Melissa Smyth

In the week after Eric Casebolt of the McKinney Police Department provided backup for two women’s racist assaults on black teens enjoying an end-of-school pool party, I was reading Hilton Als’s collection of essays called White Girls.

A few days passed before I watched the entire video of the incident, recorded by white partygoer Brandon Brooks. That a police officer (especially, but not exclusively, a white one) would respond to a complaint directed at black youths with extreme excessive force is neither new nor surprising. In many ways, the ubiquity of camera phones has been a blessing, not because police brutality had gone unaddressed, but because (near) indisputable evidence and the (near) unavoidability of the “race issue” on social media have mainstreamed it.

At the same time, the images are nothing new. The accessibility of these images does not necessarily translate into more productive action or even more useful critique. And discussion of the “race issue” too often circumvents the “issue” that created the problem in the first place—white supremacy. Images of brutality can just as easily confirm the power order as they can expose it.

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Image still from pool-party video.

As I read Als’s essay, GWTW, on watching Gone with the Wind and looking at the lynching photographs widely distributed in the US as postcards in the first half of the twentieth century, I returned to the web to challenge that sinking feeling that nothing matters anymore.

In an interview, Brooks explained that the cops paid him no mind as they attempted to round up and detain all of the black and brown kids around him, and that he felt compelled to continue filming when Casebolt drew his gun in pursuit of Adrian Martin, scared that someone would get shot, possibly killed.

In the end, nobody was shot, nobody killed. A group of kids were harassed and humiliated for visibly existing in a setting that prefers to ignore them, fifteen year old Dajerria Beckton was assaulted for verbally expressing her discomfort, eighteen year old Martin arrested for posing the closest challenge to a middle aged man’s domination of the girl. Parents and community members, while incensed, expressed relief that this time, there were no deaths. 

It matters greatly that none of these teens lost their lives—after all, it is black lives, not just black deaths, that demand and deserve affirmation—but that this incident involved no fatalities does not distinguish it from the altercations that killed, among so many others, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. Neither should the video, viewed millions of times, be sorted apart from the lynching photographs that Als discusses.

Als describes what he sees in such photographs, beyond victims, beyond the brutalized, mangled, hanged, displayed black bodies:

"One big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stoned. But I have been looked at, watched, and seen the harm in people’s eyes—fear that can lead to becoming a dead n*****, like those seen here. And it’s those photographs that have made me understand, finally, what the word n***** means… as a metaphorical lynching before the real one. N***** is a slow death. And that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a colored man."1

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Cartoon by artist Markus Prime via Freequency.

Like Beckton and Martin, Als is not dead. But the teens in McKinney were targeted, first, by white neighbors, called “black fuckers,” and told they should stay in Section 8 housing. It’s safe to assume that this was not the first time these young people were racially harassed, but one might imagine that some sort of slow death feeling has been instilled, or exacerbated, by the recent attacks. While they may not be verbally degraded, slapped in the face, or forced to the ground every day, they will continue to be looked at, and watched, with harmful eyes.

Sean Toon, who made the 911 call in McKinney, will still consider them unwelcome in his community, and ironically, the violent, disproportionate police response, like those seen across the country, seems to only have increased white fear, the prejudicial association of black bodies with danger. White people can call on the police to force a confrontation with blacks in their proximity to legitimize the fear with which they look upon them.

So, we have video evidence of the event. Watching the video, anyone short of the most extreme form of bigot (though there are many) can say with certainty that they see the officer in uniform as the violent aggressor, the teens as innocent victims. But understanding the broad racial attitudes of white America through its righteous outrage in these moments does an injustice to the harm in its standard modus operandi. 

It wasn’t lost on Brooks that his video would enter a growing national archive of police brutality videos. It was clear that his friends’ lives lay on the line connecting Casebolt’s fear and his trigger finger. It is clear, too, that only certain lives are positioned on this line—black, and to a close degree, brown lives. In terms of power’s brute force, they mattered only insofar as they did not disturb Casebolt’s peace of mind, his deranged sense of authority, or community residents’ sense of public respectability.

The problem with thinking about this and other attacks, like the murders of John Crawford and Walter Scott, as videos, is that their concept comes to mimic the nature of photography—symbolic, powerful, yet episodic and incomplete. It builds a conception of racist violence as a handful of events, carried out by a handful of racists, allowing one to ask how often this happens unseen, but not as the endemic expression of the foundation of American society. It does not make us understand that Hilton Als feels like he’s living a slow death, being metaphorically lynched, all the time.

