While Jacob Blake fought for his life from a hospital bed after being shot in the back seven times by a police officer, his sister addressed the press, saying, “Don’t be sorry because this has been happening to my family for a long time, longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till. Emmett Till is my family. It happened to Philando [Castile], Mike Brown, Sandra [Bland].”
She’s right; being sorry isn’t enough. We must go beyond performative activism and statements of sympathy. We must be true allies in how we amplify Black voices by fighting police brutality, not through reposting and sharing graphic videos of the violence from which they suffer but through telling victims’ stories and acting on their behalf in our communities and the halls of government.
Almost immediately after a video of a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shooting Blake surfaced, it went viral. Instead of sharing who he was as a person, many social media users shared the video of the shooting, thereby placing the atrocity ahead of its victim. The same occurred with George Floyd, Elijah McClain and Ahmaud Arbery, and it needs to stop. If you are non-Black, do not gratuitously share videos of Black people suffering and dying at the hands of police and white supremacists. When non-Black folk post to raise awareness, it should be to share petitions, crowdfunding pages and other resources in support of Black lives. We must not sensationalize Black death.
As a board comprised solely of non-Black members, we cannot understand the pain of Black Americans. We write to caution our fellow non-Black peers against taking action that may bring more devastation upon the Black community or undermine justice for victims and their loved ones.
White Americans have treated Black suffering as entertainment for centuries. As late as the 20th century, lynching spectators collected postcards of dead Black men, women and children as souvenirs. Their deaths were, quite literally, tokenized. Today, videos of police targeting Black people, though not explicitly shared to glorify violence, serve as a visceral reminder of the blatant disregard for the lives of Black people.
Activists and psychiatrists alike have urged non-Black individuals to stop sharing these traumatizing videos. A University of Connecticut study found that, largely due to racism, non-white Americans face post-traumatic stress disorder at higher rates than their white counterparts. Today’s videos like Blake’s, shared frequently across social media, can trigger such traumatic episodes in Black individuals and further add to their suffering.
Videos and images of modern police brutality do have their place. Footage of Arbery’s death helped prosecutors arrest and indict his killers, and the video of Floyd’s killing spurred America’s greatest racial reckoning in decades. The outrage such media creates is necessary; in some cases, it can secure justice for victims and prompt our leaders to effect change. Yet to share that material is to play with fire. Thoughtlessly retweeting it, broadcasting it repeatedly on national news and condensing it into sound bites is exploitative at best and vile at worst. It is not our place as non-Black individuals to decide when these videos should be shared; we must listen to our Black peers.
Blake’s family has always been passionate about creating change in their communities, and his family is determined to be a part of the fight against police brutality. Blake’s grandmother, Patricia Goudeau Blake, talked about how she has hope that things can change from the tragedy that has befallen her family: “We have a generational family history story, and out of this tragedy things will change — it’s got to change.”
Instead of sharing videos that dehumanize Black individuals, we must instead elevate their humanity and remind people who they are. Jacob Blake is a 29-year-old father of three. A family man originally from Evanston, Illinois, he moved to Kenosha in 2017 for a fresh start. His grandfather, the Rev. Jacob Blake, was active during the peak of the civil rights movement,campaigned for affordable housing and led the construction of a housing block. A descendant from a family whose history is rooted in community activism, Jacob Blake himself was very involved in his community; he often volunteered with Black Urban Recycling, an organization that recycled aluminum cans to raise money for community initiatives in Chicago.
We must tell Blake’s story accurately and compassionately: he is a man who, upon walking to his car, was shot in the back seven times by law enforcement. Victims of police brutality are more than trending hashtags and distant tragedies. They were and are real people, either taken from this Earth far too soon or changed forever.
It’s time to take more aggressive action in confronting the injustices that plague our nation. We must mobilize to combat police brutality however we can, whether by donating to bail bonds to support protesters, writing to public officials or participating in protests if possible. We are living in the midst of a historic movement, and we must all do our part to end the injustice incessantly levied against Black people. We cannot let their lives be forgotten or their stories rewritten. Sharing these videos without any other action is little more than performative activism. Instead, tell their stories and demand change.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Brammhi Balarajan, Jake Busch, Meredith McKelvey and Ben Thomas.