On Ahmaud Arbery and the video

What does the video of Ahmaud’s murder show and was it wrong to post it?

Ahmaud Arbery
Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed by two white men in Brunswick, US on February 23, 2020, is seen in an undated photo provided by Marcus Arbery [File: Reuters]

One of the first things one notices when looking at the photographs of lynchings in America in the first half of the 20th century is the faces in the crowd. They are smiling.

Although the more popular descriptors used when referring to anti-Black terrorism are “sad”, “tragic”, “horrific”, the word that should most readily come to mind is “pleasure”. Lynchers smiled. They enjoyed the killing. They divided up the body, kept parts as souvenirs and used photos of the lynching as postcards. White supremacist society takes pleasure in the display of prostrate, vulnerable, tortured and murdered Black people.

In such a culture, it is easy to think of the circulation of the Ahmaud Arbery video as continuing that tradition. And it is. Most viewers watch the video with sadistic curiosity in their private spaces even if they later declare their outrage and let people know that they are upset in public.

Despite what some activists will argue, a white supremacist public will not be moved to action after viewing videos of anti-Black murders. It is their cinematic tradition. They are the directors, the producers, the stars and the consumers.

Images of Black people dead and dying is the raw meat that sustains a Negrophobic world. Kenyan social media was livid when photographs of the dead bodies of African people during the Dusit Hotel attacks in Nairobi last year were published before the friends and family of the dead were notified. Black people are not seen to be property owners of their own deaths. Their deaths are meaningless but their dying is clickbait and newsworthy. The Black corpse is a spectacle – not private, not wept over.

Of course, Black people are humans and there are many who share the racist erotophonophilic curiosity of the wider society, even if they represent their circulation of the video as an effort to demand social change. But appealing to white supremacist society betrays a faith in white supremacist society. It is faith in a society that has demonstrated a profound disinterest in the value of Black life every hour of the past four centuries. It is faith that this society is now on the cusp of being anti-racist.

That faith is misplaced.

It was misplaced when groups of enslaved people argued that if they smiled wide enough they would be let go. It was misplaced when new Black political representatives in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era believed that a non-racist America was on the horizon. It was misplaced when Civil Rights marchers believed that their singing sounded the death knell of racial discrimination. It was misplaced when people shouted “never again!” after Trayvon was killed. And it is misplaced now.

Racism does not grow old and die. It metastasises. This public will not be moved to action by Ahmaud any more than it was moved by Trayvon, by Sandra, by Eric, by Aiyana, or by the name we will hear two weeks from now, or the name we will hear two weeks after that.

This public can pull the plug on the economy, it can take the planes from the sky, but it will not willingly disband its lynch-mobs – uniformed or non-uniformed.

Do not offer up the bodies of the killed to win the sympathy of an unfeeling public. Decommission your hope. It polices you.

Many Black people have demanded and pleaded that the video of Ahmaud’s murder not be shared due to its re-traumatising effects. They are hoping not to discover what they already know is the reality – that Black pleading is about as action-spurring as Black killings.

Black trauma is, however, real, intergenerational, and should be taken seriously. Our ancestors were gathered and forced to witness lynchings and floggings as well, be they in Basra, in Nairobi, in Cape Town, in Bahia, in Port-au-Prince or in Alabama. This is to say nothing of the millions of Black people who at this moment are being groped by police, separated from their families in prisons, or condemned to suffer the indignities of American totalitarianism in housing projects and ghettos.

Racist murder was the knife-point of racial oppression that drove waves of Black people from the American South during the Great Migration. Black people fled both the murderers in pick-up trucks and the local courts and governments that harboured them. They fled because the men who owned the white gun stores refused to sell them the arms they needed to defend themselves after Black-owned gun stores were broken into and the guns confiscated. Black people fled Ahmaud’s killers tens of thousands of times.

Conservative media, like the white supremacist rags of the centuries before them, will instinctively search for a way to protect the murderers and to dehumanise and criminalise the victim. It does not matter how the Black person was killed.

The right-wing intelligentsia will try to frame them for their own murder. They will demonise and tar and feather the body, and problematise the dead person’s choices in order to feed white supremacist talking points to their yapping audiences.

This while the mainstream liberal press will try to pass white supremacist bothsidesism off as objective journalism.