Watching these videos offers a delusional explanation of how we look at racism. Looking at Eric Casebolt digging his knees into Dajerria Beckton, and looking at Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, and expressing outrage and disbelief at such unimaginable acts, ignores the lived reality of that fearful harm that can follow a black person anywhere, replacing it with what one would prefer to imagine or not imagine. White privilege is what allows one to look at blackness with fear and harm, but to look away when the same looking turns deadly.

Freddie Gray was executed for exchanging glances with a cop.

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The critical satire in ‘Driving While Black,’ ‘Swimming While Black,’ and ‘Walking While Black’ seems to have tragically exhausted its use Wednesday in Charleston. Anti-black racism is not made of a dormant racial tension that is provoked by an unexpected movement or (founded or unfounded) criminal suspicion, because the fear, haughtiness, and sick lust for domination exhibited in the McKinney video pervade our society, are in fact its life force.

Unlike Beckton, Martin, and Als, who are not dead, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Rev. Clementa Pinckney were murdered by white supremacist violence. We don’t have a video of the massacre, carried out by Dylann Roof, but what can we imagine?

Als describes his frustration at frequent requests to validate a historical understanding of lynching photographs via his black perspective.

“I see in these photographs… a lot of crazy-looking white people, as crazy and empty-looking in the face as some of the white people who stare at me… When they look at these pictures, who do they identify with? The maimed, the tortured, the dead, or the white people who maybe told some dumb n***** before they hanged him, You are all wrong, n*****ish, outrageous, violent, disruptive, uncooperative, lazy stinking, loud, difficult, obnoxious, stupid, angry, prejudiced, unreasonable, shiftless, no good, a liar, fucked up…”

It is worth remembering that the slurs thrown at teens in McKinney, as well Roof’s raving indictment of his victims as rapists, taking over “our” country, are regular parts of our national vocabulary, whether directed at individuals or filtered through political rhetoric. These are the words that are carried in our looking.

Taking a fair and honest look at racism and the white supremacist state means not looking away from these truths, because looking away, or looking at arm’s length, permits their endurance. Yet, our visual culture also provides the opportunity for radical creativity in engaging with racism—neither by confirming nor exposing it, but by actively challenging it. Social media facilitated the naming of Tracey Carver-Allbritton, pressuring her employer to suspend her for assaulting a teenager. Marcus Prime’s drawing of a black woman in a bikini standing over a handcuffed prostrate cop is a poignant reimagining of power, just as a photoshopped image (artist unknown?) of European leaders marching in Paris, transplanted onto a raft used by migrants in the Mediterranean, challenges the coded hierarchy of human value.

In the pre-digital age of 1980, John Berger was already asking, “Is there an alternative photographic practice?” His answer still rings true, and offers a call for the visual to be a supporting part in a radical transformation of society and politics: “The system can accommodate any photograph. Yet it may be possible to begin to use photographs according to a practice addressed to an alternative future. This future is a hope which we need now, if we are to maintain a struggle, a resistance, against the societies and culture of capitalism.”2

A video does not represent reality, and neither do a million views equal a million anti-racist activists. But when lived experience is reprioritized, the visual can be utilized as a tool to understand, uplift, and re-imagine the forms it can take.

A final thought: in looking at the movement that has grown against white supremacist violence in the last year, I often see rejoinders like, "Freddie Gray did not die in vain." Of course he did. That's the problem. The people we mourn most often did not volunteer themselves as martyrs; their struggle is involuntarily ascribed by their very existence, and every innocent life taken is taken in vain. Yes, action and change have come about as a result of these murders, but thinking of justice in terms of progress, like understanding oppression as an episodic series of videos, is debilitating. Blinking at the Confederate flag won't set it aflame.

End Notes:
1. Hilton Als, “GWTW,” in White Girls (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2014), 137.
2. John Berger, “Uses of Photography,” in About Looking (New York: Vintage, 1980), 60

Feature Image is a still from Gone With the Wind via NPR.

Melissa Smyth is an Associate Editor for Warscapes magazine. She recently completed a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, concentrating in visual culture and photographic representation. She also studied Visual Arts at Fordham University. Her photography work can be seen here: http://melissasmyth.4ormat.com/.


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