George Floyd's murder shows the importance of Black people documenting our own stories
Tuesday, May 25, marks the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Over the past 12 months, his death has served as a rallying cry for countless racial and social justice movements not only in the United States, but around the world. Here, Mic explores how inequality and injustice were brought to the fore in the wake of his killing.
This Tuesday will mark the first anniversary of George Floyd's murder by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The murder spurred uprisings not only in Minneapolis, where protesters overtook and burned a police precinct building, but nationwide. But as the anniversary approaches, I'm lingering on memory. Only a year out, those involved remember these uprisings clearly. What happens, however, when we no longer want to talk about them, or when we who witnessed them are dead?
That's why I cannot stop thinking about the often uncelebrated documentarians and journalists — the people outside of the mainstream who laid the foundations for the archives. I can't stop thinking about the burden they take on for us — and why they have to do so in the first place.
As an Afrofuturist, I spend a lot of time teasing out the threads of the present-past to try and predict how one slight change could alter what's to come. The butterfly effect, in other words. While it's impossible to know for certain how things unfold in an alternate universe, I think about how these uprisings could have been different. If Floyd never went to Cup Foods on May 25, 2020, would Minneapolis police have killed him another time? Would Chauvin, who had 18 official complaints on his record in 19 years and an overall reputation of aggression, have killed somebody else that day? Would it never have been Floyd's name that we chanted at all?
I don't have the answers, but there is one thing I do know: The uprisings following Floyd's murder would not have been so intense without the cell phone footage from Darnella Frazier. Frazier, who was 17 at the time, had the mental fortitude to take out her phone and start filming, when she saw a Black man being murdered on a city street in broad daylight.
I don't doubt that Minneapolis would have turned shit up regardless, in the wake of Floyd's death. But I don't know if the city's rage would have reverberated into a national reckoning. Perhaps most importantly, I doubt that Chauvin would have been convicted without Frazier's footage, or that mainstream media would have later adopted even vaguely sympathetic angles regarding Floyd's murder without that footage.
There has been plenty of debate surrounding the recording and proliferation of police brutality or killings. They are images of Black suffering and death, upsetting to the extreme. But they're also more. As Marielle Ingram wrote in Real Life magazine, "Crystalized by the current moment is a paradox: These images, in their circulation, oscillate between being tools of activism that galvanize protests and being the means for neoliberal capitalism's persistence as Black death is instrumentalized as a spectacle."
In general, I am not a fan of these videos, because I don't want to see somebody die. I will not slam them as a whole, though, because we must recognize the debt owed to people like Darnella Frazier or Diamond Reynolds, who started a Facebook Live stream after Jeronimo Yanez, another Minneapolis-area police officer, shot and killed her boyfriend, Philando Castile. In 2015, following the Minneapolis police killing of Jamar Clark, I felt the frustration of trying to organize people around a police killing without footage of the incident, where instead police were able to dictate the narrative of what took place. And who had the legitimacy to counter what they said?
Without Frazier's footage, the 2020 uprising may have been Minneapolis's alone, and reduced to a tantrum by a state narrative that protesters could not counter. As many mainstream media outlets pointed out after Chauvin's conviction, without Frazier's video, the Minneapolis Police Department's original statement following Floyd's death would have been unchallenged fact. Since removed but now preserved by the Internet Archive, the nearly 200-word post made no mention of the fact that police put Floyd on the ground, or that Chauvin held his knee on Floyd's neck for nine minutes. Instead, it referred to an "interaction" between police and a "suspect," invoking the passive voice that always haunts these sorts of statements: Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.
And yet, there were witnesses to Floyd's murder, who could attest that a man didn't mysteriously die. Police killed him. Somebody would have talked about Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck. Without a video's timestamp, maybe we wouldn't have known it was there for exactly nine minutes and 29 seconds, but we would have known it was there.
So, who would have been the ones to spread MPD's original statement as the truth without critique? Who would have dismissed the protesters' accounts, or who would have put them alongside MPD's statement in articles, to say, without explicitly saying: Oh, don't listen to these people on the street. Here's what the police say. Would they ever lie?
Time and time again, journalism as an industry has failed communities in uprising and mourning. Look at how often articles about police shootings or killings rely on the passive voice to describe what happened. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Angry Grammarian had people review the sentence: "A month after George Floyd was killed, protesters — who sometimes clash violently with police — continue to fill the streets of Philadelphia and cities around the world." What's wrong here? As the Angry Grammarian explained, the passive voice not only obscures that police killed Floyd but, in addition, the switch to an active voice identifies the protesters as a problem while letting police off the hook.
If mainstream media isn't obscuring truth through the passive voice, it often allows police reports to dictate coverage. The state, and its agents, are seen as objective sources, as if the state doesn't have interests of its own to protect. And I have long complained about other ways that mainstream media's protest coverage introduces communities of color to harm.
In other words, mainstream media often serves to be a propaganda outlet for those in power. As a result, oppressed communities tend to distrust journalists and the industry as a whole, and have come up with ways to protect themselves. I have blocked videographers from getting footage of a Black child crying at a school board meeting after their parent repeatedly told them to stop filming. People bring umbrellas to block cameras. I once watched someone snatch a microphone from a Fox News reporter and toss it across a highway.
Those involved with mainstream media must recognize we are not the only transcribers of the truth.
Beyond these actions, oppressed communities have protected themselves by developing their own media. From larger projects like community-led journalism project Documenting MN, to individuals tweeting about events while being careful to avoid posting images that could get protesters (and often their friends, family, and neighbors) caught up in never-ending surveillance networks, people are developing their own archives. I call these efforts journalism without hesitation. Yet there remains an insistence on separating community-led journalism efforts from mainstream or "real" journalism.
This arbitrary idea of what constitutes "real" journalism leaves communities documenting their own experiences highly vulnerable to harm. Following the uprisings last summer, a number of reports touched on how journalists were targeted by police, and the shocking nature of it all. But why is a CNN reporter's arrest any worse than the arrest of a teenager with an iPhone, tweeting about the violence being wrought upon their community? And later, who will be quoted in coverage of these uprisings? Who will be given the prestige and awe, while the communities' own archives, and the people that allowed them to exist, are pushed to the margins?
As a Black Muslim journalist, I have to think critically about the industry I'm in. I believe in journalism's ability to mobilize people; as Ida B. Wells once said, "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press." At the same time, I have to be aware of media's limitations, critical of what is not only regarded as "fact," but of which stories are allowed to come of those facts and who is regarded as a reliable storyteller in the first place.
Writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman once said, "Fact is simply fiction endorsed with state power ... to maintain a fidelity to a certain set of archival limits. Are we going to be consigned forever to tell the same kinds of stories? Given the violence and power that has engendered this limit, why should I be faithful to that limit? Why should I respect that?"
Since I heard that quote, I have lingered with it, contemplating how it applies to my own work. Really, it sums up the final point I want to make with this essay: Those involved with mainstream media must recognize we are not the only transcribers of the truth. What is often recognized as truth in this industry is simply the fiction of someone with enough sway to say something and go unchecked.