This post was imagined in collaboration with Camille Owens, who tweets @camillesowens.
When Walter Scott was murdered by a cop in South Carolina earlier this month, we, the wide public, came to know about his murder because someone recorded it and shared that recording with the press. In the wake of a spate of racialized murders and subsequent movement building across the country over the last two years, Walter Scott’s death was at once horrifying and recognizable: we know how this story goes.
When Walter Scott was gunned down, he joined a list, a tally of names who we remember. As Claudia Rankine writes in her Citizen: An American Lyric, he was “not the guy” and yet “still [he] fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.” His death confirmed once again what grassroots organizing that has swelled across the country has publicized, and what black communities have known and shared privately for centuries: we are in danger. As when the people (men, women, queers, and children) who fell before, and as when those who will fall after, we shouted and we murmured that this death was at once was both a singular event and a predictable one.
Like Scott’s death itself, the video that brought it to our attention was at once extraordinary and part of what Kara Keeling calls the “common sense” of our moment. Like his death, the video is extraordinary, because there is something fundamentally insane about the visual evidence of a person taking another person’s life in cold, racial blood. And, like his death, the video is part of the ordinary logic of our time; in this moment, we have seen this kind of visual evidence before. We live in a moment when audio and video evidence of the last moment’s of black men’s lives is part of our public culture, when we replay last moments and reincarnate last words in protest. The existence of this video is out of time, it is anonymous, it is part of our everyday: it records a moment we struggle to wrap our heads around, but it is also a cultural product that we understand.
The video is, itself, a truth claim about Scott’s murder. The video was created as a way of evidencing the violence in the pursuit of justice (though, we might ask what “justice” could ever mean in this circumstance). It is embedded in a discourse about visual truth that is integral to the conversation about black death in this moment. Indeed, this recording surfaced amidst calls for more cameras, more eyes, amidst a growing consensus that transparency in police interactions will create evidence that will help us to bring cops to trial, or that will help prevent police brutality in the first place. The video exists amidst calls that “the whole world is watching” or, perhaps, the whole world should be watching.
When this video broke onto headlines, two things happened in my social media world: some people shared and watched it, and other people declared that they would not share it or watch it. This tension bespeaks, I think, something about black political mourning in this moment.
On one side, the refusal to watch is multifaceted. Those of us who refuse to watch may be influenced by Saidiya Hartman, who warns that “the exercise of power [is] inseparable from its display” (Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 7). We may also be influenced by the ideas of people like Eric Garner’s family, who insisted that we remember his life and not only his death. Perhaps we are also worried that, in a culture in which we regularly consume invented images of deadly violence that we will be preconditioned to distance ourselves from the video as fiction instead of internalizing the very factual event it depicts.
On the other side, the sharing and replaying of this death-video serves as a wake-up call. Sharing and replaying amplifies the truth claim of video and insists, through evidence, that this is happening. Our sharing and watching of this video is perhaps first a way of evidencing what has taken place—a plea that says, believe us, this is really happening.
And yet we all also already know that a preponderance of evidence does not necessarily mean an assailant will be held accountable. And so the way that circulating this video crowds out our social-media news cycle is not just about proof. Rather it is—not unlike the refusal to share or watch—an expression of our collective mourning. I want to suggest that sharing, replaying, and explicitly refusing to do either is a way of signaling our political solidarity and our grief and our rage not to those who refuse to pay attention, but to each other.
Sharing and replaying this video, or engaging with it by explicitly refusing to watch, is less about the person in the video—respecting him or trespassing against him, honoring him, making him visible—and more about the community of mourners that he has left behind. Here, I do not mean Walter Scott’s intimate family and friends. I mean the rest of us who are also coping with his violent death. Engaging the existence of this video is a form of recognition within community, not unlike wearing a hoodie in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder. To share, or to explicitly refuse to share, has become a sort of social ritual that we have developed to represent and process our collective grief. Sharing or explicitly not sharing participates in a sort of massive public funeral, where the video acts as grotesque eulogy.
If, as Vincent Brown writes, people “fulfill communal desires and political ambitions through cultural practices that relat[e] the living to the dead,” (Brown, The Reaper’s Garden, 4) then the space between declarations against watching the video of Walter Scott’s death, and the sharing and replaying of the same, is a struggle to understand how to grapple with everyday violence. Public engagement with this video, and others like it, is a last rite that, Brown explains, helps us to “confront death as universal and final” and “to contemplate what it means to be alive” (Brown, The Reaper’s Garden, 5). Both ways of engaging the evidence of murder evince negotiations of the contradiction of the everyday—“our deaths are normal”—and the impossibility of ever being able to internalize or experience violence as normal.
Our different forms of engagement with this very public video index a public reckoning with the ways that violence is ever-present and also always catastrophic. The watching and the explicit non-watching is a public, collective, anonymous performance of grief that marks this moment. It is a cultural formation that we, the anonymous black public, have spontaneously created in the face of the everyday-extraordinary presence of black death in our midst. It is our shared lament.