I’m tired of watching Black men like Tyre Nichols die. This shouldn’t be normal
I’m probably one of the few people who hasn’t seen the video footage of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols being beaten to death by five Memphis police officers.
I haven’t watched the video because, honestly, I am tired of seeing Black men die. It shouldn’t be normal to participate in a person’s last moments like this. To hear Black men scream for their mothers as the state takes their lives. To be constantly haunted by images of young men and women who could easily have been you or someone you know.
Related: ‘Seared in our memories’: outpouring of shock and horror over Tyre Nichols’s video
Yet I say all this while knowing how important it is to bear witness in times like these.
In 1991, the world got an early taste of what’s now become norm, when video footage was released of four Los Angeles police officers brutally beating Rodney King. We know what happened next; the video helped galvanize one of the most well known protest movements in US history, but it also established a blueprint for a frustrating cycle of witnessing, resisting, and then seeing little to no real accountability for police.
And in the years since, with cellphones, body cams and social media colliding to make viral police brutality videos a regular occurrence, such videos have gone from helping correct the narrative about what really happened to serving as a morbid reminder of the fragility of Black life in America.
As many people have remarked, the lead-up to the release of this particular video was also eerily reminiscent of public lynchings. It calls back to a time when these horrific executions would be widely publicized beforehand, and then images of the beaten, hanging bodies later circulated throughout the country via postcard.
In those images, and the ones we’ve seen since, white officers were usually the ones inflicting the violence. That’s why so much has been said about the fact that officers implicated in this killing are Black. And as noteworthy as that fact might seem on its surface, the race of the cops who did this never made them any less likely to participate in the abuse of other Black people. There’s no amount of compliance, deference or even imagined kinship that can humanize Black people in the eyes of state-sanctioned executioners who have been trained to see Black lives as completely worthless.
And as we became used to (read: entitled to) being a part of these people’s dying moments, many of us slowly stopped asking why we were engaging in this gruesome voyeurism to begin with. Why do we continue to place this burden of video evidence on Black and other racialized communities who are being victimized? Why isn’t the mere fact of these incidents enough to put a stop to this? Why have all the years of watching this footage not been enough to push our lawmakers to real action?
It feels like a painfully pointless exercise. But if politicians and the government won’t do anything about the problem, then, at the very least, police brutality videos create an emotional reaction and radicalize everyday people against police violence, right? Not always.
In reality, seeing these images time and time again has “deaden[ed] our collective senses”, as Jamil Smith wrote in the New Republic in 2015. And for people who refuse to see the ways that policing is a direct assault on Black life, these videos hardly change their minds. Even the man who filmed the Rodney King beating wasn’t convinced that cops were all bad, and said he regretted the impact his video had on the Los Angeles police.
Needless to say, overexposure to these brutal images also creates immense vicarious trauma for other Black people who empathize with these victims. In 2021, Allissa V Richardson, a journalist and author who studies how African Americans use mobile and social media to document police brutality, pleaded with journalists to think about the trauma that Black people would have to face watching their loved ones’ deaths “instant-replayed on TV, like sports highlights”. It’s all too much.
I don’t need to see yet another Black body splayed on my timeline to know that police brutality is real, and neither should anyone else. Black people shouldn’t have to suffer the further indignity of having their dying moments broadcast to a world that isn’t going to do anything about it anyway.
Tayo Bero is a Guardian US columnist