Black Deaths Matter? Sousveillance and the Invisibility of Black Life

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 By Mia Fischer & K. Mohrman

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 Abstract:This article examines the death of Philando Castile to explore the potential of live-streaming applications as a form of “sousveillance,” that can expose white supremacy from below. However, we argue that these technologies straddle a fine line between witnessing and spectacularizing, which can reinscribe an association between blackness and death.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 On July 6, 2016 Philando Castile, a 32-year-old lunch supervisor at a St. Paul Montessori school, was pulled over by police in Falcon Heights, a suburb in Minnesota. During this traffic stop he was fatally shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Immediately after the officer opened fire, Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, began live-streaming the event through Facebook’s Live application. [1] The video opens with Castile slouched back, his chest covered in blood staining his white t-shirt. Initially, Castile still appears somewhat conscious and is audibly groaning as the viewer witnesses him slowly bleeding to death. Eerily calm, Reynolds directly addresses the camera as the officer continues to point his gun at Castile:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Reynolds: “Stay with me … We got pulled over for a busted tail-light in the back … and the police just…he, he’s covered – they killed my boyfriend. He’s licensed, he’s licensed to carry. … He was trying to get out his ID in his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was… that he had a firearm and that he was reaching for his wallet. And the officer just shot him in his arm.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Yanez [shouting]: “Fuck … I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his head up.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Reynolds: “He had…you told him to get his ID, sir. His driver’s license. Oh my God, please don’t tell me he’s dead…” [camera pans to show Castile not moving] (StarkS 2016).

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 As Yanez yells at her to keep her hands where they are she responds in an obedient, yet firm voice: “I will, sir, no worries, I will.” What viewers witness is Reynolds rehearsing a centuries-old script in which slaves were required to properly address and obey their masters. Reynolds understood that this traffic stop had turned into a matter of life and death: her own survival depended upon complete compliance and obedience to authority, evident in her recurring affirmations of “yes sir.” When Reynolds does start crying in anguish towards the end of the nine-minute video, after she has been put in the back of a police car, her four-year-old daughter can be heard comforting her: “It’s OK, Mommy. It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Even as Reynolds is forced to watch the killing of her boyfriend, she understands that the only way to assert that Castile is human whose black life did, indeed, matter is to document and film his death. Reynolds later told reporters that she recorded the video “so that the world knows that these police are not here to protect and serve us. They are here to assassinate us. They are here to kill us because we are black” (Domonoske 2016). [2]

Images of Death

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 3 In 1955 Jet Magazine published the images of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s severely mutilated corpse, causing a nationwide outcry. In 1992, the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers was recorded on a bystander’s camcorder. After a jury later acquitted the accused officers despite the taped evidence, LA erupted in riots. Fast forward to the 2010s and video footage documenting state-sanctioned violence against black lives has become ubiquitous: cell phones, security cameras, as well as body and dash cam footage have made the public witnesses to the police killings of numerous black and brown people.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 This article highlights the circumstances of Castile’s death, particularly Reynolds’ use of Facebook Live, to explore the function of the camera and live-streaming applications for exposing and challenging white supremacy. We examine the affordances of these technologies that allow for the inversion of the institutional gaze and enable individuals to engage in “sousveillance,” a subversive surveillance from below. [3] While social media’s unprecedented ability to collect, curate, and disseminate large troves of visual images engender new modalities of visibility which may help expose and dismantle white supremacy, these technologies straddle a fine line between witnessing and spectacularizing that can paradoxically reinscribe an association between blackness and death.

From Surveillance to Sousveillance

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 Current public debates about police violence often lack a broader reflection of racialized surveillance structures as technologies of social control that are conducive to, if not directly feeding into, that violence. But racialized surveillance practices date as far back as the seventeenth century, with, for example, slave patrols and slave badges in the South. Citing “lantern laws” in New York City in the 1740s, which functioned as ordinances “For Regulating Negroes and Slaves in the Night Time,” Browne (2015) demonstrates that “Surveillance is nothing new to black folks. It is the fact of antiblackness” (10). For Browne it is necessary to conceptualize surveillance not as a product of modern technology, but “as ongoing” in order “to insist that we factor in how racism and antiblackness undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of our present order” (8-9). Thus, just as slaves sometimes simulated compliance with these surveillance practices in order to challenge their subjugation, Reynolds’ use of Facebook Live can be read as a similar inversion of racialized surveillance practices.[4]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 3 While recordings of police violence are not new, the speed with which live-broadcasting applications allows individuals to instantly share these events with millions of users is unmatched. But what are the implications of technologies that inundate us with images of violence, dying, and death, such as those broadcasted through Reynolds’ live-stream? Do we become de-sensitized scopophilic voyeurs who are complicit in, if not actively contributing to, acts of state violence? Or does the immediate, unedited and collective witnessing on platforms like Facebook allow for a different level of empathy and relatedness, especially from those protected by white privilege?

