The death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black American who was brutally beaten by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, has once again highlighted the issue of deadly anti-Black racism in the United States. The release of graphic footage of the incident, which was widely circulated by news outlets and on social media, has sparked protests and public campaigns to pressure authorities to take action. However, the use of such footage also has damaging consequences for Black communities, who are forced to produce evidence of abuse and brutality to prove that they face a spectacular level of racism and discrimination.
The way in which such videos are handled is incredibly damaging to both Black Americans and Black people beyond US borders. It creates or exacerbates anxiety for many Black individuals who already suffer from intergenerational trauma. Many Black people instinctively place themselves in the position of the victim, which can have grave repercussions. There has been a huge spike in suicides, especially among African American men and boys, which may be due to this mediated violence.
There is already scientific evidence that violent footage can have a severe psychological effect on viewers. A 2017 study found that about 20 percent of people who watch graphic videos are significantly affected by them, with some individuals experiencing negative stress reactions, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Videos of violent Black deaths objectify the victims, reducing them to their deaths and perpetuating racist tropes that kill Black people.
There is a growing recognition of this dehumanisation within the Black community in the US, and before the release of the brutal footage of Nichols’s death, there were attempts to counter it. Videos celebrating his life were posted on social media, some showing him enjoying skateboarding. Others spread his wonderful photography, which posthumously is also being featured at art events and on billboards across the country.
As we try to overcome the pain of collectively witnessing yet another brutal death of a Black person caught on camera and circulated widely, we need to reconsider how such footage is handled in the future. Videos and images of Black people’s deaths should not be carelessly displayed and shared. The media needs to uphold ethical standards in handling such sensitive material and commit to humanising the victims, reporting on their lives and preserving their dignity.
The general public should also be made aware of the traumatising and degrading effect spreading such footage can have without care for the feelings of other Black people. We, as individuals, also hold responsibility not to perpetuate the dehumanisation of victims of police brutality and racism. We need to honour Black lives, their joy and excellence.
It is important to acknowledge that footage of anti-Black violence and police brutality has helped galvanise the public in the US and beyond to take action on deadly anti-Black racism. It has sparked protests and public campaigns to pressure authorities to take action. Indeed, videos – whether from body cameras, surveillance equipment or mobile phones – can be a powerful tool to counter official attempts to cover up crime scenes and dodge responsibility and can constitute an important piece of evidence in court proceedings.
However, the fact that American society needs to see this level of pain and suffering to begin to care tells us something about its state of affairs. To my knowledge, no other minority group has had to produce as much footage of abuse and brutality to prove that it faces a spectacular level of racism and discrimination that need to be urgently addressed.
Nichols was a talented young man, full of dreams and energy, before becoming a victim of police brutality. He should be remembered through the joyous life he chose to live, not the violent death he suffered. As we continue to fight against deadly anti-Black racism, we must remember to humanise victims, report on their lives and preserve their dignity.