This Is America (In 2020): Existing While Black
This week on democracy-ish, Danielle and Touré are coming to you with heavy hearts in the wake of a newly released video that depicts yet another brutal murder of a young Black citizen of these United States.
“It is extraordinarily heartbreaking and triggering and painful to see this video,” says Touré. “It's been hard for a lot of people. But we want to talk about it –– and some of the other videos that have emerged over the past 10 years that have been really, really hard to watch.”
It’s 2020, and lynchings are still happening in America.
Everyone has a camera in their pocket. Are viral videos of Black murders traumatizing us more –– or are they vital for justice?
Why do we still have to convince anyone that Black lives matter? (Hint: there’s a white supremacist in the Oval Office.)
It’s been more than 10 weeks since 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and shot dead by two white men in a pickup truck while jogging through a Santilla Shores, Georgia, neighborhood. But the case is only just now receiving national attention –– and sparking outrage.
“It is fucking unconscionable that we are just learning about this now,” says Danielle. “Many people, as they watched it, didn't even realize –– until it was too late –– what the fuck they were watching. That it wasn't a clip from a movie. It’s somebody's life.”
What’s even more devastating is that we’ll add Ahmaud to an ever-growing list of Black folks who’ve been killed due to racial profiling and other forms of systemic racism.
We know many of their names by heart: Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Mike Brown. Laquan McDonald.
What impact does this have on us –– our mental health as individuals, and our collective psyche?
“It's really painful to have these snuff films in your head all the time,” Touré adds.
It’s not just painful. It’s galling. It’s absolutely infuriating.
The rage is real. Let’s talk it out.
Episode Highlights –– The Rage Is Real: Ahmaud Arbery
This Is America … in 2020
Danielle admits that she spent the majority of the past few days in tears.
When media of this kind surfaces, like the citizen video of Ahmaud Arbery’s cold-blooded killing, “we share it wildly,” says Danielle. “As if we need to be spreading trauma porn.”
After the video of Ahmaud went viral, a chapter of the NAACP tweeted that folks should keep sharing and watching these videos.
“It is in the same vein that we share these videos as Emmett Till's mother had an open casket,” says Danielle.
The murder of Emmett Till and the power of Black media
For listeners who don't know the story, Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who visited relatives in Mississippi in the summer of 1955.
On August 28, Emmett and his cousins went to a grocery store to buy candy. That’s where he –– allegedly –– had an interaction with a white woman. He was accused of whistling at her, flirting with her, and worse. (Decades later, she recanted most of her testimony; the case is still under investigation by the FBI.)
What we do know –– what is painfully seared into our national consciousness –– is that at least two men kidnapped Emmett, beat him, and gouged out one of his eyes before shooting him in the head and throwing him into the Tallahatchie River. His bloated, disfigured body was discovered three days later.
His mother “moved hell and earth to get his deformed body back from Mississippi to Chicago,” Touré says. “I honor the courage of Mamie Till … and even though Emmett looked like a frickin’ movie monster with an eye hanging out and his head misshapen, she said: leave the coffin open. I want them to see what they did to my boy.”
Thousands of Chicagoans lined up to see exactly that. And Chicago-based Jet magazine, then a staple of every Black household in America, published a graphic photograph of the open casket that catalyzed the civil rights movement.
“It brought a new level of urgency … that helped push the movement forward,” says Touré.
The risks of being born Black … and a boy
Even if we view the viral lynching videos of today with Emmett Till in mind, Touré says that he knows people in the Black Lives Matter movement who say they don’t need, or want, to see every one of them –– for their own mental health.
Danielle thinks these viral snuff films have an even more pernicious impact.
“It’s desensitizing us to the fact that these are fucking human beings … Because when we watch Eric Garner plead for his fucking life and say that he could not breathe … his family had to watch him [too], millions of times, take his last breath,” she says.
“So much so, that his daughter ended up dying of a heart attack –– of a broken heart, in the same way that we’ve watched too many Black family members, like Kalief Browder’s mother, die from broken hearts.”
Danielle says she’s often asked whether she wants to have kids someday.
“Yes, I do,” she says. “I want girls … because I am fearful to have a Black boy in America.”
She adds: “I know the trauma that Black women have to deal with on a regular basis. But there is something different about the hunting that happens to Black men in this country.”
