Emmett Till and George Floyd as “Galvanizing Images”

Yesterday, I went to a march for Dreasjon Reed. Dreasjon was an Indianapolis native, and I didn’t know a ton about his death. I guess it goes to show the frequency and ease with which the police and media conspire to create a story that criminalizes a black victim and exonerates, even glorifies, officers. An open and shut case. It probably also goes to show the ignorance of white people like me to such killings, which often seem outside of my world – inconsequential to my life.

On May 6, 2020, Dreasjon Reed was shot and killed while running from the police. Police say that Reed had a gun on him and fired at them as he fled,[i] although his family unequivocally denies this claim.[ii] Dreasjon had been livestreaming on Facebook using his phone, and the audio of his death was therefore broadcast and recorded. The stream continued following the shooting, and recorded a detective making a joke: “I guess it’s going to be a closed casket, homie.”

This callous remark speaks to the inhumanity with which black victims of police violence are frequently treated. It also reminds us what a world without recording devices  would mean – and has meant – for the killings of black people in the past. For most of American history, the narratives of black deaths have relied solely on the firsthand accounts of officers and their comrades — untrustworthy to say the least.

But since Rodney King’s vicious beating was recorded by bystander George Holiday’s now ancient camcorder on March 3, 1991, the advent of recording devices has proven instrumental in making the case that police murder black men and women wantonly and even lustfully, jovially. This has led to an increase in prosecutions of officers for police brutality and, in some cases, even murder.

A transcript shows that an officer participating in Rodney King’s beating told another that he hadn’t ″beaten anyone this bad in a long time,″ while another officer made a joke about the film ″Gorillas in the Mist” over the radio, referencing a film about Rwandan gorillas that came out in 1988. Sgt. Stacey Koon, who reported the bludgeoning to headquarters, said ″you just had a big-time use of force … tased and beat the suspect of CHP [California Highway Patrol] pursuit, big time.” HQ responded “″Oh well … I’m sure the lizard didn’t deserve it … haha I’ll let them know OK.″[iii] Two of the four officers involved in the beating were acquitted of all crimes while two others, Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon were convicted of violating King’s civil rights, and were sentenced to 30 months in prison, each.

The recording of killings of black men and women – frequently described as “unarmed” as if that and only that factor corroborates their faultlessness in being shot, despite the fact that white men and women often flaunt their firearms in public and are not murdered – has helped prove to the world that such injustices occur daily. It likely didn’t need to be proven to the black community. The murders of slaves with impunity, lynchings gone unprosecuted, not to mention the routine abuse (the police guns drawn on when the black driver reaches in the glove compartment for license and registration) – these are embedded in the consciousness of American black people. George Floyd’s murder could be considered a modern day lynching, as could Eric Garner’s, Walter Scott’s, Sandra Bland’s, 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s, 14-year-old Trayvon Martin – the list goes on and on and on.

Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party (BPP) deputy chairman, stirring orator, community organizer and socialist intent on unifying the masses to rise up against the powers that be, was shot and killed by Chicago Police Department in cooperation with the FBI on December 4, 1969. This was only uncovered when the “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI”[xvii], comprised of civilians, broke into the FBI field office in Pennsylvania, and found documents about an FBI surveillance program known as COINTELPRO, whose mission was to subvert black “militant” groups like the Panthers and to stymie the rise of the “black messiah” who could unite the US black population.[xviv] Hampton was shot while incapacitated by the drug Secobarbital, slipped into his drink by an FBI informant who had infiltrated the Panthers. After Fred’s death in 1969, the BPP and Hampton’s family held an open-casket funeral, which 5,000 people attended.[iv]

Dissemination of photographs of black death as the result of injustice have been powerful tools used for change. Famous lynching photographs still hold grave power.  Like in 1916, when the NAACP magazine The Crisis, edited by W.E.B du Bois, used an image of Jesse Washington’s body tied to a tree and burnt beyond recognition. The image was disseminated by the magazine to its 30,000 readers.[viii]

