Front of house: Social media’s repackaging of Black death

Person liking instagram post of George Floyd
(Natalie Bauer • The Student Life)

CW: Police violence

When Black people are victims of police violence, their names, faces and life stories are quickly reduced to symbols used as touchstones to talk about issues much larger than them by people at every point on the political spectrum. Their names are no longer their names but serve as representations of the entire struggle for Black liberation from police violence. 

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and countless other victims of police violence have had their names and faces reduced to representations of the systems that resulted in their deaths. 

Blogger Danie refers to this as the “posthumous iconography of murdered Black people,” the transformation of Black victims of violence into pictures and symbols as opposed to what they were — human beings. The magnitude of what they endured is watered down so much that corporations become comfortable selling their images back to the communities that lost them.

When you share the image of a victim of police violence as a means of communicating an anti-police ideology, when you wield that person’s image to your advantage, you reduce that person to just that. Not a person but a symbol, a tool: something easy to swallow and look at.

In targeting this issue, it is important to consider the role of social media in desensitizing people to these images. Over the course of the past year, social media has served as a launchpad for a large amount of anti-racist protest and organizing efforts. It’s an invaluable tool for everything from sharing crucial breaking news and information to holding space for collective processing and healing. But, despite its advantages, it is a large contributor to the issue of the posthumous iconography of Black people.

The internet did not invent this issue, but it absolutely exacerbated it. Using aesthetically oriented platforms like Instagram for educational purposes culminated in the relegation of the images of murdered Black people to flowery children’s cartoons. And allowing anything of genuine substance near the internet’s genre of sardonic, post-post-post-ironic humor is almost never a good thing. The ease with which information can be shared online means that misinformation can spread like wildfire. 

The internet is a space with the goal of communicating as much information in as little time as possible and is used largely by young people as a means of cultivating an outward persona. The organization of something as serious as the fight for Black liberation over this medium is a recipe for disaster. 

It’s hard to do any form of cultural troubleshooting when it comes to things as nebulous as social media. The internet my mom uses to earnestly quote tweet local politicians and the internet my friends and I use to discuss the cancellation of TikTok pseudo-celebrities can barely be considered the same place. This discussion is difficult and can quickly become semantic, but it’s still something that needs to be discussed because it has real, harmful consequences.

The detriments of this mindset can be seen clearly in comments made by popular leftist content creator Vaush. In discussing the death of Ma’Khia Bryant on a Twitch stream recently, he indicated that he thought the circumstances surrounding her shooting meant that she wouldn’t be a good candidate to be “the next George Floyd,” going so far as to say people should “wait 24 hours” for another victim of police violence to be upset about. Bryant was a child, not an activist. But her death was understood not through the lens of empathy and compassion but through her potential utility as the face of a movement.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke from a similar place in comments she made following the announcement of the trial verdict in Derek Chauvin’s case, in which she martyrized Floyd and thanked him for “sacrificing [his] life.” Floyd did not give his life for the fight to end police brutality. He was an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

When we reduce victims of police violence to symbols, we strip them of their humanity and fail to understand the gravity of the suffering they endured. We become desensitized to Black pain. This issue may not be unique to social media, but it is exponentially worsened by it. For murdered Black people to have endured what they have, their images should not be reduced to something so easily shared, so profitable, so easy to look at.

Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. They are a government and literature dual major from Chicago and love everything to do with music, movies and books.

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