The worst playlist
We’ve been trying to tell the rest of the country what it’s like to be hunted –– to be terrorized –– for generations, says Touré. Now, he wants “the ubiquity of cameras in modern America to be used for justice,” he says. “We have the technology to show that it's true.”
The Black Lives Matter movement really crystallized through the power of smartphones and social media.
Before activists raised the alarm on Twitter, “cable news wasn't fucking going to Ferguson for Michael Brown,” Danielle notes. “They weren't even talking about it that day.”
We might never have known exactly what it looked like when Eric Garner was slammed to the ground and beaten by New York Police Officers.
“This mass of men are all around him, dragging him down as if he's not human, says Touré.
He was beaten until he couldn’t breathe –– for the crime of selling loosies on the street.
And then there’s the grainy dash-cam video of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, which clearly depicts the 17-year-old moving away from, not toward, the officer who shot him.
The live-streamed shooting of Philando Castile is another unforgettable tragedy.
“It happened right in front of his family … his daughter and his woman crying out. That's really, really, really hard to watch,” Touré says.
When the cops shot a Black child on a playground
The surveillance video that captured 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he was fatally shot by Cleveland police officers in 2014 is perhaps the most harrowing one of all.
“Every single one of them has been hard, but he was a child, playing on a playground. And they [the cops] didn't even bother to get out of the fucking car,” Danielle says.
“It happened so fast. The car runs up, they jump out and immediately start shooting. There was not even an attempt to assess the situation.”
If they had, they would have seen that Tamir was just a kid playing with a toy gun.
But Touré says it’s important to keep watching.
“It does make us numb. But I feel like, I want to know.”
Evil, but necessary?
These endless video loops aren’t just hard to watch, says Danielle. They’re “emotionally fucking exhausting.”
But, she points out that watching these shootings is, unfortunately, all in a day’s work for journalists and commentators like herself and Touré.
“It’s part of the actual job of reporting … and analysis and conversation. But it’s also part of just being fucking Black in America .... which is a full-time fucking job.”
Back in the ‘50s, white America needed to see the images of Emmett Till. Arguably, it wasn’t until then that the horror of lynching began to sink into our national consciousness.
But now? “I don't give a fuck what white people need to see,” Danielle says. “If you need to see a video to believe white supremacy is real, then fuck you.”
“They do need to see it … this is not about the white gaze and wanting to prove to them what we've been saying is true. I feel a desire, an imperative … to not be blind to what's going on ... My conscious mind is like, turn away. We've seen too many. You can let this one go.”
“And then some deeper voice says: no, but I have to see what happened. It's almost like a sacrament. Like, I'm not a good Christian if you don't take the sacrament, and I’m not a good Black person if I don't watch this video. I need to know!”
Will white people ever get it?
To Danielle, the hardest thing to watch is … apathy.
“White America doesn't give a fuck,” she says. “We've been spending how many hundreds of years trying to convince these motherfuckers that we're not still three-fifths of a person? That we're not chattel?”
Our country was built on the backs of Black people –– “whose blood sweat and tears are literally in the soil, and in every single marble fucking building in this country,” she adds.
And yet, “we still have to say that Black lives matter.”
Touré doesn’t even care about that right now.
“I care about us and how this lands on us. I go back to the pain of Philando in front of his family … he was licensed to carry, and he told [the police officer], I have a gun. I'm reaching for my wallet … If you do everything right, it can still go wrong,” he says.
There’s no such thing as “doing everything right,” Danielle says. “Don't tell me not to do this, that and the other thing … What you are saying is don't be born Black. Don't go outside Black. Don't be in your own home and dare to be Black. Just don't exist.”
Epigenetics: the trauma lives on
And so, yet again, “the rage is real,” says Touré. “It is appropriate. It is honest. It is a real reaction to modern Black history, to historic Black history. Because none of these incidents exist in a vacuum.”
Every viral video amplifies generations of pain –– so we all have heavy hearts, he adds. “We share the Trayvon moment. We share the Eric Garner moment. We also have moments from our family, from our local communities. We all still share the Emmett Till moment.”
In not-too-distant history, photos of lynchings “were traded around,” Touré points out. “You see white people barbecuing and celebrating in the foreground, and a Black body destroyed in the background. Talk about epigenetics –– the pain of those images and these videos sits in us at an extraordinarily deep level.”
