The Revolution Will Be Digitized
Trymaine Lee: Two years ago, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis Police Officer, Derek Chauvin. The fact that we're still talking about it today and even the fact that we're able to call Floyd's killing murder is thanks in large part to a young woman named Darnella Frazier. She happened to be outside of Cup Foods that day, where she captured the final, gut-wrenching moments of Floyd's life with her cellphone camera. She was just 17-years old at the time.
Within a few hours, Frasier posted the video to Facebook almost, immediately it went viral. The next day, Derek Chauvin was fired, and three days later, he was arrested for murder. The criminal complaint against Derek Chauvin said that he had kneeled on George Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. And just like that, a movement was born. (CROWD VOICES).
Over the coming days and weeks, people around the country marched and chanted in what would become the largest protest movement in U.S. history. (CROWD VOICES). Activists, lawmakers, and laymen demanded reform and respect for black lives. (CROWD VOICES). And often, in the middle of those protests, the crowd would pause to observe 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence. (BACKGROUND VOICES).
But in the swirl of news reports and eyewitness accounts of what happened on that day, Memorial Day 2020, something had been lost. During Derek Chauvin's trial in the spring of 2021, body cam evidence from officers on the scene when George Floyd was killed proved that Chauvin had actually kept his knee on Floyd's neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, 43 seconds longer than originally reported. And in those final seconds, we heard Floyd cry out for his mother. We felt his please, that he couldn't breathe in our own chest. We watched him ride in pain. And finally, with Chauvin's knees still on his neck, we watched him go still. We all but witnessed in no small part because of a teenage girl with a cellphone camera with the wherewithal and the courage to hit record.
Marc Lamont Hill: What made George Floyd stunning to people was that for over 9 minutes they had to look at it. It had the power of a still photo, but it also was a long enduring video, and watching that unsettled the conscience of people who didn't normally see stuff like that.
Lee: Without the video that Darnella Frazier shot, it's unlikely a jury would have convicted Derek Chauvin of murder in April of 2021, but that video and others like it are not without traumatic consequences.
Hill: What happens when you look at it over and over again? What happens when you hear about it over and over again? What does it do to us then?
Lee: Marc Lamont Hill is a journalist and media scholar. His latest book, which he co-wrote with historian Todd Brewster, is called Seen and Unseen. Together, Hill and Brewster explore the intersection of technology, race, and social change from the anti-lynching pamphlets of the 19th century to the viral cellphone videos documenting police and vigilante violence today.
I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Two years after the murder of George Floyd, I talked with Marc Lamont Hill about how technology and visual media shaped the conversations we have about race in our society, how media became a tool for activism, but also for trauma.
Marc Lamont Hill, professor, TV host, public intellectual, but I think my favorite title is bookstore owner, man. Talk to us about Uncle Bobbie's in Philly.
Hill: Oh, man, Uncle Bobbie's is my favorite project that I've ever done. I love Uncle Bobbie's. It's a bookstore that I opened up in Philly in 2017. I opened it up because I was a child of black bookstores. In North Philly and West Philly, I would go to black bookstores, I would learn about myself and my race and my culture and my identity and my faith and all these things in ways that school couldn't give me. And I got put on the books because my dad's brother Bobbie, Bobbie Lee Hill, who had all the ebonies, all the jets, all the black enterprises in the house.
Hill: And so, he introduced me to the black publishing tradition and the idea that black people had a distinctive tradition and voice and genre. And so, Uncle Bobbie's push got me into the bookstores. And then I was like, "Okay, when I get older, one day, I'm going to create for somebody else what was created for me." And so, when I got a little bit of resources and some time and some inspiration, I said, "I'm going to open the store up." And for the last five years, we've been rocking, man.
Hill: And it's been a blessing, man, it's been a blessing.
Lee: Marc's love of black bookstores goes beyond Uncle Bobbie's.
Hill: You know, whenever I'm around the country, if I'm in D.C., I go to Sankofa. You know what I mean?
Hill: If I'm in L.A., you know, I'm going to Eso Won. If I'm in the Bay, I'm going to Marcus, you know what I mean because if I'm in Westfield, I go to Hakim's, you know, because we got to support all these black bookstores. These institutions need our support.
