Culture

Trauma Porn and the Problems of Sustaining a Movement: A Lesson from Martin Luther King Jr.

By now, everyone who wishes to (and undoubtedly many who did not) has seen the gruesome death of George Floyd with a knee on his neck. The video of Floyd’s murder now joins a twisted pantheon of video evidence of brutality against Black bodies, that stretches back to the infamous videotaped police beating of Rodney King in 1991, and to public displays of brutality that were cast across the country during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s—such as the indiscriminate violence against protesters in Selma in 1965, now known as “Bloody Sunday,” and the horrific violence against freedom riders in 1961. This publicized violence against Black Americans is nearly as old as America itself. Indeed, as Dr. Esau McCaulley, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, puts it in a recent New York Times article

Visible evidence of black suffering is not new. We have photographs of black lynchings. The screams of black voices and the smell of charred flesh was insufficient to mar the smiling poses gathered ’round our corpses. The videos are a reminder that the issue was never about a lack of evidence. They reveal the lengths to which those in power will go to avoid facing the truth. What is happening in those videos is a manifestation of systemic racism — and to acknowledge that would call into question the system that benefits the powerful.

As Dr. McCaulley points out, evidence of Black suffering and death due to systemic racism has always been available, though it is perhaps harder for White people to ignore in the age of global media. 

So, what are we—and by we I mean White people—supposed to make of this preponderance of evidence? First, I will address the misguided search for a “perfect victim” of violence, and the damage that this search has done and is continuing to do to Black and White psyches. Second, I will hearken back to the transition between what Martin Luther King Jr. called the first and second phases of the Civil Rights Movement, and his inability to motivate White people (and many Black people) to continue to support his efforts for justice after the end of legal segregation. Finally, I will close with a short reflection on what this tells us about the current struggle against White supremacy and police violence. 

The Degrading Quest

There is seemingly a search for a “perfect victim.” Whenever evidence emerges of brutality against Black bodies, voices can be found seeking to justify said brutality. The initial autopsy of George Floyd was twisted in his charging document to blame his death on “potential intoxicants” and “preexisting cardiovascular disease.” Michael Brown allegedly robbed a convenience store. Eric Garner was illegally selling loose cigarettes and resisted arrest. Philando Castile was accused of “being stoned” and reaching for his gun. Even figures that are now remembered as martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement such as Jimmie Lee Jackson—who was shot in the stomach by Alabama State Trooper Bonard Fowler after being chased into a restaurant—were falsely accused of attacking officers as a part of mob violence aimed at police. These examples merely scratch the surface of the fact that, as stated in a recent Scientific American article, “When Black people are killed by police, their character and even their anatomy is turned into justification for their killer’s exoneration.” Such attempted victim blaming—that is, trying to fault victims for the crimes committed against them rather than the perpetrator of the crime—harms everyone in our society, for it tacitly states that the law only applies to those who are found innocent in the court of public opinion, which breaks down the rule of law for everyone.

This search for the perfect victim has many additional harmful consequences, of which I will mention two. First, it forces Black people (in particular) to consistently see images and videos of Black bodies being brutalized. This contributes to higher incidents of PTSD among non-White Americans and, regardless of the intent of the person sharing the suffering, often serves to normalize brutality against Black people rather than lead to any substantive change in the systems that produce the anti-Black brutality. As stated previously by Dr. McCaulley, the evidence (for those who wish to see it) exists, there is no need to flood the internet with new images and videos of Black suffering. Rather, as Dr. Allissa V. Richardson points out, we need to “get to the space where we just believe black people,” meaning that we move away from a culture where brutality against Black people is automatically not believed unless accompanied by ironclad video evidence. 

Second, this search for the perfect victim of anti-Black crime turns White people into voyeurs—hence the term “trauma porn”—who closely examine instances of Black suffering and death for evidence that the victim did or did not deserve what happened to them. Perhaps the most blatant example of this voyeurism is a piece written by communications strategist Ross Johnson for TheWrap.com (which has now been removed from the site), where he argued that Darnella Frazier—the woman who filmed George Floyd’s murder on her iPhone—was “the most influential filmmaker of the century.” In his twisted and bizarre attempt to praise her, he went on to state that Frazier demonstrated: 

incredible craftsmanship… in recording this tragedy for posterity. Using her iPhone with a 2x optical zoom, Frazier subtly moved within a chaotic tableau to capture the last gasps of Floyd, and, only when called for, panned her camera away from Floyd to capture the dismay of onlookers. She caught the utter mystery of the stoic Chauvin, and the minute adjustments of his knee-to-neck chokehold on Floyd. Her hand was steady as these onlookers and Tou Thao, Chauvin’s sidekick/human traffic cone, occasionally blocked her view of Floyd and Chauvin. Ultimately, Frazier found a way to keep Frazier’s face in her frame—even when she had a mere six-inch-wide sight line—right up until the time paramedics carted Floyd off.

