The Desire to Live-Stream Violence

Why would four suspects in Chicago broadcast the torture of a man on Facebook Live?

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Two men and two women in Chicago were arrested and charged Thursday with kidnapping and torturing a man, slicing off a piece of his hair, down to his scalp, with a knife. Many people were witness to the assault, because it was streamed on Facebook Live.

Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper, Brittany Covington, all 18, and Tanishia Covington, who is 24 (police had earlier said she was 18, as well), have each been charged with felony aggravated kidnapping, unlawful restraint, and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. And because the suspects are all black, the victim white, and because video of the assault shows the suspects yelling, “fuck Donald Trump,” and “fuck white people,” the four have also been charged with a hate crime. Police said one of the suspects knew the victim, who is 18, from high school. The victim had been reported missing Monday by his family, and is said to have mental-health problems. He was taken in a stolen van from where his family had dropped him off to meet a friend; how he ended up with the suspects is still being investigated. In the video, the man sits in the corner of the room, bound, and with tape over his mouth. The suspects cut the sleeves of his sweatshirt, kick and hit him, and threaten his life. It’s a crime Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson called “sickening.” He said it displayed the “brazenness of the offenders who assaulted the victim and then broadcast it for the entire world to see.” Which raises the question: Why would someone live-stream a crime?

“There’s an easy answer,” N.G. Berrill, executive director of the the New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavioral Science, told me, “which is that they’re stupid.”

Most of the approximately 30-minute video focuses on a woman who is apparently holding a cellphone and filming the assault. She blows smoke into the camera, flashes a few bottles of alcohol, even checks her hair. The three others in the live-stream pop in and out and talk to the camera. At one point, dissatisfied with how few people have tuned in to watch the group assault the man, the woman with the cellphone says to her internet following, “You all ain’t even commenting on my shit. Ain’t nobody watching my shit.”

A bit later, presumably after someone commented on her live-stream, she says, “What up, Devin?”During all this, the bound victim can be heard pleading off-camera. Stupidity may be one answer for the suspects’ actions. But the group also seems oblivious of their actions and callous to the victim’s suffering. Berrill said part of the reason they might have live-streamed the assault can be chalked up to teen impulsiveness. “Obviously, there’s not a lot of clear-minded thought here,” he said. The more difficult answer, however, cuts close to a recent internet phenomenon that includes cases like Marina Lonina, the Ohio woman who filmed her underage friend being raped last year on Periscope, another live-streaming application.

Lonina and her friend, who was 17, went home with 29-year-old Raymond Boyd Gates, who was convicted last October of rape. Lonina told police later she intended to recorded the assault so Gates would stop, but, in the words of the prosecutor, “she got caught up in it by the number of likes that her live-stream was getting, so she continued to do it."

Violence will always attract attention. And in the Chicago video clip, the four teenagers boast about their intentions to harm the man, almost feeding and building upon each other’s claims, until one man tells viewers they plan to stick the victim in the trunk of a car, put a brick on the gas pedal, then let it, “errrrrrrr … .”

“It speaks to a kind of scary place in the culture where people are willing to expose their misled ideas, their sadism, their sexual perversion, their felonious behavior, for the accolades they’ll receive through social media,” Berrill said.

Police would later find the victim disoriented, wandering the streets on Chicago’s West Side, an area that experienced heavy violence this past year, as has much of the city. This context is also important in understanding what happened: Last year the city had 762 homicides, a nearly 60 percent increase from the previous year. In certain neighborhoods, violence is normal. Young kids, especially teenagers, can become desensitized to what may seem to the rest of the country as merely one horrific moment.

“It is a perfect example of chaos,” Desmond Patton, an assistant professor of social work at Columbia University, and who studied at the University of Chicago, told me. “Number one they are young people, and young people have forever made dumb decisions and mistakes. But when this is embedded in an environment of violence, where violence is unaddressed, and in deprived communities, then these are the types of things that can happen.”

The world in which some of the young men and women live can be horrifying, Patton said, and the live-stream is partly a reflection of that. What may seem appalling and evil to the wider world, may not be too far beyond normal for some of these people—it’s just not typically broadcast for everyone to see.

Many of the people Berrill studies in cases like this are under-socialized or attention-starved, and, like a child repeatedly dropping a toy on the ground, they have trouble differentiating good and bad attention. This will probably get worse, Berrill said. Facebook’s live-stream application is relatively new. It has been used to record the mundane, the exceptionally heroic, the horrific, and in this case the sadistic. In that way, it is a reflection of society. But what’s new, Berrill said, is he wonders if this attack would have even happened if the assailants could not have broadcast it. “It’s an element in these cases that encourages this behavior, because they know immediately there’s a built in audience for it,” he said.

As people develop online communities and audiences, there will always be a desire to attract more attention—whether that’s through Twitter, or live-streaming. And a shortcut to attract attention will always be to say or do something absurd, contentious, even violent.