“I have seen 4 seconds of it. I heard my son begging for his life. I cannot watch. I know it is very disturbing,” said Janetta Brown to Democracy Now! about a 17-minute video which documents the death of her son Sergeant James Brown in a jail in El Paso.
Sgt. James Brown voluntarily checked himself in to the Texas jail on a Friday night in 2012 to serve a two night sentence for a 2011 DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) charge. The only reason Brown’s death has been in the news recently is because a video of the incident was recently acquired by an El Paso TV station. Brown’s family, including his mother did not know of a video of his death until it was mentioned, in passing, by a lawyer. That led to the request and release of the disturbing footage.
The video has been widespread across the news this past week. I have had the YouTube window open in my browser for days, knowing I should respond, but not quite knowing how to. This is my beat — imagery emerging from a state-administered locked facility, made by the state authority being used and interpreted against itself. My anger, sadness and outrage were immediate and obvious. I felt those negative emotions but they did not fully describe my experience. I was paralysed from writing because of guilt. I feel guilty that I am viewing a video of a man’s death that his mother has not. I feel guilty that I am so far removed from the subject I can move on from its devastating truth on a whim. The browser reamined open because I couldn not close it; to do so would be to, likely, never return.
“It’s devastating. It’s inhumane,” said mother, Janetta Brown. She was describing the events leading up to her son’s death, but she could as easily have been described the videoing of events. “It’s inexplicable what happened to him,” she added.
It is inexplicable that we are able to view a death online. Centuries ago, people witnessed death in war, workplace accidents, hate crimes, in person. Decades ago, people began to witness death (not the aftermath of death, but the actual drawing of final breath) in sequenced still news imagery and some TV footage. Years ago, we became accustomed to seeing deaths online. It’s almost inexplicable that once people mostly encountered death at the bedside of a loved one, and now children can watch snuff-movie-equivalents on the internet, at will.
DEATH IN PUBLIC
Authorities claimed Sgt. James Brown died due to a Sickle Cell Crisis which prevented oxygen getting to his brain and organs, but the family say he had no prior record of Sickle Cell Disease. Brown repeatedly says he can’t breathe and appears not to resist. By the end of the video, he is shown naked, not blinking or responding, his breathing shallow. Attorneys say an ambulance was never called. Brown was eventually brought to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Unfortunately, Brown’s filmed death is the latest in a series of high profile videos to hit the news channels. The deaths of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York, Charly Leundeu Keunang in Los Angeles, James M. Boyd in Albuquerque, John Crawford III in Ohio, and Walter Scott in North Charleston have all been consumed by the public. As challenging as these videos are, we would not want them to not exist. The judicial system, as it currently operates, serves to protect law enforcement officers with their fingers on the trigger more than it does those who are victim to cops’ bullets. We know that video evidence is one of the few things that can sway legal decisions in a direction favourable to the victims and their advocates.
I suspect that if videos of the murders of Akai Gurley, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown had existed prosecutions for the assailants may have stood a chance in court. (I fully acknowledge the murder of Eric Garner taped from start to finish resulted in no indictment of the officers.)
Given the calls for more police body cams — from the White House to Michael Brown’s family — it might be that our future will hold more videos of death. And so we have news and evidence to be analysed; the use of video as witness versus the circulation of video as internet fodder; and the empowerment of knowing versus the guilt of knowing at a distance. The multiple roles these types of video play created my long hesitation to write this post.
My paralysis was broken when I read Teju Cole’s well-pitched Death In The Browser. Cole also grapples with the discomfort of being a consumer but he manages to reconcile his emotions and untangle their confusion. He admits to writing about many things related to the issue of Walter Scott’s videoed death before arriving at his main point about Scott’s death. But Cole’s words are not wasted.
“If you set enough tangents around a circle, you begin to recreate the shape of the circle itself,” writes Cole.
Cole brings us gently to a point at which we all must stand if we’re to function in a culture now unhesitant to circulate images of fellow humans’ deaths. Rather elegantly, Cole draws a parallel between the person killing and the person watching the killing.
We need to adapt to the new type of life and death data to which we are exposed. Cole points out that watching a time bar creep across the bottom of our screen is a conscious action. Just as raising a gun and pulling a trigger is a conscious action. As individuals, we are not able to change decisions made by others, but we can consider deeply the decisions we make before the screens of our devices.
Have we comprehended that there are profound differences to the material we see on the internet? All things are not the same. And yet it’s pretty easy to open or close a browser window, regardless. Find something else to hold our attentions.
I’m not talking about being desensitized per se (arguments that photos of death and disaster numb us are largely discredited). I am not talking about a psychological or evolutionary shift; I’m talking about a structural fact of our internet browsers. It’s all too easy to click the next tab, the next news story, the next or previous image in a gallery. We remain appalled by (videoed) injustices but will we be moved to political action because of them? Do we see the urgency in a video, the same way we see the urgency in a burning building or baby on the tracks? A lot of my concern feeds into a larger worry that we’re living a step apart anyway, making the harder work of political organising more of a challenge. We need to ensure footage of violence emboldens us against violence.
Is the seriousness of death and murder, repeated, on our screens enough of a spur for us to enact equally serious discretion over our online consumption? I left my browser open all week, Cole closed his before the shots ended. There’s no right or wrong answer, but there is a right or wrong decorum.
My thoughts return to Janetta Brown. And they will every time I have the option to press play on an internet vid. She made a conscious choice not to watch the video of her son’s death; she did so to avoid further trauma. Yet, Janetta Brown understands the role the video will play for educating hundreds of thousands of people on the injustices behind bars in America. Killing videos are not for entertainment. Imagine meeting a victim’s mother or family or loved ones and imagine telling them that you watched the video in any other spirit than sympathy and solidarity.