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 Many scholars have argued that social media have the capability of subverting the “racially saturated field of visibility” (Butler 1993: 18) that has characterized previous recordings of police violence. For example, in Butler’s reading of the Rodney King incident, his beating was not interpreted as violence because our visual field is never neutral to race; rather, the recording fixed and framed King as always already racialized and criminalized, as the danger from which whiteness must be protected. We argue that to a limited extent the recent recordings and unedited images of the killings of black and brown lives have begun to challenge stereotypical perceptions of blackness as “thuggish,” “dangerous,” and “criminal.” However, as Hartman (1997: 20) argues empathy is a double-edged sword: “if the scene of beating readily lends itself to an identification with the enslaved, it does so at the risk of fixing and naturalizing this condition of pained embodiment.” Although Hartman is discussing nineteenth-century abolitionist writing, her point is equally applicable to the visuality of twenty-first-century technologies that capture police brutality against people of color. While platforms like Facebook Live do function to bring new levels of awareness to the realities of being a person of color in the U.S., they can also ironically evacuate the very humanity that these images attempt to attach to those lives by reiterating the ubiquity of black death. Thus, whether these platforms have any subversive potential largely depends on who is producing and consuming these images.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 Moreover, the gendered dynamics of police violence against communities of color, are simply ignored by mainstream media. Even though Black Lives Matter was founded by queer women of color, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, and the #SayHerName and #TransLivesMatter campaigns have gone viral in an attempt to bring awareness to the ways police violence specifically affects women, queer, and trans people of color, gender is consistently erased as an important vector of state violence. This means that the mistreatment and deaths of women of color at the hands of state agencies are often not covered and/or do not receive the same level of attention as those of men of color, regardless of the use of sousveillant technologies. This is evident in the lack of reporting on the consequences these events have on the survivors of these tragedies, such as Reynolds and her daughter.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 However, by filming and narrating her horror, Reynolds actively participates in what Browne (2015) calls “dark sousveillance,” an oppositional imaginary that actively resists racialized surveillance practices. With the broad transmission of these images, previously ungrievable black lives are becoming grievable as victims of state-sanctioned violence. This occurs not simply because these images are consumed by a broader public, but because they are utilized by social justice activists, such as Black Lives Matter, to challenge institutional racism. Consequently, these images have generated a much-needed debate about the persistent surveillance of communities of color and militarized police forces.

Facebook Live

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 But will the master’s tool be able to dismantle the master’s house? While smart phones, live-streaming applications, and body cameras can be used as tools of sousveillance, they are still subject to the political economy of their production. After Reynolds’ video accumulated thousands of views overnight, Facebook suddenly removed it. The company later apologized, alleging that the video was inaccessible for an hour due to a “technical glitch” (Peterson 2016). The video was then reposted with a warning label for graphic content and restricted to users over eighteen. The video’s temporary removal, whether intentional or not, raises questions about the company’s ethical guidelines for content regulation and moderation.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 While Facebook originally used its Live application for entertainment purposes, recent events have unexpectedly situated the company as a prime platform for breaking news. Facebook has long vied to gain a foothold in the news business in its quest for new revenue streams that keep its 1.7 billion users engaged. The company has been hosting and linking to news content from various publishers for years. With unpaid users functioning as citizen journalists however, Facebook is now profiting as an active news production business itself.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 In a statement released shortly after Castile’s shooting, Facebook acknowledged the unique challenges of live videos “as a powerful tool in crisis” (Beck 2016). In its Community Standards, Facebook (2016) also stated that “context and degree are everything” and that users must share content “responsibly.” Yet the language of responsibility evokes an unnamed commitment to neoliberal ideals in which individuals are required to regulate themselves, while the state and corporations are exonerated of any accountability and systemic inequalities remain unopposed. The fact that Reynolds’ video fell prey to Facebook’s censorship illustrates the complex push and pull between the drive to monetize content for-profit and the insidious racial dynamics that marked Reynolds’ video as irresponsible and offensive, however temporarily. In a response to Castile’s death Mark Zuckerberg (2016), Facebook’s founder, utilized the language of colorblindness, which counteracted any suggestion that the video was pulled as a result of its racial content: “The images we’ve seen this week are graphic and heartbreaking, and they shine a light on the fear that millions of members of our community live with every day. …it reminds us why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important.”

