George Floyd was not the first, nor will he be the last. Every 7 hours, an American citizen is killed by police (http://copcrisis.com/). The scale at which the video of Floyd’s murder was spread internationally marked a change in the way we’ve historically viewed police violence, from collective trauma and pain, to image conscious police forces. Here, I trace the ways in which the social media era has changed the way we see police violence.
Before the invention of the smartphone, people of color suffered in silence at the hands of the police. Cases like the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence in the UK, were at the whim of police incompetence and institutional racism. The social media era changed things, but not right away. At the time the video of George Floyd’s death surfaced in 2020, we were already familiar with the regular videos of incidences of racism in shops, at police stops and far-right rallies. But the video of George Floyd’s death changed everything.
The Summer of International Protests Began, and Suddenly People Mobilized Over Social Media, Sought Solidarity Online, and Shared Similar Stories and Footage.
Even for those of us who didn’t watch the footage, Floyd’s face and story was everywhere. The summer of international protests began, and suddenly people mobilized over social media, sought solidarity online, and shared similar stories and footage. Adama Traoré’s death in police custody was suddenly back in mainstream French discourse and the center of France’s BLM protest. The West African diaspora mobilized in solidarity with #EndSARS in Nigeria. South Africa mourned the death of a father and innocent bystander, Mthokozisi Ntumba.
Suddenly, the topic of police brutality became mainstream, and the compassion and comparisons for similar stories were drawn across the world.
The collective trauma of the incident ricocheted through the globe’s black population and the pain felt was like nothing else. Collective solidarity with Black Lives Matter has been global, in part because of the immense traumatic impact of the video of Floyd’s death, but also the international nature of systemic oppression all too familiar to people of color. The phrase “I can’t breathe,” was translated into hundreds of different languages and spoken at protests in all 50 US states as well as across 3 of the 7 continents.
Prompted Self-reflection to a Degree Not Seen Before Amongst White People…
Whilst people of color know these issues all too well, the consequence of white media reporting on these issues was somewhat of a watershed moment. White people were suddenly confronted with the undeniable and brutal realities of racism and told to deal with their own anti-blackness. Image, more so than any form of words, prompted self-reflection to a degree not seen before amongst white people; these were no longer stories of nameless black individuals – this was personal.
Whilst some have sought anti-racist self-reflection, others have tried to preserve their own image. Internationally, video evidence of police brutality damaged an already fragile relationship between the public and law enforcement. With nowhere to hide, police forces were suddenly no longer above the law they were supposed to enforce being caught red-handed harming the citizens they were supposed to protect. New police recruitment plans have depicted a diverse and community centric forces in an attempt to fix an image so bad law enforcement officers themselves drop out.
No Longer are White Perpetrators Nameless and Above the Law.
These videos cannot be swept under the rug like so many incidences before them; they are unforgettable. The police force is an institution of the state with the sole purpose of governing society, but social media has now allowed for society to govern the state. There is something to be said for the power of image in this case, no longer are white perpetrators nameless and above the law. In the past, those reprimanded for misconduct were dealt with internally and away from public viewing, now, the demand for accountability is high.
A Global Revolution Against Racial Injustice.
Instances of police brutality are endemic, and most are not caught on camera. But the tragedy of George Floyds death has mobilized a global revolution against racial injustice. Even though cops are indicted in less than 1% of killings, and activists warn Chauvin’s sentencing is unlikely to inform further accountability within the US justice system, the events of summer 2020 have created a fire too raging to put out. The victims of police brutality are not faceless, they are siblings, spouses, children and friends. Their stories deserve to be heard, and even though they can no longer physically speak, their voices should still be heard and their perpetrators protected from public scrutiny.