Commentary  On Looking (Away)

Visibility, Spectatorship, and Police Brutality

What I remember most about the 2014 Ferguson uprising is my computer screen. The mainstream news, increasingly archaic and willing to debate the value of Black lives lost, was unappealing to me. This, coupled with my frustration at the limited support I felt I could provide to protestors thousands of miles away as a highschooler living in a Canadian suburb, prompted me to retweet, reblog, and repost everything I laid my eyes on. I watched (protesters chanting, instances of police brutality, interviews of grieving family members) not just as a spectator, but as a means of bearing witness. After all, if I was unable to put my body on the line, was looking at everything not my moral obligation?

On May 31, 2020, 50,000 Montrealers came together to protest the murder of George Floyd – and the other countless Black victims of state violence. Unlike in 2015, I was a physical participant in this protest. We chanted, “Ça suffit,” and “No Justice! No Peace!” We knelt, and we danced. But in the midst of all this, I still found myself looking.

There were protest signs everywhere. Some of them said the same things we chanted, others advertised protestors’ political affiliations or displayed the acronym ACAB (“All Cops are Bastards”). Less common were pictures of George Floyd, the same pictures that have already been shared extensively on social media during the past week.

The most popular image, by far, is that of George taking a selfie in a black and grey sweater. His pose is familiar to those of us with family members over the age of 40 who are active on social media. A perfect example of what I affectionately refer to as the “WhatsApp Selfie.” His image joins a growing canon of portraits of Black victims of white supremacist violence that have permeated popular consciousness: Nia Wilson’s effervescent smile, Mike Brown’s regal pose in his cap and gown, Trayvon Martin beaming in his blue jumpsuit at NASA, and many others.

Floyd’s selfie is, perhaps, the most ordinary addition to this ever-expanding catalogue. Neither a marker of an important milestone, nor intended for a social media savvy audience, George Floyd’s portrait reveals little of the man it represents. It would not, under normal circumstances, elicit much pathos from viewers. Yet, it is the regular, slightly awkward, portrait of a man in the early stages of middle age, that has allowed me, for the first time in a long time, to look.

During the past week, I have refused to look at my phone screen, or any other device for that matter. Twitter and Instagram, which ordinarily take up the bulk of my screen time, have become the least used apps on my phone (for comparison, I spent thrice as much time on the Notes app as I did on Twitter this week). I have looked away, not out of willful ignorance, but for fear of what I will see. I am terrified that I will come across what I have barely managed to avoid over the past few years:  a video or an image of a Black person being murdered in public.


Have we seen too much?

The first time I realized I had seen too much was in 2017. I was seated in the audience for the poet Claudia Rankine’s lecture at Concordia University, excited to hear the words of an author whose work had helped me understand me and my people’s place in the world. As part of the talk, Rankine played a Situation Video. The video, part of a larger series created by the poet and her husband John Lucas, featured footage of various instances of Black people being murdered by police officers as Rankine read sotto voce. I do not remember much of the video; instead, what I recall most vividly is the muffled cries of the white man who sat beside me.

His display of emotion angered me. I did not begrudge him for shedding tears. Rather what dawned on me was that his sadness had come only after having to watch multiple Black people die violent deaths. If the cost of sympathy was that one witness the most gratuitous forms of violence against Black people, where did that leave Black viewers who would constantly have to view and/or relive this trauma? And what did it say of contemporary allyship that such violent visual evidence was required to elicit sympathy in the first place? 

For many of the people who have watched and shared the video of George Floyd’s execution, looking has engendered rage and sympathy, and hastened calls for his murderers to be punished. After all, who could watch a video of his murder and not agree that a grave injustice had been committed?

Rather than take comfort in what, on the surface, seems to be an increasing awareness of police brutality, I am worried that the mass spectatorship of such acts of violence renders mundane the other interconnected, and often quotidian, forms of structural violence that Black people face. Furthermore, the misplaced hope that simply looking at such videos and images can serve as an antidote to white supremacist violence belies the reality that Black life is punctuated by hypervisibility and hypersurveillance. Ever-increasing police budgets, border patrol, CCTV, and deputized citizens alike are constantly given resources for the purpose of watching over, and restricting, Black life.

It is not that I do not understand the value in seeing images of violence, nor do I wish to undermine the actions of seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier, whose remarkable bravery has brought George Floyd’s death to mainstream consciousness. Rather, by refusing the allure of  looking – the expectation that simply bearing witness to spectacular acts of violence, be it watching a video of yet another Black person’s execution, or petitioning for police officers to wear body cameras to continuously record police violence – I am attempting to avoid normalizing what amounts to a higher burden of proof for Black victims of state violence. At the very least, the expectation of such “evidence” requires that Black people risk their lives to document state violence, and that non-Black people must become sufficiently collectively outraged by these grotesque acts of violence to demand change. Such action is not only unsustainable but, ultimately, impossible. Police brutality is a daily reality and frequently conducted in ways that garner widespread public support. Mass spectatorship of individual instances of this violence, while useful in creating outrage towards specific instances of abuse, does not guarantee action that challenges the legitimacy of the police as an institution that is given the power to determine which Black people get to live or die. 

My decision to simply believe that George Floyd died an untimely and violent death because he was a Black person at the hands of a police officer, without watching the video of his death, is not a denial of the circumstances of his murder. By refusing to watch, I choose to see George Floyd only in the way he might have wished to be seen by us. I look at him, not to find proof of the injustice that led to his death, but to mourn his life and demand a world in which people who look like him do not need to have their deaths viewed by millions of people in order to receive a semblance of justice.