But these efforts work less effectively on most Black people. We can still see that a person is being killed. Killed arbitrarily, in broad daylight, and in the open. We see a family being killed. We see us being killed.

Still, Emmett Till‘s mother said leave the casket open.

Parallel to the radical desire for the protection of Black mental health and wellbeing runs the demand for the interruption in the regular procedure of sweeping Black corpses under the rug. To show their faces, #saytheirname, stay the broom. The discourse of white innocence and the notion of America’s fundamental goodness are accomplices in white supremacist murder.

They work in tandem to quickly paint every incident of anti-Black violence as an exception to the rule. When this is persuasive, the anger is defused, and the incident no longer threatens to become a catalyst.

Mamie Till flung open the casket. In pain, she interrupted their arguments and forced a stop to the slow-walking of change.

It should not be assumed that all Black people who ask for the video not to be circulated are acting out of concern for Black mental wellbeing. Some of the loudest voices asking not to circulate the videos have made a career out of preaching the possible rehabilitation of the settler-colony. They too, do not want to be interrupted. Every open casket drops into their “HOPE” mugs and they recoil like an English lady finding a Hottentot’s skull in her soup tureen.

These people know very well that Ahmaud was killed in February to absolute silence. They know that it was this very same video that led to the arrest of the killers, led some Black people to become genuinely fed up, led to #justiceforahmaud’s trending, and led some to speak openly of revolution.

These people are whom Frantz Fanon, the pre-eminent theorist of the white supremacist settler-colony, called the colonised intellectuals. These are the Black academic influencers who are always nearer in proximity to white power than they let on. It is their task to compose the dull prose and type out the hot takes with which they intend to barricade the doors of the state against an incensed people.

It falls to them to convince the outraged natives that the abattoir in which they have been living – and which has not for one hour in the last 400 years churned out anything other than their misery – will one day spew out roses.

I have not made any determination about whether, in the end, it is good for this video to be out there or not – but I don’t have to. It is not my decision to make. The decision about whether or not the video should be circulated (or whether it should have been published in the first place) rests with Ahmaud’s loved ones. Only Ahmaud’s loved ones.

But it is folly to think that bringing about the end to the circulation of videos depicting racist murder is an achievement. Whipping people in the privacy of the slave quarters rather than publicly against a plantation tree in front of the enslaved is not the victory we might think it is.

Enslavement in prisons and on prison farms is allowed to grow in size and atrocity because they are imagined to exist in some hidden away place, somewhere else. They are thought to be outside of society – even if they are located in the centre of Chicago. Hiding anti-Black atrocity from Black people is a poor substitute for ending anti-Black atrocity. Worse, it dulls our ability to see its full magnitude. If prisons were in the town square, their walls knocked down and their conditions and demographics were laid bare, there would be a Watts uprising every day.

It is also true that we must make a world where the photos of Mike Brown Jr‘s body left on the street for four hours inspires at least as great a bodily shudder as the mental image of a white person, say Shirley Temple, dangling from a lynching rope – an image many would find more disturbing. But that world is not made through silence. It is made through trauma.

The video, and the debate surrounding it has also, for me, revealed something about how I have been trained to see (and not see). It has taken me a while to recognise what is so clearly there in plain sight. The video is not a video of a Black person being killed.

The video is a record of a Black person fighting back despite being outnumbered and out-gunned. A Black person who fought back against the white supremacist culture that attacked him from nowhere and for no reason. It is a record of Ahmaud standing up, like Trayvon Martin, like Mike Brown, like Sandra Bland, like Eric Garner, like countless others who defended themselves against a murderous culture that has never in its existence been able to conceive of the noble, nor a fair fight.

It is disingenuous to pretend to know Ahmaud outside of the few seconds of tape that is circulating. We did not know him as he lived and so we cannot claim to know him in death. It is for this reason that it is crucial that we not reduce his life to his death. He lived and fought in that video. He lived and fought against overwhelming, unfair odds. In this, he embodied another tradition that has always run counter to white supremacist culture – resistance.

Ahmaud is not reducible to his death and the video is not merely or even primarily a record of his murder. It is a record of him outgunned, outnumbered, and valiant.

100 years ago, Ahmaud might have been the inspiration for Jamaican Harlemite Claude McKay‘s poem If We Must Die, written during the Red Summer of 1919: 

“If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot…

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” 


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.