Lee: I'm gonna say, why does it matter? Especially, I feel like we're going through that so-called reckoning and other people are being exposed to our history. But why is it so important that we are also disseminating our history in that way?
Hill: Because, you know, we have an opportunity to narrate our own history. We have an opportunity to tell our own stories to offer our own truths. And we can't squander that opportunity. As a black folk in America, you know, we've always been framed and constructed and talked about and narrated by other people. And at every moment that that's happened, there's been a brave and courageous and brilliant black voice to say, "No, this is what our story is. Here's the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Here is poems on various subjects, religious and moral by Phillis Wheatley, you know.
And those voices were always the pushback against people who told us we weren't human, that we didn't have a history, you know. And so, at this moment in history, it's not enough to just uncover the voices although we gotta do that.
Hill: We also gotta protect the spaces that nurture those voices.
Lee: But Marc doesn't just sell books, he also writes them. The inspiration for his latest book, Seen and Unseen, came two years ago.
Hill: You know, after the death of George Floyd, I was trying to figure out what stories I wanted to tell. You know, I want to figure out how I can help the world, and frankly, myself make sense of the moment. Why are these people in the street? Why are all these white people buying books on race? Why are all these people pushing to disarm and defund police? Why is the conversation shifting or at least why are we saying the conversation is shifting?
And I wanted to figure out not just sort of what turned the corner, but how that turn could be instructive. You know, I think we can all agree that if George Floyd wasn't killed on video, we wouldn't be talking about George. You and I might not even know who George Floyd is. As journalists, we may have covered it that day or that week, but there wouldn't have been a movement behind George Floyd if not for the video.
And so, the question became, "What is it about the video that leads to this?" Now, the obvious answer is, one, it gives us evidence because black people, our witness, has never been sufficient. A black person saying, "Police kill us," ain't never been enough, right? Rodney King got beat on video and it wasn't enough. But it's also the representation of an end of innocence. Y'all can't pretend y'all didn't know no more. Even Rodney King you could say was isolated. You could say, "Well, you know, those are some crazy bad cops and what happened happened."
But how do you say that after Walter Scott was shot in the back and Eric Garner is choked to death? How do you keep doing that? At some point, America has to say, "Wait a minute. We're killing our own citizens. We're killing vulnerable, often unarmed black and brown people." And so, I wanted to tell the story about how the technology shapes it. But I didn't want us to think that the story of technology and racial justice begins with George Floyd or even Rodney King.
Lee: Instead, Marc says, "We have to go back to the 19th century because every era has its own emerging technology."
Hill: When we say technology, we often only instinctively think about new technology. You know, so we're using technology to have this conversation. But we don't necessarily think about the book as a piece of technology or pen and paper as technology. And so, all those technologies helped shape our understanding, not just of racial justice but race itself. And suddenly, when we have the technology of the camera and the ability to make films, and D.W. Griffith, whatever you think of him, revolutionized the film.
Lee: D.W. Griffith was the director behind "The Birth of a Nation". It was basically the first blockbuster of the fledgling film industry back in 1915, utilizing new technology and techniques to tell a sweeping and dramatic story. Griffith, the son of a colonel in the Confederate Army, said the film was a historical retelling of the period of American history, covering the Civil War and reconstruction.
Hill: When you look at the film, you say, "Oh, wait a minute, this isn't just a piece of art. This is a piece of racial propaganda that frames black folks as lazy and also violent, as dumb and also predacious."
Lee: It depicts newly emancipated African Americans as lazy and lecherous, the filing, the honor of white women, as well as the halls of Congress. The KKK, meanwhile, are painted as valiant heroes riding in on horseback to save the benighted South from disastrous black rule. It was the first feature film shown in the White House receiving glowing reviews from then President Woodrow Wilson. And even as black folks all across the country protested the film, "The Birth of a Nation", popularized the plan in the 20th century, acting as a recruiting tool for decades, hoping to usher in a revival for the terror organization.
Hill: And so when you frame black men in particular as sexual predators who are lusting after virtuous white women and at the very same time you see America's lynching regime get only stronger, you can begin to understand the relationship between visual representations pushed by technology and the way we actually understand race.
