I haven’t watched the Tyre Nichols video and I won’t. I’ve read some descriptions and caught glimpses but I’ve been successful at avoiding the worst parts of it.
It was a complicated decision to make. At MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, it’s our job to face hard truths, to document the worst aspects of power and humanity, for the community and for history. We believe in accountability, we believe in transparency, we believe in evidence.
But it’s also our job to think about harm as it relates to journalism and the work we distribute, and to think about impact, in terms of how our work, and journalism broadly, makes change. We must consider how our work contributes or detracts from our community.
And so I’ve been thinking about what it means, in this age of mass digital distribution, to release an hourlong video of a man’s death, to have to provide evidence beyond his body to not just the family but to the world.
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I was talking through all this with my colleague, visuals editor Andrea Morales, and she offered the word that clarified what I have been grappling with: proof.
The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, propelled police body cameras into widespread use. After a grand jury failed to prosecute the police officer who killed Brown, the family pushed for them. It would be a way, I’m assuming they felt, to provide the proof that could protect someone from being the next Michael Brown.
It’s a reasonable, logical thought. Yet it also made me think about how the desire was not just based on lack of evidence but lack of belief. Again and again, Black people are not believed or our pain is dismissed or diminished. Even with evidence.
The burden of providing that proof seems to get heavier and heavier.
I understand and respect the Nichols family’s decision to share the image of him battered in the hospital. I see the echoes of urgency and defiance displayed by Mamie Till for her son, Emmett, in 1955.
But also, on Instagram, a friend of good intention posted a carousel of images of Nichols, happy, alive, with that beautiful smile and ended it with that same image. What was being proved at that moment? Out of that context, using the image felt abusive.
And, I wonder, once you have the picture of Nichols, swollen near beyond recognition, a state unquestionably the result of brutality, rather than shortness of breath, is it necessary to see each blow that produced it?
Should we really need more proof?
Often, a powerful image embeds in the mind longer than words. I, regretfully, watched the George Floyd video. Long after I’ll forget Derek Chauvin’s name, I’ll remember the smirk on his face and his hands in his pockets as his knee dug into George Floyd’s neck and ended his life.
Darnella Frazier made that video and, yes, it was critical that she did. Ida B. Wells, whose crusading work we deeply admire at MLK50, used the visuals of her age, photography and drawings, to reveal in stark terms the horrors of lynching, and that was necessary, too.
I also know the toll taking that video had on Frazier, who in 2021 received a Pulitzer Prize for “courageously recording the murder of George Floyd… highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.” I also read recently that one of the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor apparently used video footage of that incident during a presentation he gave.
In this age where visuals can be spliced and manipulated, I’m uneasy about how images can be misused. And as we get video after video of Black people dying, I wonder about the toll of having to provide proof, the toll of not being believed. I think about the lack of good faith — that evidence of things unseen — Black people endure.
I don’t condemn those watching the Nichols video. I recognize there are no easy solutions or answers to my concerns. But I want to keep thinking about this and talking about this, to make decisions and choices with the community’s health —and my own — in mind.
Justice for Tyre will take a lot of energy and insight. The community has already seized this moment and seems ready to not let it go without change. MLK50 will keep publishing stories and images about this journey when other media moves on.
Our vision is of a nation where all people can thrive. I hope we can do that without having to watch them die.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at email@example.com
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