“Something in me that wants to have those notes played again, because I know it's real. This is a real part of American life, and I want it to be eradicated. But as long as it's not, I want to know that it's happening.”
‘It could have been my sister’
There's an impersonality to today’s viral videos, says Touré, that echoes the lynchings of the past. We know that, especially in the case of traffic stops, this could happen to anyone.
“You could have been Sandra Bland,” he tells Danielle. “I could have been Philando Castile. You, listening, could have been Laquan McDonald. And you know that … it could have been my brother. It could have been my sister. It's incredibly traumatizing to have an entire community walking around with all these videos in our heads.”
Meanwhile, “we have a white supremacist in the White House,” Danielle says.
“We have an entire Republican party that is a white supremacist regime. Trumpism is about evil. It is about pain. It is about racism. It is about misogyny, homophobia, transphobia –– I mean, you name it. That's what they stand for.”
‘Powering through’ everyday tragedy
If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, we’d watch Ahmaud Arbery’s murder and have to go to work the next day.
“We’d just have to power through,” Danielle says. “I don't know how many times over the two years I was working at a particular firm … How many Black deaths I watched or read about and had to go into the office and people would be like, oh, what's wrong? And I'm like, do you watch the news?”
That’s why she says that “it doesn't matter if we have videotapes. It doesn't matter if there's a fucking crowd … Whether we're looking at pictures in history books of lynchings, or we're looking at a video of a lynching that happened two months ago, those motherfuckers know nothing will happen. That's why they do it.”
‘Civil’ disobedience (and hypocrisy) of white protesters
There’s another kind of viral video going around –– and it’s a stark contrast.
We’re also watching white anti-“lockdown” protesters as they continue to rally in places like Wisconsin and Michigan –– who feel the need to “dress up as if they are extras in Platoon or Saving Private Ryan,” says Danielle.
“We’ve seen footage for weeks of the disobedience, the disrespect –– towards quote unquote ‘authority,’ but not one newscaster says, Oh my god. Look at those white people. They are so aggressive.”
Just this week, she wrote about the harassment that Black people are already experiencing when wearing protective face masks in public.
“Meanwhile, you have these white motherfuckers walking around with AR-15s slung on their backs, screaming in the faces of police officers. And not a fucking hair on their heads are touched,” she adds.
Let’s name some of those motherfuckers: Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael, the father and son who killed Ahmaud in cold blood. The elder McMichael is a retired police officer –– which may help explain why “nothing is happening right now to them, which is absurd,” says Touré. [Ed. note: as of Thursday evening on May 7, the day after this episode was recorded, the McMichaels were arrested and charged with murder and aggrevated assault.]
“No, it's not absurd. It's America,” Danielle replies.
Tweets and trade-offs
Joe Biden tweeted about Ahmoud yesterday, saying that he “was killed in cold blood. My heart goes out to his family, who deserve justice and deserve it now. It's time for a swift full and transparent investigation into his murder."
Danielle appreciated the tweet. “I appreciate him saying something, because God knows the fucking President of the United States isn't going to make mention of a goddamn thing. According to him, everything is great. The country has never been better.”
That’s what Trump would have us believe, even though the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center warn us that white supremacy is on the rise. Even though more than 70,000 people are dead, most of whom are Black and Brown and elderly.
Touré is confident that Biden will be better at addressing Black voters’ concerns than our current president –– “because Trump is literally willing and happy to do nothing,” he says. “But do I really believe that Biden is the guy who's going to make lasting positive change on issues like this? These are the trade-offs we make in electoral politics. You may not get what you need from the candidate you have to vote for, because the other candidate's so much worse.”
We’re not alone … and neither are you
“I'm just tired of dealing with this,” says Danielle. “I want to know if, God willing, if I get to live for another 40 years –– who the fuck knows at this rate? –– will I ever see any type of justice … Is anything really ever better? Or do we just have clearer footage?”
“Do you feel a little better for having talked it out today?” asks Touré.
“And I don't know if people will feel better for listening. But they may feel less alone. I feel less alone. I will say that.”
Touré’s not sure that he truly desires to feel better. He paraphrases James Baldwin: to be awake and Black is to be angry.
“I don't want to become comfortable … There's an extraordinary amount of pain and trauma that goes along with being Black in America in 2020. I don’t want to forget it. Hopefully … others feel the same rage that we're talking about.”
As always, democracy-ish will be back next week.