Lee: Even before "Birth of a Nation" and moving images on a screen, photography was used to shape ideas about race. Take Frederick Douglass, for instance, Marc says, he truly understood the power of visual representation. In fact, he was a master of it.
Hill: He was the most photographed man of the century. You know, part of that was an attempt at self-invention and self-representation. I need the world to know who I am because of how the narratives of white supremacy are framing me. And so, these technologies will shape who I am, and they will shape how you see who I am. So, by the time you get to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, you know, and the use of photography and journalism combined to talk about lynching, now all of a sudden, we have an ability, we have an ability to use technology to shape conscience, to shape understanding.
And frankly, Trymaine, we're still doing that right now. Every time we see a video of somebody dying or catching hell in Ukraine, every time we see famine in Africa, every time we see a bomb go off in the Middle East, every time we see a drive-by shooting or otherwise form of interracial violence in Chicago, all of these forms of technology sometimes tell a story, sometimes they reinforce a lie, sometimes they reinforce a stereotype or a bias. But all these forms of technology help shape and reinforce our racial consciousness.
Lee: And it seems, you know, listening to you give that list, that historical list, the dangerous kind of collision of the racial mythology and technology, "The Birth of a Nation," that first time using that dolly then dig scenes where the horses are racing and then you see that panning shot, which is like the drone footage of today, right?
Hill: Yep, yep.
Lee: And how enthralling that would have been and reinforcing those ideas, it sounds dangerous.
Lee: Powerful and dangerous.
Hill: It's hella dangerous. And the more "realistic" the genre seems, the more it shapes consciousness. And so, as you said like these technologies and these tools, they are so persuasive and compelling because they look so real that people think they have no choice but to honor them and believe in them and respond to them.
Lee: You know, I think the big screen and "The Birth of a Nation" is one thing, but they're a much smaller piece of media. I can't help but think about the postcards of the lynchings. And I know you came across that one where it says, "(Inaudible) is the barbecue we had last night," and there was a dead man who was barbecued and people took limbs and pieces of this man's body, right? And they shared this--
Lee: … with family and friends and loved ones. And I wonder from your estimation of all this like what role of that very personal nature of the sharing similar to how we share videos stuff today, how that kind of shaped our understanding in this country.
Hill: Absolutely. I mean, first, we have to wrestle with the fact that we live in a country where the first national pastime, not baseball, you know, named football, for sure, it's the lynching. And we have to understand what that says about our capacity even today to see black folks as human beings to see our bodies is worthy of protection and safety, dignity. We have to start there.
And when we look at these lynching postcards, it not only allowed people to hold on to the idea that black folk weren't human and that violence against us was always merited. But it also served a purpose of kind of objectifying the body and normalizing anti-black violence in a way that's not that different than when I turn on my Twitter stream and I gotta watch George Floyd get killed over and over again. It can become so mundane to us that we don't even see it as outrageous anymore.
And that's the kind of danger of living in a country with spectacles of depth and spectacles of violence are ubiquitous, but we got to be honest about it. A lot of times, it's only black death and black violence. You know, white people, they don't turn on their Twitter feeds and have to see people who look like them killed all the time over and over and over again. They don't have to turn on their cable news station or their local news station and see death all the time from people that look like them. And so, that does something to us, it's it traumatizes us, and it can also make us newer to the pain and trauma that it's actually producing.
Lee: You know, I've been relatively conflicted on this point for a long time. Fully aware of the seeding of that trauma and transference of that terrible energy. And to your point, we've worked in these big media organizations where they're not going to put some young white girl's body on the front page, they're not going to do that.
Lee: But you see a black boy, a black girl, they most certainly will. We watched Tamir Rice be gunned down, a boy, right, gunned down. On the other hand, we think about the power in harnessing those images to spark change.
Lee: To expose those who aren't otherwise exposed but also to remind those of us who experienced the saying, "You gotta get up and you gotta stand up."
Hill: Yeah, yeah.
Lee: I think about that black and white photo of a man was lynched yesterday, right? And you think about the Ida B. Wells pamphlets.
