“Bubbles” can take on many forms: a gated, suburban neighborhood; an idyllic, Ivy League campus; a blissfully ignorant, comfortable community. They keep us cloistered from the horrible realities so many citizens across the country face on a daily basis. But perhaps no other reality is more obscured by wrought iron gates, privilege, and ignorance than the phenomenon of violence perpetrated against American citizens at the hands of the state.
Though the number is difficult to track, various sources place the number of those killed by police in 2015 somewhere between 975 to 1,116. Around 15% of those killed were black men, despite making up only 2% of the population. About 20% were unarmed. It is no coincidence that the names most familiar to many of us — Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner — are the names of unarmed black men who would be alive today, but for their encounters with the police. Even if the individual killings of black men aren’t due to personal prejudices on the side of the police, they shed light on a deeper, more insidious system of oppression.
How can those outside of the system peer inside; how can the bubble be burst? The ubiquity of network television and the politicization of news agencies has made it possible for people to consume news that feeds into their worldviews, further removing them from the world unbeknownst to them. It wasn’t always so. There are those that can still remember when there were fewer than 15 channels on television, with the three major networks — ABC, NBC, CBS — reporting on the same events. The same can be said of newspapers and magazines in the time before the entertainment era. It was these news sources that relayed images of black men and women being hosed down by police for exercising their right to protest; it was these news sources that ran images of South Vietnamese brutality and the deaths at Kent State during the Vietnam war; it was these news sources that influenced and eventually changed public opinion regarding such things as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. It was these news sources and their coverage that burst the bubbles of privilege, ignorance, and apathy that shielded so many from the plight of being black.
Though the mediums may have changed, images and footage of oppression and violence have sustained social justice movements since the mid twentieth century. Today, a quick scroll through the average Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feed can reveal the reality of being black in America, most commonly through footage of police violence.
But for some viewers, these videos trigger feelings of helplessness and despair. Too often have we seen such videos; too often have we seen “black bodies lifeless, choked, shot, murdered, bleeding to death.” says Williams College Sophomore, Alice Obas. “It’s not right. These people had lives before their last breaths were taken.” It is for this reason — a failure to encapsulate the whole picture, and a tendency to illustrate the negative — that Obas advocates not for sharing videos depicting “our black brothers and sisters being brutally murdered,” but instead, “for turning our words into actions and using those actions to bring about positive change.”
Others, such as Marcus Lane of Syracuse University, have a different view. He believes that while the videos may not reach those on the far right of the political spectrum, they may be able to influence “moderate whites” who “are the only ones that can be truly swayed through videos, articles etc.” Additionally, Lane believes that the videos of Castile and Sterling serve a special purpose. They convey both the extreme inhumanity and recklessness often seen when officers deal with Black lives, while, at the same time, show two men practice a conservative principle: carrying weapons on your person. Alton Sterling obtained a weapon after he was mugged. Philando Castile “had the appropriate state license to own the gun” that he had while pulled over. All in all, these videos in particular should resonate with white, conservative gun owners, considering these men presumably had their weapons in order to defend themselves from violent criminals, and, as so many gun activists say, to protect themselves from an authoritarian government. But the question remains: Is sharing these videos worth anything, or does it just promote more pain and suffering without changing any minds?
While it is indisputable that these videos reinforce the harsh reality with which many black Americans must live, they also dispel the notion that police officers could never act as some of them do. They burst the bubbles of comfort; by seeing a man have the life choked out of him, perhaps, even if just for a moment, we will discover what it feels like to not breathe. They burst the bubbles of ignorance; by seeing a man get shot to death in his own neighborhood, perhaps, even if just for a moment, we will discover what it feels like to feel unsafe in our own neighborhoods. They burst the bubbles of privilege; by seeing black man after black man gunned down in the streets, perhaps we will realize only a part of what it means to be black in America. Upon that realization, I hope that we can work to do something about that harsh, tragic reality.
In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
“The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved. It was caught – as a fugitive from a penitentiary is often caught – in gigantic circling spotlights. It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world.”
In 2016, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile would have agreed.