I think what’s different here, first of all, is that we’ve lived a good fifty years since the lynching of Emmett Till and the impact of these kind of images is different. About her decision to publish photographs of her son’s mutilated body, Mamie Till-Mobley said she wanted “all the world to see what they did to my son.”1Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America (New York: Random House, 2003). The images of her son’s body circulated primarily in African American print publications at a time when folks were beginning to mobilize and identify across geographic boundaries. Moreover, the images were included in a spread that situated Till as a person by showing his family members and his home; pictures of him in life. The images of Laquan McDonald, on the other hand, circulated across a variety of digital media platforms to audiences who may not have had any particular reason to identify with him or to know anything about him. They did not contextualize him as a human being in any way other than his victimhood and the legal circumstances surrounding the airing of the video. It’s a lot easier, then, to look at the images of McDonald (or indeed of Trayvon Martin’s corpse, or of the video of Eric Garner being murdered, and even, today, reproductions of the image of Till’s corpse) and see a nameless victim.
So one difference I would identify is the technological and cultural shift to a visual culture that’s so instantaneous and decontextualized.
Another difference is suggested by Claudia Rankine’s essay in the New York Times Magazine last summer, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning.” She describes Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision as a “refusal to keep private grief private,” and thus to politicize and universalize her son’s murder. In contrast to the lynching victim hanging from the tree as a warning to the black community, Mobley-Till took the means of representation into her own hands, and forced people to see and feel her anguish.
I would argue that one right that has been stripped of police victims like Laquan McDonald is the right to choose privacy in grief. A corpse is a vulnerable and tender thing. It elicits our care. To allow it to be seen by potentially indifferent others is an act of courage and sacrifice. As is clearly demonstrated by McDonald’s family’s statement at the time of the video’s release, this is not a choice that they were allowed to make on their own. In this way, the video of McDonald’s murder is an additional act of violence, wherein family members are not allowed to keep their grief private, and indeed may not be shielded from viewing their loved one’s death over and over again in pornographic detail. This is a disrespect to the living and to those who grieve. It is, as such, another way to frame McDonald’s murder as statistical, as circumstantial, or as collateral damage.
Which brings me to the fact that this is a video and not a still image. André Bazin calls the representation of “real death” on film an “obscenity,” because it violates the nature of death as a unique and irreversible instant.2André Bazin “Death Every Afternoon,” trans. Mark A. Cohen, in Rites of Realism, ed. Ivone Margulies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 30. For Laquan McDonald, the moment he is shot is a point of no return, an agony that (one hopes) subsided as he passed from this world. For the viewer, however, it is an instant that can be sickeningly repeated. And indeed, news coverage of the video’s release—I won’t say of McDonald’s death, for that in itself occasioned no national coverage—tended to edit the video down to a maybe five-second loop in which McDonald is seen from behind walking towards the curb, and then suddenly dropping to the pavement as the officers empty their guns into him. In one NBC Nightly News broadcast, I lost count at seven loops of this particular clip of the video. The actual video as released and available online is much longer, and it’s mostly the dashboard perspective of the squad car during the chase—so just streets going past, and flashing lights. The footage of the shooting is at the very end, and it’s quite brief. It isn’t “graphic” in the sense that there’s lots of blood, and the lost or failed sound—does anyone have any more information on that? It seems fishy to me—makes it all the more clinical and abrupt when McDonald’s body just collapses. The coldness of the image, coupled with the compulsive repetition that characterized the media’s deployment of it, renders McDonald’s body an object, a spectacle of inhumanity that does little to honor his life or redress his suffering.
So that’s part of the spectacle of the images, although I would argue that even if it were a still image, we’d be consuming the body as a fetish object. If I were McDonald’s mother, I wouldn’t want people to see him like that—or indeed, it might be hard, a generation later, to place faith in Mamie Till-Mobley’s sentiment that “the whole United States is mourning with me.”
Margaret Schwartz is associate professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. Her book _Dead Matter: The Meaning of Iconic Corpses_ (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) illustrates how structural inequalities like racism and sexism figure in the work of mourning. A post on the Press’s blog relating the book’s argument to the Laquan McDonald shooting is here. Her work is also available at Communication +1 and Genders.