatics to say, `Well, OK, is there a video? Let me see this video, and let me see if it’s complete enough. Are there pieces that could possibly be missing that could explain why this person deserved their demise?”‘

She argues for putting limits in place.

“In the past, black activists did not just broadcast (these images) and loop them with that casual air that we see now. They used them for a very small point in time … to highlight a social justice issue and then they put them in … a shadow archive (like) a newsroom, a library or a museum,” Richardson said.

“So that’s really what I’m calling for us to do is to eventually get to the space where we just believe black people, and we don’t need to have all of these different kinds of videos as proof.”

Until then, Richardson suggests broadcasting the imagery for a short period of time and then pulling videos back from public consumption, in part to spare victims’ families.

She highlighted the example of a photo of a Latino migrant man who drowned with his daughter while trying to cross into the U.S. as an example of an image she said would never be used if they had been white.

“It’s really just a question of us constantly questioning, who deserves humanity, who deserves dignity in their final moments,” she said. “For people of color, I just feel like it’s so exploitative to have those images out there.”

She closed the interview by posing another question.

“Do we want to use them to be galvanizing points for meaningful social activism or are we using them as an excuse to look away again?”

– City News Service

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