I still remember the day in Mr. Bishop’s 7th grade Social Studies class that I learned about Emmett Till. I remember Mr. Bishop warning us about the video’s serious and graphic nature. It was a documentary called Eyes on the Prize. It was in that documentary, that I first saw the image of the 14-year-old Emmett Till in his casket, a hardly human visage, so mangled and misshapen by torture at the hands of two white men. This image was a far cry from the handsome, bright-eyed young man in a suit and tie that I had seen on frame a few seconds before. Till was from Chicago, and had been visiting family in Mississippi in late summer 1955 when he was accused of grabbing a white woman named Carolyn Bryant by the waist and saying “You needn’t be afraid of me, baby I’ve (done something) with white women before.”[x]

The documentary told of what happened to Till as a result of the alleged overstep. That night, between 2 and 3 AM, he was kidnapped from his bed by two white men—J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband—who strapped him with barbed wire to a 75-pound cotton gin fan and marched down to the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where he was beaten viciously until his face was purple. They gouged out his eye, choked him and ripped his tongue out, cut his right ear nearly off, knocked all but two of his teeth out, scalped him with a hatchet and finally shot him in the head—the most merciful thing they did. Then, they heaved his body, still tied to the metal fan, into the river, where it was recovered three days later, bloated and unrecognizable. His uncle had to identify him by the ring he wore that belonged to his father.[x]

The open casket has been both a sepulcher for black hope, a tomb of despair, a vessel for outrage. Most of all, it has been a tool, wielded by the most courageous who would share an excruciatingly painful private image with the world in service of spreading the truth. Who would want to put their son’s mutilated corpse on display for tens of thousands of people to gawk at? Nobody. But Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, believed it was necessary. Otherwise the horror of this crime would go unseen. That took unbelievable bravery. I am not saying that black death is ever a good thing, or necessary fuel for a revolution. Yet these images are  galvanizing.

Till-Mobley allowed photographers from Jet Magazine, The Chicago Defender and The American Negro: A Magazine of Protest, to publish photographs of her son’s body. Those who have seen the image  have been beyond disturbed, beyond moved. Till-Mobley said at the time: “[People] would not be able to visualize what had happened, unless they were allowed to see the results of what had happened.”[v] As James Baldwin said: “It was myself in that coffin, it was my brothers in that coffin … I can’t describe it so precisely, because it had been so mutilated, it had been so violated. It was him but it was all of us.”[vi]

David Jackson’s photograph of the grieving mother, staring brokenly at her son’s body, resonated with the larger American community, just as George Floyd’s calls for his mother in his final throes have touched thousands.[xvvi] Tens of thousands of people flocked to the A. A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago to view Till’s body. On one day, September 6, around 50,000 people viewed the body. All told, more than 100,000 viewed Emmett Till’s body, maimed by torture, further distended and deformed by the days at the bottom of the Tallahatchie. The open-coffin funeral held by Mamie Till-Mobley exposed the world to more than this grisly image, but to the barbarism of racism in America. “If the death of my son can mean something to the other unfortunate people in the world, then for him to have died a hero would mean more to me than for him just to have died,” [vii] she said.

Throughout Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan’s trial, Mississippi’s newspapers painted Till as a savage brute, while they called his accuser Carolyn Bryant  “a pretty 21-year-old married mother of two”[ix]. Mamie Till-Mobley was referred to as “a somewhat plump 33-year-old divorced mother.” [ix]  Southern media made Emmett Till into a bestial, lumbering animal. In the words of one reporter, he was a “husky Negro lad who stuttered.” [ix] Meanwhile, the French newspaper Aurore referred to Mrs. Bryant as “a crossroads Marilyn Monroe,” (referring to the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi) . Timothy B. Tyson wrote: “News reporters from Detroit to Dakar never failed to sprinkle their stories about l’affaire Till with words like “comely” and “fetching” to describe her.”[x] Ultimately, injustice prevailed: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan were acquitted for “justifiable homicide.”

For decades, the American media hasn’t just ignored violence done against black people, but actively justified it. For many years, the only means for black people to prove their mistreatment and murder were through such images. However shocking and offensive to the delicate white gaze – and to the human mind at large – their effect is undeniable.

