It has been two months since Tire Nichols, a 29-year-old black American, was brutally beaten by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee and succumbed to his injuries three days later. After the five police officers involved were arrested and charged with murder, protests over his death ceased and the media moved on.
But many of us are still reeling from seeing yet another episode of deadly anti-black racism. Like previous violent deaths of black people in the United States, this one also involved the release of graphic images that were widely circulated by news outlets and on social media far beyond US borders.
The videos made their way to my UK and Ugandan WhatsApp groups – and none of them had a trigger warning. Unfortunately, some of these groups had my teenage nieces and nephews in them, and I know those videos caused tangible suffering. Their parents and I, their uncle, couldn’t protect them.
This reminded me of my own fear when in 2016 a colleague shared with me without warning the video of Philando Castile being shot dead by a police officer after a traffic stop. It brought tears to my eyes and reinforced the fear that both I and my partner already harbored – that as a black man I, too, might be pulled over and shot while driving alone at night. That ultimately precipitated our decision to leave the US.
It is important to recognize that images of anti-Black violence and police brutality have prompted the public in the US and abroad to take action against the deadly anti-Black racism. It has led to protests and public campaigns to pressure the sometimes unwilling authorities to take action. Indeed, videos – whether from body cameras, surveillance devices or mobile phones – can be a powerful tool to counter official attempts to cover up crime scenes and evade responsibility and can provide important evidence in legal proceedings.
But the fact that American society has to see this level of pain and suffering in order to care tells us something about its state of affairs. To my knowledge, no other minority group has had to produce so many images of abuse and brutality to prove that they are facing a spectacular level of racism and discrimination that urgently needs to be addressed.
And black communities are being forced to do so at great cost because the way such videos are handled is incredibly harmful to black Americans as well as black people beyond US borders. It creates or exacerbates anxiety for many black individuals who already suffer from intergenerational trauma. Many black people instinctively put themselves in the victim’s position — a process that author and academic Allissa Richardson has warned could have dire consequences.
“There is a huge spike in suicides, especially among African American men and boys. You have to wonder if it’s because of this mediated violence that we’re seeing now,” she says.
And there is already scientific evidence that violent images can have a serious psychological effect on viewers. A 2017 study found that about 20 percent of people who watch graphic videos are significantly affected by them, with some individuals experiencing negative stress reactions, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
In addition, videos of violent black deaths objectify the victims. They are reduced to their deaths, to black bodies subjected to racial violence and abuse. And to the American and global public, they easily remain faceless victims of racism, robbed of their dignity and lived experiences. This effectively perpetuates the racist tropes that kill black people.
There is a growing recognition of this dehumanization within the black community in the US and before the brutal footage of Nichols’ death was released there were efforts to counter it. Videos to celebrate his life was posted on social media, some showing him enjoying skateboarding. Others distributed his beautiful photography, which can also be seen posthumously at art events and on billboards across the country.
Nichols was indeed a talented young man, full of dreams and energy, before he fell victim to police brutality. He should be remembered for the joyful life he chose to live, not the violent death he endured.
As we try to overcome the pain of collectively witnessing yet another brutal death of a black person caught on camera and widely circulated, we need to rethink how such images are treated in the future. Videos and images of black people’s deaths should not be carelessly displayed and shared. The media must observe ethical standards when handling such sensitive material and commit to humanizing the victims, reporting on their lives and preserving their dignity.
The general public should also be made aware of the traumatizing and humiliating effect that disseminating such images without regard for the feelings of other black people can have. We, as individuals, also have a responsibility not to continue the dehumanization of victims of police brutality and racism. We must honor black lives, their joy and excellence.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.