The prevalence of police shooting videos has given voice to an oft ignored claim by black Americans that their experiences with the criminal justice system is wholly different from the experiences of others. These videos give voice to a marginalized community; they give voice to the voiceless. Yet I find myself troubled. After watching the death of Alton Sterling, it struck me that I was bearing witness to someone’s life being put to an end. It seems like something so obvious, but the gravity of it doesn’t really hit you; we have been desensitized to violence in such a way that even though I know the sight of a man being murdered will horrify me, I still willingly clicked play when presented with the video.
I thought of the process of life coming into the world. A calculated plan is made by the prospective parents about who they allow to enjoy this joyous moment with them, be it their own parents, some close friends etc.
The same cannot be said for Alton Sterling’s death. I am aware that life is not planned or calculated and sometimes even in birth, choices can be removed from your hands, but I can’t shake the disquieting thoughts that arise when I am sat viewing someone else’s death. Who am I to see this? Think of the impulse some of us have when our eyes are about to brim with tears, it is one instinctively – at least for me – to hide. I don’t want people to see me cry, let alone see me struggle yet fail to will my last breath into fruition.
The age of the internet has given a voice to the voiceless but removed their ability to choose who is allowed to hear their cries. I do not doubt that the public outcry that results from the viewings of these videos are essential, but I would still like to acknowledge the breach of agency. A sort of necessary voyeurism has been established where in order for us to take up banners up to fight injustice, we first must see said injustice. It must be shared and witnessed by everyone.
The word martyr in its contemporarily held sense means to die for a cause; it brings to mind people so committed to their religious beliefs that they would lose their lives or suffer persecution for it. But in its original Greek translation, ‘martyr’ means witness, to observe and relay testimony accurately for the purposes of serving justice. In both senses of the word we come up woefully short. Alton Sterling like the many other victims of egregious policing did die for some cause, yet the social machinations that inexorably lead them to encounters with law enforcement – encounters that easily become fatal due to the omnipresence of guns in America – is not a cause I think they would have wished to give their lives for. And there’s us who bear witness to their demise from the comfort and safety behind our screens. Do the millions of views add up to a delivering of justice? Or are they just another moment of perverse curiosity akin to the build-up of traffic that amasses when an accident is on the motorway – something you won’t remember on the drive the next day. What cause will I suffer for in their names? The most I will experience is grief and powerlessness, but then what can be done? I find myself at a loss when I try to devise some way of doing my bit. Do I donate money to an organization? Do I go to a protest in solidarity? Or is sharing in the collective grief enough?
These lives should be more than just fleeting moments in a news cycle, yet it cannot be denied that after the initial outrage they fade slowly but surely into the backdrop. Think of Tamir Rice or John Crawford or Kajieme Powell or Eric Garner. Their deaths are forever stored on the internet but they eventually fade from our consciousness. The videos and we their witnesses clearly offer meagre change and I say this because as I write this I do not believe anyone has suffered any consequences for taking the aforementioned lives. Our testimony holds no weight so why even bother? And yet these video live on, whether the people involved or their families wished it so or not, they can’t even be erased. That right has been stripped from them.
As I watched the last seconds of the Alton Sterling video and as the YouTube algorithm cleverly initiates a countdown which attempts to satisfy me by automatically playing the next most relevant video – another angle of the same death, another unnecessary death – I struggle to see the justice. An endless loop and a permanent inscription in the annals of the internet do no justice to the finality that is death.
I could not bring myself to share this around the time of the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile deaths because it felt-to me at least- like a sort of exploitation.