When footage of the Rodney King beating hit the airwaves some twenty years ago, Americans watched only a few seconds of the entire nine minute video in which Los Angeles police officers repeatedly struck and stomped King while he struggled on the ground. Still, it was enough to mobilize the Black community. We rallied, protested, and — when provoked by the acquittals — rioted against the brutal injustice.
Since then, camera phones and the Internet have become readily available and widespread among African-Americans who now routinely record encounters and incidents with the police. Confrontations in Philadelphia, New Orleans and New York have become viral sensations and sources of protest.
Black citizens in Oakland, Calif. have rallied and rioted on various occasions since footage of Oscar Grant’s murder surfaced on YouTube days after the young man was fatally shot by transit police. Responding to reports of a fight, Bay Area Rapid Transit officers detained Grant and several other passengers on the platform at the Fruitvale station. Footage of the arrest shows officer Johannes Mehserle pull out his gun and shoot Grant in the back.
The viral video was the most important piece of evidence in the case against Mehserle, while the protests kept the heat on the media, prosecutors and the court.
But while this combination of viral video and community activism is demonstrating the effectiveness that vigilant public monitoring can have against police brutality, another vast video archive of school yard fights, after-the-club rumbles, and you-sleeping-with-my-man brawls are having a very different effect on public life and culture. While police brutality videos inspire outrage and action, videos of Black-on-Black violence have become an accepted form of entertainment.
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The Rise Of Shock Video
The shift started around 2003, when scrappy street fighter Kimbo Slice’s unsanctioned backyard brawls spread rapidly around the Internet through sites like SublimeDirectory. The videos quickly racked up millions of views and in turn introduced African-Americans to a genre called “shock video.”
Shock video is not new. It is a genre that white kids have cultivated for years. What’s new is shock video’s Black face in the Internet age. Nowadays, Black Americans are the viewers and producers of an entire cloud catalog of cruelty; an unadulterated glimpse into violence against ourselves; making these shock video websites some of the most popular destinations for African-Americans on the Web.
Each day roughly 2 million viewers log on to WorldstarHipHop.com to view its collection of underground hip-hop videos, celebrity clips, “hood stripper” demos, and caught-on-tape footage.
In each instance, it’s the same Black bodies pummeled and punished by other Black bodies.
But instead of crying with outrage, we laugh.
We replay the big hits and crazy K.O.s. We share these videos on our Facebook pages — not to evoke anger, but to indulge in the ignorance that is killing so many of our young people.
The same year Grant was killed, Derrion Albert was beat to death in a brutal caught-on-camera incident in Chicago. Albert, a 16-year-old honor student, was defending another student when he was hit with a 2×4 and then brutally stomped to death. But unlike Grant, Albert was killed by other young Black boys and not the police.
The Black community mourned, but few protested. So the outrage that created change in Los Angeles faded with grief in Chicago. It proves once again that African-Americans are missing the real issue: Police brutality is serious. But Black-on-Black crime is the greater epidemic, one that deserves an extreme response. One that deserves at least an equal measure of revulsion and action.
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The Historical Context
Black-on-Black violence, at its core, is a bi-product of white supremacy. Throughout America’s history, society has taught us that Black lives are expendable. It is a doctrine taught to us through systematic discrimination. It’s a lesson we learn when police fail to expend adequate resources to solve crimes where the victim is Black, and in the way America hands out higher sentences to criminals when their victims are white. Limited economic opportunity, too, spawns a crabs-in-a-barrel mentality among Black people. That we live in communities still largely segregated should make it all the more obvious why 94 percent of Black Americans are killed by other Black Americans.
Over time, these conditions have not only soaked our psyches, they have also informed our place in the media.
In the 1970s, a deep recession and backlash against civil rights gains created Black plight and resistance storylines that Hollywood could not resist. Entertainment companies, in conjunction with a pioneering generation of Black filmmakers, employed negative Black stereotypes in a way that glamorized and sold caricatures of Black America back to us in the form of Blaxplotation films.
In the 1980s, a violent drug trade fueled by the emergence of crack cocaine was the backstory for shows like “Cops,” which delivered devalued Black lives to our television screens in prime time.
And in the 90s, rap music’s “kill-a-nigga” rhetoric trivialized Black life in a way that continues to be popular. At the same time, a new reality television genre emerged with the advent of MTV’s “The Real World.” Reality television’s need to compete with the anything-goes nature of online video has produced shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta and VH1′s Basketball Wives, where potentially positive examples of well-to-do Black women are transformed into drama-queen hour. On a recent episode of Basketball Wives Tami Roman and Meeka Claxton, two of the show’s cast members, got into a physical altercation in a nightclub. Such fights are common on these shows, as they represent a more appropriate, subdued version of the Internet’s shock.
Today, an audience raised on reality TV would much rather watch boys who are actually in the hood, than watch Ice Cube and Morris Chestnutt act the part.
It’s against this history that Worldstar’s videos have become popular — the circumstances of each decade have created a cultural convergence, coming to a head in these three-minute video clips.
To believe that we can cure the ills of Black-on-Black entertainment with isolated protests is far-fetched. Black-on-Black violence as entertainment has become social capital, where having seen the latest “beatdown” is a measure of whether one is in-the-know.
In this case, what’s needed is a commitment to shame, protest and boycott these forms of media for the long term, thwarting the demand that exists for this entertainment and purging it of its social currency.
How You Can Take Action
There’s a long list of people ready to capitalize on the demand we create every time we log on to Worldstar, watch a shock video on YouTube, share a clip on our Facebook page, and joke about them.
As producers, we need not be afraid to challenge the basest impulses of our audience and instead provide what the community needs, alternatives that are as creative and entertaining.
On an individual level, it’s important to make sure we voice our outrage against these videos. When a friend posts one to Facebook or Twitter, ask them to remove it for your sake and ours. If they don’t, drive home your point by unfriending, unfollowing or blocking them. When you see it on YouTube or on a commercial website, flag it as inappropriate. Our mantra as consumers should be “Unfriend, unfollow, block and flag.”
Black people need to not be afraid to criticize our fellows. We spend so much time defending each other from “The Man” that we forsake appropriate criticism of ourselves and fail to take responsibility for our own complicity.
A campaign to kill Black-on-Black “entertainment” is a campaign to kill Black-on-Black violence.
Let our crusade start now.
(If you’re with us, we’d love to hear from you. Send your thoughts, ideas, and plans to me at firstname.lastname@example.org)