Hill: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lee: How do we strike that balance because on one hand, it is the transference of pain and trauma, on the other hand, these images have been used even in a contemporary sense to spark movement?
Hill: I struggle with it. You know, there were people on Twitter, some of whom have large followings that came out of the struggles of 2014. And some of them have been accused of exploiting black pain and black death by posting those videos and showing the trauma over and over again. You know, that it's traumatic to look at. It's triggering for a whole lot of us.
And so I understand that, but there's also ways, you said, that it's that discomfort that we feel, it's that unsettling that happens that gets America to act. That's what Dr. King is doing. Dr. King is organizing a spectacle of violence when we're on the Pettus Bridge. He understood that liberal America's response to watching unarmed innocent passive as negroes getting beaten by the state was going to be untenable for some, for enough people that we can make something happen. Now, plenty of white folks were fine with it.
Lee: Enjoyed it.
Hill: But that some people enjoyed it even, right?
Hill: But the others would find it untenable. So, this is the balance that we have to always strike, and this was a critique of Ida B. Wells at the time, and this is a critique that we will have right now. And I don't have an easy answer except to say that I think we have to be strategic and intentional about when we use it. And the visuals, the spectacles have to be accompanied by one organized action that is intended to do something more than just provoke, right, and unsettle. But it also has to also be matched by a very intentional complement of healing and psychological, emotional interventions, you know, so that we don't see ourselves as just victims of violence and that we don't ever think that there's something ordinary or normal about it.
Lee: We'll be right back.
Marc Lamont Hill has been a journalist and on-air personality, appearing on CNN, Fox News, BET, and MSNBC. It seems like if you name any network, he's put his time there. And all that experience has given him a front row seat to witness the many ways that social media and the ubiquity of cellphone cameras have changed the way that people think and talk about race and push forward the fight for justice.
Hill: Oh, it's been a game-changer. You know, Rodney King being beaten on tape, in many ways, was just a fortunate coincidence for Rodney King and for all of us who love justice, right, that someone happened to have their camcorder out and recording it. You know, but the odds of a person just walking down the street with a big behind camcorder.
Lee: (Inaudible) big so (inaudible).
Lee: so, that's a-- (LAUGH).
Hill: Yeah. No way. I mean the tape itself is bigger than anything that we carry now.
Lee: The kids don't know about that. (LAUGH).
Hill: They don't know about that VHS tape, man. And don't put in tabs. You, guys, stick something into the tab, they'll record over it again.
Lee: (LAUGH). Right.
Hill: I mean this was the level of commitment. You had to have the technology at the time in order to record something so you need a time, opportunity, circumstance, luck, resources, all the things.
Lee: The money, yeah.
Hill: Money, oh, right. So, that made it very challenging even if you were committed to it. But over time, when we look at the cellphone, now, suddenly, we're always ready, right? We stay ready, right? We gotta get ready because the phone is always there, we can just pull out our phone and hit record. Live streaming allows us to broadcast directly at any time when something is happening. Sometimes, now, we pull out a phone to stop something from happening, right?
Hill: When that man just starts wildling in the restaurant or in the store, you'd be like, "All right, so you're telling me that I can't do what?" Right? And sometimes it stops things, right? The logic of police body cameras is that if the police are being videotaped at all times, they will act right or at least they'll act different, right? This is the logic, right? The idea is that the surveillance state and the growing ubiquitousness of surveillance equipment post-9/11 has made it much easier for the world to be surveilled, and if the world's surveilled then people have to be honest.
And while I don't agree with that entirely, there is something to be said about the fact that every citizen has a video camera and a regular camera, still camera and live broadcasting equipment at their disposal at all times. It does make things different. It does give us a fighting chance.
Lee: I think there are like contradictory forces here because to your police body cam point, America has accepted a certain level of anti-blackness and anti-black violence that we could still see it and still work our way around it to make it all make sense.
Lee: But I also do wonder, on the other side, everyone is so ready with the cameras, are we too ready? It's a lot of displays--
Hill: Oh, yeah.
Lee: --that keep people from either stopping violence from happening or engaging a certain way because they're gonna pull that camera out before they intervene. How has it shaped the way we interact with each other, you think?