Minnesota (You Are Not So) Nice

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 Lastly, we want to think about how the specific geographic context of Castile’s death affected both the potential of the sousveillance practices enacted by Reynolds as well as the surveillance practices Castile was subjected to. The killing of Castile has brought to the fore what social justice activists and communities of color in Minnesota have known for years, namely that simmering under the surface of Midwestern prosperity, the state’s racial and economic inequities are debilitating large segments of the population. Driven by a progressive white liberalism and branding itself as the hip “North” of the Midwest, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and their larger metropolitan areas have been booming since the 2008 recession. Yet, the “Miracle of Minneapolis” as The Atlantic (2016) recently called it, is really only miraculous for its white citizens. When it comes to racial differences regarding household income, employment, educational attainment, and poverty rates, government data shows that Minnesota does worse than most other states and often ranks last on these lists (Gee 2015). Geographically, the Twin Cities remain deeply segregated and unequal. For example, North Minneapolis (home to Jamar Clark [5] and most of Minneapolis’ African American population) has been starved by a lack of resources for decades. As Anthony Newby, executive director of the local non-profit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change explains: “There aren’t jobs. There isn’t a restaurant within two miles of where I live. There is no investment. You can’t buy a house because banks aren’t lending money” (cited in Gee 2015). Similarly, the public school system shows a significant “achievement gap” with abysmally low graduation rates for students of color.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 Under the mantle of “Minnesota Nice” – a local idiom that describes the tendency of Minnesotans to avoid direct confrontation by putting on a polite face that is seemingly tolerant and accepting of all kinds of differences – it becomes all too easy to ignore rather than challenge the implicit racial biases and systemic inequalities that plague the state. But, does sousveillance necessarily help to expose these realities and push, particularly white Minnesotans to acknowledge and change these inequalities? Without the sociopolitical context of the video, the death of Castile all too easily transforms into yet another violent spectacle that reduces blackness to suffering and misery – making black death matter, but not black lives. In other words, sousveillance alone does not spotlight the mundane ways that racism functions on a daily basis. The video of Castile’s death does not illustrate the deep-rooted patterns of racialized surveillance and racial-profiling that people of color are all too familiar with. For example, African-Americans and Native Americans in Minneapolis are eight times more likely than whites to be charged with a low-level infraction, such as trespassing or loitering (ACLU 2015). Court records show that Castile was stopped for minor traffic violations more than forty times over the past thirteen years. Like many poor people of color, Castile was trapped in a cycle of fees and fines mounting up to $7,000 for misdemeanor tickets that he was unable to pay, which resulted in the revocation of his driver’s license on numerous occasions (Stahl 2016).

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 Castile’s forty-ninth traffic stop proved to be his last. A police audio recording indicates that Castile matched the description of a robbery suspect and officers stopped him because, “The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose” (emphasis added, cited in Stahl 2016). The racial implications of this description, when considered in combination with the persisting inequalities in Minnesota, evidences that in fact, tolerance and acceptance are not sufficient to combat white supremacy.


