Death on Live-Stream: How Social Media Changed the Way We Mourn
You wake up and reach for your phone, check Twitter, and that’s when you first see the name. You’ll read it hundreds of times over the next couple of weeks – in hashtags, articles, protest signs, eventually even on T-shirts. If you’re lucky, it’s the name of a stranger, but you know that for someone it’s not. And without even scrolling any further down your feed, you already know what happened.
Starting the day with news of death delivered digitally has become America’s new morning ritual. Early yesterday, I learned of the murder of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer. Before 8 a.m., I had already ingested countless tweets, photos, and very hesitantly, watched the video, which showed a man bleeding out in front of his girlfriend and her child.
The nearly 10-minute recording was taken in the immediate aftermath by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds. Instead of screaming or crying, as one would assume, she instinctively knew to take out her phone. Streaming live on Facebook, she calmly and clearly recounted exactly what happened, with the austerity of a witness on the stand.
It’s hard to say if we’d even know Philando Castile’s name without that video. Cell phone cameras have emerged as the only weapons the disadvantaged have against the state’s weapons, and their power. “The videos are smoking-gun evidence,” Paul D. Butler, Georgetown University law professor and a former prosecutor told the New York Times. “Both literally because they are very graphic, which generates outrage, and figuratively, because people believe their own eyes.” For Castile and other victims of police shootings, visual evidence and the chaos it sparks are the only shot at justice, although even if the entire world witnesses the crime, the chance of any meaningful resolution is slim.
Soon after the live stream, Castile’s mother got a call. Not from the police, as one might expect, but from friends. They’d seen her son die on Facebook. Learning of a loved one’s death online – potentially even watching a video of it – is a trauma outside of the murder itself. Then there’s the trauma felt by black Americans, who can see in Castile’s face their own, or that of their brother, or father. “The flagrancy of public murder exacts an exponential toll on the black life that survives; it renders the power of witness moot,” wrote Doreen St. Felix for MTV. “The reminder isn’t that we are alive. It’s that we have yet to die.”
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