Regardless of Johnson’s intentions, his application of film critique to a video of a man being murdered by the police should be profoundly disturbing to those of us who believe that humans are made in the image of God. Such a coldly analytical response to a video depicting the brutal end of a human life dehumanizes the demise of the person being depicted. And, though Johnson’s technical critique of the video of George Floyd’s death is an extreme example, it speaks to the problems inherent in having such “Black snuff films” readily available to anyone via a quick internet search. Namely, it turns us into casual observers and critics of Black death and suffering. 

To be clear, I am not arguing that people should stop using phones, cameras, and other recording devices to hold police and others accountable for their acts of terror and violence. However, we need to inquire regarding our intentions when casually sharing and consuming this media. Why must we see another video or image of a Black person brutalized to be convinced that systemic change is required in our methods of policing? And what does this media do to our own minds and souls? In what ways are we normalizing anti-Black violence even if our attempt is to raise outrage against it? 

Ending Visible Violence or Achieving Justice?

This leads to the second half of my argument, namely that campaigns for justice need to be based not only on outrage against injustice but also on a desire for genuine equality. This is something the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. encountered in his struggle for what he termed a “positive peace,” which he described as not merely the absence of explicit conflict but a situation “in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.” King’s first goal in achieving this positive peace was ending legalized segregation and discrimination. However, this was merely the initial salvo in King’s struggle. The second involved achieving, among other things, economic equality for Black Americans. As he stated to his longtime advisor Bayard Rustin, “You know, Bayard, I worked to get those people the right to eat hamburgers, and now I’ve got to do something… to help them get the money to buy [them].” King was critical of changes in policy that left underlying inequalities of power unaddressed.

When King attempted to move the nation in the direction of genuine equality, he recognized that what had motivated many of his supporters—especially White supporters—was an outrage against Black people being abused in the street, not a desire for Black people to have access to equal power and wealth in American society. As he put it in 1967: 

The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the southern sheriffs. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.

What King is pointing to here is the fact that once the outrageous public violence against Black bodies went away, White people were no longer interested in supporting his movement for justice and equality. White supporters were willing to condemn vicious sheriffs and bigots, but once change became costly—once White people were asked to give up their unearned power and privilege—most were no longer interested in working towards that change. 

This historical example should give those of us who are White and supportive of the movement for Black Lives pause. We need to inquire, if we say that we desire with King that “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24), do we merely desire an end to blatant, horrific brutality against Black bodies, or are we willing to address and dismantle the underlying systems of White supremacy that currently exist in our country and world? For, as Dr. Barbara Ransby states

the insistence of Black Lives Matter on the value of all black lives, especially the most marginalized and oppressed, is nothing less than a challenge to all of us to rethink, reimagine, and reconstruct the entire society we live in. And what a daunting and beautiful challenge that is.

As a Christian and a scholar of Martin Luther King Jr., I see in this call to reimagine society King’s continuing call for what he termed “divine dissatisfaction.” As I have written on at length in other articles, what King means by this is that as Christians we are called to work for the realization of God’s kingdom in the here and now, and thus we must always press towards true justice and genuine loving community. As he stated in his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.” 

Conclusion

In conclusion, I hope to have made two basic points in this article. First, there is no “perfect victim” of anti-Black brutality, and the search for one ultimately dehumanizes all involved in the search. Second, White people like myself who wish to be allies in the fight against racial injustice must reflect on whether we are motivated by outrage at extreme anti-Black brutality or by a desire to change the underlying structures that produced it. Rage, as I have argued, is a potentially useful and prophetic emotion—but only if it motivates us to move towards the radical revolution of values that King insisted was needed in American society. We serve a God who became incarnate to bring God’s kingdom to earth, and we ought not be satisfied until that goal is completed and we can, as King stated, sing with a “cosmic past tense, We have overcome! (Yes) We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe (Yes) we would overcome.”

Additional Recommended Resources:

Black Rage in an Anti-Black World is a Spiritual Virtue – Dante Stewart

The Other America – Martin Luther King Jr.

David Justice

David Justice

David Justice is currently working on his Ph.D. in Christian Theology with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Saint Louis University. He primarily studies Martin Luther King Jr. and liberation theology. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from Greenville College, after which he earned an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Missouri in St. Louis and an M.A. in Theological Ethics from Saint Louis University. He, his wife Mariah, and their two sons Abraham and Theseus live in St. Louis. They enjoy spending time together and seeking out the construction vehicles Abraham so enjoys. In David’s little free time he likes to watch E-sports and tweet about funny things his kids do. Follow him on social media: @DavidtheJust.

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