22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 For Reynolds, who did not finish high school, has experienced homelessness, and currently works two jobs, Castile’s death has increased her hardships: she is left without a partner to help cover rent, watch her daughter when she works night shifts, or drive her to look for an apartment in a safer neighborhood (Saslow 2016). The realities of Reynolds’ life without Castile easily go unnoticed, when the focus is solely placed on the spectacle of black men dying, rendering invisible the racial, gender, and class dynamics of state violence.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 The sousveillant use of smart phones and live-streaming applications that document the killing of black and brown lives has the potential to change the framing of racialized bodies in public discourse, but only if these videos are contextualized and used as part of larger social justice movements. While encountering raw images of police brutality may create temporary acknowledgment that black lives matter, their consumption can also easily slip into voyeurism that focuses solely on black death. The problem remains that black and brown lives often only gain legibility as we watch them dying. The death of Castile and those of so many others demand we – as citizens, scholars, teachers, activists, and critics – keep pushing back against systemic racial injustice and to dismantle the structures that uphold white supremacy. This requires that we get out from behind our screens, especially those of us with white privilege. Only in conjunction with coalitional movements such as Black Lives Matter will sousveilllant technologies actually result in material change.


24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [1] Similar to Twitter’s Periscope, Facebook Live, which was launched in April 2014, allows users to instantaneously broadcast videos on their news feed where friends and followers can immediately watch it.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [2] According to the Guardian’s (2016) project, The Counted, 758 people – 343 of which were people of color – have been killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. as of September 2016.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 1 [3] Coined by Mann et al. (2003) “sousveillance” refers to the ways that wearable computing devices, such as cell phone cameras, are used as a means of sub/inverting the power relations that typically characterize surveillance.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [4] Hartman (1997) argues that capitulation to the master must be considered pragmatic and not just as resignation to one’s enslavement. During forced performances, for example, slaves would be “‘puttin’ on ole massa’” (8) to imitate compliance for covert aims.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [5] Jamar Clark was shot and killed by police in November 2015. The circumstances of his death prompted major protests throughout Minneapolis.


29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 American Civil Liberties Union. 2015. “Picking up the Pieces: Policing in America – A
Minneapolis Case Study.” Accessed August 9, 2016. https://www.aclu.org/feature/picking-pieces

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Beck, Christina. 2016. “Facebook issues streaming guidelines after Castile shooting video goes
viral.” The Christian Science Monitor, July 9. Accessed August 14, 2016.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke
University Press.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Butler, Judith. 1993. “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia.” In
Reading Rodney King/ Reading Urban Uprising, edited by Robert Gooding-Williams,
15-22. New York: Routledge.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Domonoske, Camila. 2016. “Minnesota Gov. Calls Traffic Stop Shooting ‘Absolutely Appalling
At All Levels,’” NPR, July 7. Accessed August 9, 2016 http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/07/485066807/police-stop-ends-in-black-mans-death-aftermath-is-livestreamed-online-video

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Facebook Community Standards. 2016. Accessed August 12, 2016.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Gee, Taylor. 2015. “There’s Something Rotten in the State of Minnesota.” Politico, July 16.
Accessed August 5, 2016. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/07/minnesota-race-inequality-philando-castile-214053#ixzz4GTqDHmA3

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Guardian. 2016. “The Counted.” Accessed September 10, 2016. Database available at

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Hartman, Saidiya V. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in
Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Mann, Steve, Nolan, Jason, and Wellman, Berry. 2003. “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using
Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” Surveillance & Society 1, no. 3: 331-355.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Peterson, Andrea. 2016. “Why the Philando Castile police-shooting video disappeared from
Facebook — then came back.” The Washington Post, July 7. Accessed August 12, 2016.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Pinckney, Darryl. 2016. “Black Lives and the Police.” The New York Review of Books, August
18. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/08/18/black-lives-and-the-police/

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Saslow, Eli. 2016. “For Diamond Reynolds, trying to move past 10 tragic minutes of video.” The
Washington Post, September 10. Accessed September 12, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/stay-calm-be-patient/2016/09/10/ec4ec3f2-7452-11e6-8149-b8d05321db62_story.html

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Stahl, Brandon. 2016. “Philando Castile was caught up in a cycle of traffic stops, fines.” Star
Tribune, July 16. Accessed August 9, 2016. http://www.startribune.com/castile-lived-in-a-cycle-of-traffic-stops-fines/387046341/

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 StarkS, Seven. 2016. “PHILANDO CASTILE Full Video,” YouTube July 7. Accessed August 8,
2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBgDs4n2Vco

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Thompson, Derek. 2016. “The Miracle of Minneapolis.” The Atlantic, March 2015. Accessed
August 5, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/the-miracle-of-minneapolis/384975/

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Zuckerberg, Mark. Facebook post on July 7, 2016.

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