 

I wish I could say that when I first watched that documentary in Mr. Bishop’s classroom I became an ardent anti-racist and a warrior for black justice. In a way, I thought that I was – that my understanding of racism as something so stark and terrible as that vicious murder absolved me from cooperation in it, and that to disclaim such evil was to do my part. The image stuck with me, clung to my memory, surely impacted me. But I still had growing up to do.

It took a long time for my politics to evolve, and for me to come to terms with my own complicity in a culture I thought that I had disavowed forever after reading Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and a few essays by James Baldwin. But there was (and still is) much self-work to be done, more looking in the mirror. I remember when the notion of  “white male privilege” used to really get under my skin. I’ve had to reckon with a lot of innate defensiveness, had to question myself and deal with ideas and perspectives that were foreign and sometimes offensive to my preconceptions. But I have come a long way, and the stories and images – and more than ever, videos – that make it into the mainstream news documenting the killing of black people by police officers have contributed to that process.

In his 2017 Netflix comedy special “Equanimity,” Dave Chappelle recounts the story of Emmett Till. Chappelle reports that the woman, Carolyn Bryant, who accused Till,  admitted that she had lied (what she said was ““Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him”[x]). Chappelle talks about that lie, and how it influenced the events following 1955; the role it played in motivating the civil rights movement. And he concludes that, though it was a vicious lie that resulted in an even more vicious and brutal killing, it was ultimately a providential lie. “That murder set in motion a sequence of events that made my wonderful life possible, that made this very night possible,” he says, a black man given a prestigious stand-up special on a major content service. “How could this be that this lie could make the world a better place? It’s maddening. ” [xi]

 

Many historians and activists have referred to Emmett Till’s murder and the outrage that it sparked as a critical moment for the civil rights movement. Four months after he was buried, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. Emmett Till’s lynching and his open-casket funeral made a major impact. Author and Professor of English Clenora at the University of Missouri wrote:

 

Till’s brutal lynching in Mississippi was undoubtedly impressed on the minds of the Alabamians [participants in the 1955 bus boycott], giving them strength to carry the boycott through. Indeed, the image of Till, permanently etched in American consciousness, could not die, thereby setting the stage for the boycott.[xii]

 

Yet while it left a lasting imprint on the hearts and minds of black Americans, according to historian Elliot J. Gorn the jarring image did not impress itself onto white American consciousness until long after 1955:

 

Years later, many white Americans remembered — falsely remembered — the epiphany of Till’s ruined face in 1955. [But] few white people saw the photos until thirty years later when the documentary Eyes on the Prize opened with the Emmett Till story. Only then did [his mother’s] words, “Let the people see what they did to my boy” begin to be fully realized.[vi]

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of posts about coming to terms with one’s white privilege. Don’t mistake me – fighting that battle of self-reflection is a good fight, and it’s something that I’ve gone through and still go through, and don’t mean to affect a holier-than-thou attitude by suggesting that I’m beyond it. Just that it’s no moment of transfiguration, but simply a rote liberal platitude, that as an end in itself only results in complacency.  While certainly “checking your privilege,” or understanding the benefits that existing as a white person in a white supremacist society proffer as opposed to living as a minority is an important first step, it’s actually, especially in relative terms, an easy act, even self-congratulatory. As Fredrik deBoer writes[xiii]:

Those who publicly go through with this ritual are, ostensibly, undertaking the hard work that [George] Yancy asks for, waging “war within themselves.” Yet they don’t appear to be at war, at all. Despite their declarations of guilt, they don’t appear guilty. If anything, they have always struck me as supremely self-satisfied.

DeBoer also quotes Mic writer Charlotte Clymer, who says: “acknowledging my privilege has been liberating for me; it has made me a better person and better equipped to stand beside those who suffer prejudice, often in silence.” Why should acknowledging white privilege or male privilege be “liberating”? Why should admitting culpability – a culpability that remains, continues, even after it’s confessed – absolve guilt? The answer is the act of “checking” or confessing privilege is just paying lip-service to a characteristic that is beyond one’s control, and in effect, supplicating to black people in a patronizing fashion.

