To Live and Die on Facebook

What leads a person to pick up a phone to record a moment of death—possibly their own, more likely someone else’s?

Eric Miller / Reuters

“Holy shit” is the first thing you hear from Michael Kevin Bautista in the Facebook Live stream he began early Friday morning. The holy shits keep coming, as Bautista witnesses the firefight between Dallas police and an active shooter: he’s close enough to the exchange of gunfire that he has to reassure someone off-camera, “Don’t worry I’m behind a tree,” and then later, “I’m safe. Don’t worry about it.”

Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, grabbed her cellphone after a St. Anthony police officer shot her companion (and ultimately killed him), turning the lens immediately on herself to explain the situation to an invisible Facebook audience—as Castile lay bleeding to death in his car seat, just inches away. In the now-infamous video, Reynold’s voice is preternaturally calm in a moment of unthinkable crisis.

As narrators, Bautista and Castile register different levels of emotion, of incredulity. But as citizens, their initial impulse was the same: grab something to record this, and show people.

What leads a person to pick up a phone to record a moment of death—possibly their own, more likely someone else’s? To turn outwards, rather than inwards? The prevalence of videos like the one showing the death of Philando Castile (and those of Alton Sterling and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Antonio Zambrano Montes, just to name a few) has raised distressing questions about America’s criminal-justice system: its inequalities and bigotries, its possible crimes in the name of justice. But what does this impulse say about American society: Does choosing to publicly broadcast calamity mean that Americans are braver? More terrified? Both?

In a way, broadcasting from a cellphone is a modern day version of waving the red flag, a public warning that something is very, very wrong. “As a witness to the video, I thought this was really remarkably intelligent of her,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. “Her boyfriend has just been shot, she’s alone in the world; he was killed, she’s alone in the world. Effectively she’s screaming—but she’s using a camera.”

As with most warnings, there is a public benefit in raising awareness. “As a citizen,” says Gitlin. “She’s done me a service.”

Bautista’s choice to keep live streaming on the fringes of an active firefight was presumably driven by the conviction that he was uniquely positioned to capture the moment. But Reynold’s decision to record Castile’s death is inherently an indictment of the institutions established to document American events. As in: I must tell this story—because they will not.

Michael Eric Dyson, an author and professor of sociology at Georgetown, believes that the rise of social media-driven video footage, “Gives lie to all the major [news] outlets—with their puffy, self-important notions of objective journalism.” According to Dyson, the message to the fourth estate is, “You’ve been just as blind as anyone else,” and that, more damningly, “We’re in a culture that disbelieves black truth.”

Events of the past week have confirmed the embarrassing degree to which traditional news media has been forced to play a game of 21st-century catch-up: A story is first circulated via social networks, and only later up-streamed into the network news matrix (after which, the footage will get a second life on social media). If the fourth estate isn’t wholly irrelevant in this moment, it’s most certainly a bystander.

But the ubiquity of these videos, and the impulse to create them, isn’t just a cautionary tale of media blind spots and technology’s disruptive power. The advent of what Gitlin terms a video “scream” points to profound institutional failures. Grabbing a cellphone is a means of last resort for people who have either been marginalized or forcibly removed from systems meant to help them. Today, the cellphone isn’t being used to call for help, at least not in the literal sense: The people who use these devices to record video have despaired of the emergency responders. No neighbors or immediate community are called upon, suggesting a level of alienation that is very nearly unprecedented.

“The old story about America is that the policeman is your friend. Which is not just a message of support, but that we have institutions to take care of trouble,” Gitlin said. “But now you have two things that have opened simultaneously: People have means to create auxiliary or substitute institutions, where you’re creating a circle of citizenship that you trust. And at the same time, people have less faith that government is going to solve the problem.”

“I don’t leave my apartment without my cellphone charged,” said Jeffery Robinson, Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Center for Justice at the national ACLU. “For black Americans, it’s a witness: so when you’re bleeding to death on the ground, at least your family and friends will believe you didn’t cause this.”

To exist in this void—where emergency assistance is not an option and the best one can hope for is documentation to provide post-mortem justice—is evidence of a broken faith in the systems of governance, one so profound that it verges on atheism. And the reality that many of the most-widely circulated cellphone videos have featured black people, as either narrators or victims, is not a coincidence.

As Darrell Dawsey, the communications director for the Michigan chapter of the ACLU understands it, black Americans have been attempting to tell their side of this story for years: the cellphone video just happens to be the latest forum. “The inclination, the desire, to tell a story that can be believed—that has always been there,” he says. “How many times have we said this?”

Dyson points back to the year 1955, when Emmett Till’s mother made the decision to leave her 14 year-old’s casket open after he was mutilated and lynched for reportedly flirting with a white woman. “Does she close the casket?” asks Dyson. “No, she says, I want Jet magazine—the social media of its day—to broadcast to the world the disfiguring consequences of white supremacy. It didn’t have the instant effect of social media, but that’s what it did. It made public the private grief of black suffering.”

Robinson, meanwhile, sped forward to 1992—in the wake of the Rodney King beating—and quoted lyrics from the Ice Cube track, Who Got the Camera: a screed against police brutality and the futility of telling that story (even with a camera).

If the crowd wasn’t around, he would’ve shot me

Tried to play me out like my name was Rodney

Fuckin’ police getting badder

‘Cause if I had a camera the shit wouldn’t matter

In other words, whether Mamie Till or Ice Cube, black Americans have been screaming about their plight—using the pages of Jet or the services of Capitol Records—and trying to make America understand, wherever and however possible. But unlike print media or rap records, the internet is a much harder thing to ignore. Facebook is where people share stories, where grandchildren are bragged about, new jobs celebrated, dates made, lives lived—and now, too, it is a place where some people die. So the screaming, this time, is being heard by a much broader audience. “We as black men have always asked the cops, Why are you stopping us? Now the world gets to join in that questioning,” Dawsey said.

It’s hard to say whether this means that those doing the screaming—the Diamond Reynolds of the world—are braver than those who came before them. Dawsey thinks, “the people who were going to be brave, and tell the truth, were always going to be brave. They now have a tool to better exercise those characteristics, those traits.” (It is not a coincidence that ACLU chapters across the country now have “Mobile Justice” apps, a formalized method by which citizens can record video of police misconduct, upload it, and press for justice through the framework of the ACLU.)

It seems almost certain, though, that those doing the screaming are more terrified, more alone. While some see this as a signal moment, the nadir before the upswing into consciousness and subsequent reformation, that all lies in the (unknowable) future. The present remains quite grim. “It’s an extremely tragic moment in American life,” according to Utz McKnight, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama. For the Philando Castiles of the world, if there’s any solace to be found in these moments of live-streamed shootings and video bleed-outs, McKnight says it is merely, “At least you’re not dying alone.”