Hill: You know, it's all performance, right, with or without a camera. You know, the social world is, in many ways, the site of performance. But when that camera rolls, it can change the dynamic considerably and sometimes for the good, sometimes it stops things from happening, sometimes it shapes behavior or reshapes behaviors, sometimes it stops people from doing what they otherwise would have done because people don't want to be in trouble on camera. It also can create the dynamic of perpetual watching.
Hill: You know, a man's been beaten outside my door, let me get my camera and videotape it so we can show it as opposed to me going out there and stopping the guy from getting beaten, right?
Hill: And look, that even without a camera, I might not have the ability, the courage, the capacity, the will, the desire, whatever, to stop whatever is going on outside, whatever that thing might be. So, I'm not saying like, you know, we have to do that. But there is a way that I think our first instinct is to capture sites of violence and trauma rather than to stop them.
Hill: And the camera only enables that. And because everybody has a camera and everyone is now a cameraman and a creator then everybody's always looking for content. And sometimes it's better to have good content than it is to engage in certain kinds of practices.
Lee: How do you think all of this, the capturing of some of these incidents we talked about, especially, I think, with Walter Scott being shot in the back and Eric Garner, and all these cases, Ahmaud Arbery, how do you think that has actually bled into to the courtroom? So, I think you would argue, especially with Ahmaud Arbery, that it wouldn't have gone down without the camera. But so often, that might have just been a one-off, or a two-off 'cause it was so obvious, right?
Lee: But how do you think all this is influencing what's happening in the courts?
Hill: Yeah. One, I don't take for granted even the most extreme and obvious cases will lead to a just outcome. The courts are now presented with new challenges, right? One of the things that we see emerged in the 19th and going into 20th century is the idea of the reasonable man standard, right?
Hill: What we might now call the reasonable person standard, inheritance of Oliver Wendell Holmes and this idea that a juror is being asked to consider what would a reasonable person do under these circumstances, right? And because the template for human thought, human action, the human itself has been white people and because our country is still demographically dominated by white people and our jury boxes are definitely dominated by white people, oftentimes, the question isn't, "Is this right or wrong?" It's, "Would I do the same thing under these similar circumstances?"
So, the question is, if I saw Trayvon Martin with his sagging pants at nighttime, would I have heard him too? You know, if I saw Eric Garner coming toward me, what would I have done? Right? And these become the kinds of questions that we're forced to ask. And there's a way that the jury now has access to this new video technology, which gives them more resources to draw from and forces them to ask different questions and to not just take the word of the perpetrator of violence or the alleged perpetrator of violence.
But again, I don't want to become too romantic about this stuff because oftentimes, those people will look at that film, they'll look at that photograph, and they'll say, "You know what? Mike Brown, oh, yeah, I would have did that too. Oh, yeah, Trayvon, I get it." Because irrational white supremacist conceptions and understandings of who and what black people are still govern us and then they don't just govern white people, they also govern black folks at some time.
So, I never want to overreach or overestimate what this technology can produce, but I also never want to limit its possibilities for reshaping the conversation. And I think the courtroom is the perfect site where we see that tension happen when we watch Kyle Rittenhouse be found not guilty, but we do find that, you know, Derek Chauvin guilty, right? This is that space.
Lee: You know, let's push into that point. They're a little more. I mean it's almost like whose imagination are we existing and living in operating within. And thing about Kyle Rittenhouse, there are some images of him, we saw him just gunned down three or four people and he's walking head on back with the AR. And it looks deplorable to a lot of us, right?
Lee: But then white supremacist, he look cool, he got the AR, he got the head on and he just gunned down the ops by enemies, right? And so, talk about how white supremacists might be using this new media landscape and this new technology to promote their causes.
Hill: And that's a great point because, you know, one of the things that inspires so many of us about the new technological landscape is that anybody can access it. Anybody can tell their own story, anybody can make their claims about the world. But the downside is that anybody can tell their story, anybody can present their information, anybody can make claims about the world.
And so, in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, and this is what we talked about in the book, because it's constructed as a raw live document. The presumption is, well, if it's raw footage and it's live then whatever they're showing is "the truth".