At yesterday’s protest, I saw a sign carried by a black woman that read, “Our lives are not a fad.” It’s a valid rebuke of white cooption of black deaths – using hashtags for clout, taking pictures at protests like they’re at Coachella – especially when the analysis of racism in America goes only skin-deep.

I don’t doubt the general good faith of most of the white protestors out there. Nor do I consider white liberals to be bad people, per se, especially considering their context in a society perfused by a media that has, for years and years stereotyped, criminalized, dehumanized blacks and lionized police officers.

But I do doubt the notion that a sustained, long-lasting and, inevitably permanent change to America’s socioeconomic structure – which is what we mean when we say “systemic racism,” racism that stems from practices that economically benefit whites, especially corporations and the very rich, invariably white institutions – and devastate black communities, by design – can sustain itself purely on the emotions generated by “galvanizing moments,” (read: compelling, tragic, heart-rending but intermittent images of black deaths). They are viewed through white eyes sympathetically, rather than empathetically, meaning there is still an element of pity and patronization, for most whites cannot imagine himself or herself ever under the knee of a police officer, gasping for breath.

If movements can be built on emotional moments, then there would have been more change since 2014, when  President Obama called rioters “criminals and thugs,”[xiv] just as his supposed opposite Trump did in a recent Tweet. [xvvii]  There would have been more change since 2012, when Trayvon Martin was murdered by self-proclaimed vigilante George Zimmerman. Or since 1991, when Rodney King was viciously beaten on camera precipitating the Los Angeles riots in 1992, which looked like they may have changed things permanently. Since 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by two white men, who went free. Undoubtedly all these events evoked the sympathy of white America. But it wasn’t enough to realize systemic change.

That’s not to say that nothing has improved. Because of the photograph that proliferated throughout America in America, thousands of people were inspired to pursue careers in civil rights. It’s likely that the same phenomenon is taking place with the recent video of George Floyd, as it likely did with Trayvon Martin’s death, and the countless before him. Filmmaker Keith Beachamp said: “I’ve seen death time and time again with the work I do…but nothing has ever hit me harder than the image of George Floyd. When I saw that image, it brought me back to when I first saw the photograph of Emmett Till at the age of 10. And it was something that I could not really wrap my head around. And I had the same reaction when I saw the officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.”[xv] But for all the shock and revulsion we feel at witnessing those deaths, and the other thousands, millions like them, shouldn’t 65 years, 40 years, 30 years, 20 years – even just the six since the riots in Ferguson – be enough to make significant, systemic changes? Strides, rather than incremental steps? Why do black communities still go underserved, over-policed, and treated like a battleground? Why has it been so slow-going, if radical change really is the will of the people?

Just as, Emmett Till’s murder was, per the words of  the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the “big bang” of the Civil Rights Movement,[xvi] George Floyd’s death has, so some say, been the spark that set the Black Lives Matter Movement ablaze, and amplified its message manifold. White people, en masse, seem to be on board this time around – at least in display. More and more people, black and white, appear to understand that racism in policing is rampant. Some seem to grasp that it’s endemic. But, from my experience, most don’t, and the anodyne slogans on signs I saw at the protest revealed as much to me. So has the popularity among liberals of the 8-point reformist solution proposed by Deray McKesson and his organization Campaign Zero (Many of which are already in place in police departments around the country). Most liberals don’t or can’t concede that racism is part of policing’s DNA – indeed, America’s DNA – and cannot anymore be patched up, reformed or ameliorated than an alchemist can transmute tin into gold. No matter how many times they disclaim the rhetoric of a “few bad apples,” they still don’t acknowledge the truth that policing is, has been, and will continue to be racist, so long as it serves the same role. It’s not broken, so it can’t be fixed.

Superficial solutions such as McKesson’s – rooted in reformism, not revolution – are economically and historically illiterate. They fail to acknowledge the racist, fundamental and functional economirole that racism plays in capitalist society, its role in stamping out riots borne not just of boot-heel brutality but brutal economic suffocation of the black community. This community can’t breathe; it has had a knee on its neck for centuries. Reforms will not change that if the core mission of policing remains to keep racial and class distinctions rigidly separated and unequal.

If I hadn’t found a specific politic through which I can envisage a new world – for me, the lens of socialism, I would be still be hopelessly strapped to the liberal incrementalism that the system will inevitably offer, the 8-point solutions, non-violent protests, lists of demands read at city hall. We mustn’t accept these acts as radical victories or congratulate ourselves for our participation. We cannot confuse the onanism and self-liberation of exhibiting our white guilt for genuine helpfulness and solidarity. Recognizing your privilege and understanding racist ideology in its micro and macro forms in America is not enough. These measures are ideal for short-term outrage but cannot sustain a long-lasting unified movement between blacks and whites in the working class, a unity that is direly needed if true systemic change is to happen. If we truly want to abolish the endemically racist structures of our society, then we have to find a politic that projects a future that is non-capitalist, non-imperialist, and as a result, non-racist. MLK called for the extinguishment of “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism,” interrelated pathologies in the American body politic. [viv] Malcolm X said: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”[xvviii] Fred Hampton said, “We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”[xvv]

If we, as white people, don’t summon our anger instead of simply expressing our sadness and disturbance at the images we have seen; if we don’t embrace a long struggle, and most importantly develop a political, theoretical lens through which to view the purposively brutal policing of black communities instead of wringing our hands and apologizing white guiltily; if we don’t follow future black leaders carrying on the legacies of Fred Hampton, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr;  if we don’t embrace abolition over reform, revolution over revision, radicalism over liberalism, then for many white folk, #BlackLivesMatter may become just another passing fad, awaiting the next image of horror, the next “galvanizing moment” to become modish once more.

 

 

[i] https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/05/14/indianapolis-police-shooting-dreasjon-reed-closed-casket-officer-suspended/5191182002/

[ii] https://fox59.com/news/it-did-not-happen-family-attorneys-say-dreasjon-reed-didnt-shoot-at-police-before-deadly-encounter/

[iii] https://apnews.com/552e596558541c15af6cfdee81670ede

[iv] https://stmuhistorymedia.org/murder-or-justifiable-homicide-the-death-of-the-revolutionary-fred-hampton/

[v] Till-Mobley, Mamie, and Chris Benson. Death of Innocence: the Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. Ballantine Books, 2005.

[vi] https://www.npr.org/2018/10/30/660980178/-let-the-people-see-shows-how-emmett-till-s-murder-was-nearly-forgotten

[vii] White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2013.

[viii] https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/01/how-author-timothy-tyson-found-the-woman-at-the-center-of-the-emmett-till-case?mbid=social_twitter

[ix] Grindy, Matthew A, and David A Houck. Emmett till and the Mississippi Press. University Press Of Missi, 2010.

[x] Tyson, Timothy B. The Blood of Emmett Till. Thorndike Press, A Part of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2017.

[xi] https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2018/01/03/dave-chappelle-equanimity-2017-full-transcript/

[xii] Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Emmett Till: the Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. AuthorHouse, 2006.

[xiii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/28/when-white-people-admit-white-privilege-theyre-really-just-congratulating-themselves/

[xiv] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-minneapolis-police-obama/former-us-president-obama-condemns-violence-at-protests-idUSKBN2383IC

[xv] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/06/george-floyd-emmett-till-deaths-inspire-calls-change-justice/3135768001/

[xvi] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/06/george-floyd-emmett-till-deaths-inspire-calls-change-justice/3135768001/

[xvii] https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2019/mar/08/fbi-media-anniversary/

[viii] https://timeline.com/the-crisis-waco-naacp-anti-lynching-b9d235f11aa2

[viii] https://timeline.com/the-crisis-waco-naacp-anti-lynching-b9d235f11aa2

[viv] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/martin-luther-king-hungry-club-forum/552533/

[xviv] https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro

[XVV] https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/fhamptonspeech.html

[xvvi] https://www.ctinsider.com/local/greenwichtime/article/The-Mother-Lode-As-he-lay-dying-George-Floyd-15315226.php

[xvvii] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-minneapolis-protesters-thugs-flagged-twitter/

 

[xvviii] https://socialistrevolution.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/FreddieGrayMalcolmXLeaflet.pdf

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