Lee: But Marc says the decision of where to focus the lens and what remained outside the cameras' frame is just as consequential as what's shown on a screen.
Hill: All of these things shaped the conversation. They are the conversation. And so, Kyle Rittenhouse is telling a story of a hero and a freedom fighter who's coming to intervene and (inaudible) anarchy. And the rest of us are looking at it and saying, "This dude came looking for a fight and wanting to kill some people." And those competing narratives are demonstrated in the respective video projects that emerged from the fight, right, on top of the courtroom fight, the legal fight.
Hill: When we look on YouTube, we see very different stories come up. When I look at how memes and how data are presented on digital platforms, we've come to believe that if it's in a meme or there's a list of facts, they must be true. Forget fact-checking, it's listed as facts and it says source, so it must be right if you believe and does that, right?
I think about all the misinformation there was and disinformation even there was around vaccines, the right, and not just the right, but the right has been able to kind of use technology as a way of narrating its own experiences of telling its own stories and presenting its own "facts".
Lee: You know, you've been at this a very long time and you've been consuming this stuff and creating a record for us to kind of follow the quilt, as I like to say, the quilt of American history and our experiences, we get the piece by piece. But I wonder in your writing of this book if there's anything that you learned. Anything, even given your decades of study, anything that like that you took from it, that you learned this specific kind of way?
Hill: Yeah. You know, I don't think I fully appreciated how invested black people have been in using technology to produce justice. You know, I'm always gonna be biased toward my era. I'm always gonna be biased toward my moment. You know, I understood Rodney King, I understood Twitter, I understood Facebook. I could even make sense of the photographs to some extent, but I couldn't properly make sense of what it meant for Frederick Douglass to be obsessed with the photograph in that process of invention and reinvention, as I said earlier.
When I looked at these various forms of technology across time and space, across history and across geography, I realized that these technologies have been very intentionally and strategically used by the vulnerable, not just black people, but by the vulnerable, and by the advocates of the vulnerable for a very long time. And so, I learned so much complexity and nuance, and working with Todd, who's a historian, he's always able to take it one step deeper. Like I may go wider in my analysis, and he goes deeper in terms of, I'm thinking, okay, how does this thing that's happening here play out in China and Sudan, and Ukraine? And he's thinking, "How did 1782 to deal with this?
Hill: And so, between those two things, I was able to really learn a lot about how to think about technology and race and how to think about the struggle for racial justice, not just in this moment, this fraught urgent moment, but also, honestly, as long as there's been race and racism, there has been people fighting against it, and technology's been right there all the whole time.
Lee: That's what's up brother. Marc Lamont Hill, thank you for your time and your insight, brother, I really appreciate it, man, to chop it up.
Hill: The pleasure is mine, brother. We gotta do this again.
Lee: We shall.
On Wednesday, exactly two years after George Floyd was murdered, President Biden issued an executive order on police reform.
Joe Biden: It's a measure of what we can do together to heal the very soul of this nation, to address profound fear and trauma, exhaustion, and particularly black Americans have experienced for generations, and a channel, that private plane and public outrage into a rare mark of progress for years to come.
Lee: The order creates a registry of federal officers fired for misconduct, which will also be open to local and state departments. And it directs all federal agencies to revise their use of force policies. It also encourages state and local agencies to restrict the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants wars, among other things.
Biden: This is a call to action based on a basic truth for the wheels of justice are propelled by the confidence that people have in their system of justice. Justice goes undelivered. Without public trust, law enforcement can't do its job of serving and protecting all of our communities. As we've seen all too often, public trust is frayed and broken. That undermines public safety.
Lee: The order represents a small step forward in reform. It doesn't go as far as the failed George Floyd justice in policing act, or even an earlier version of the same order that drew backlash from police groups over language about restricting use of force. This order signed by Biden this week has the support of the Fraternal Order of Police.
We love hearing from you. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod or you can tweet me at Trymaine Lee, that's @trymainelee, my full name. And if you want to write to us, our email is email@example.com. That was intoamerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I.com.
Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. Special thanks this week to Bryson Barnes for engineering assistance. I'm Trymaine Lee. Be good to yourselves and each other. We'll see you next Thursday.