The May 2020 death of George Floyd sparked widespread outrage and shed new light on systemic racism, particularly with how it was documented for the masses through social media. In their new book Seen and Unseen, authors Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Brewster use Floyd’s murder as a focal point to not only illustrate the impact technology has on social justice but also how the documentation of it has evolved over time.
In advance of their upcoming Chicago appearance at the American Writers Festival, the Chicago Defender spoke with the co-authors about the book and visual media’s indelible impact on the narrative on race.
Chicago Defender: The book outlines the evolution of visual media from its origins through present-day technology. When you decided to collaborate, what were your initial thoughts, particularly where social justice is concerned?
Hill: Todd and I had talked about working together. We both appreciate each other’s work and each other’s thinking, so the question was, “What do we want to talk about?” We wanted to be careful and thoughtful about what we produced so after the murder of George Floyd, things started to come together.
We were unsettled by his murder and wanted to understand it—and one way to understand it is to do a deep dive into his story. People get killed all the time, but what was it about this moment? The more we talked through it together, the more we realized the role of media and technology in all of this. We also needed to show that this isn’t new and with Todd being a brilliant historian, each of us brought skills that made the journey more manageable.
Chicago Defender: George Floyd’s murder having occurred during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown opened more eyes to social injustice and the inequity of how certain events are covered in traditional media. Do you believe this contributed to hyper-awareness about technology’s role in capturing these incidents?
Brewster: There’s no way of separating out COVID-19 from the racial reckoning of the past few years; the suffering of Black people was out of proportion to the rest of the population. But remember, people actually were courageous enough to go to the streets when this happened in a way that exposed them to greater danger. You can’t separate any historical moment out from another one [especially] if they’re overlapped the way that these two have, but I do think you could add our hyperawareness of the role of technology in our lives through both the benefits and the dangers from it.
Chicago Defender: While the footage of these events can be helpful in seeking justice, not all of the recordings result in a “win.” Rodney King immediately comes to mind…
Hill: It’s an interesting point you raise; the Rodney King verdict happens, and most of us were like, “It’s on video. They can’t deny this one because if you have the evidence, you have the truth, and once you have the truth, that’s all that matters.” Part of what we get at in this book is that it’s never that simple. All that technology can be interpreted or understood in different ways.
Brewster: These videos have given us another tool that wasn’t there for Black victims of violence 25 years ago. But we need curators—we need people who make sense of what we see and help us understand it more completely.
Chicago Defender: You’re participating in the American Writers’ Festival in Chicago; as you know, the city made headlines with the murder of Laquan McDonald—another very high-profile police officer-involved case that was captured on video. Although the officer was convicted [but released early], this also speaks to one’s own interpretation about victories versus defeats…
Hill: With the Laquan McDonald case, police shooting an unarmed black man is not an unfamiliar story; what is unfamiliar is now having a video resource. When power is involved, the institutions are involved when people have a vested interest in certain outcomes, so even after it’s proven that this happens, the question is about a consent decree, a broader concern about violence in Chicago, and how much [prison] time will the officer get. There are all kinds of positions on this, but I think the lesson from it is that technology is a valuable tool that does change the way game operates. But as Todd said, without curators, narration, or an account of the deeper power dynamics that are at play, it will always be insufficient for producing justice.
Brewster: Ultimately the debate here is over values—the value that is at stake in Laquan McDonald or in George Floyd—these are the bigger themes that we need to all address, which is the issue of race, equality, tolerance, and love.
Chicago Defender: Going forward, do you think this method of social justice advocacy will lose steam, or will it be able to sustain somehow?
Hill: I don’t know what the future looks like, but I know that we’ll never go back to where we don’t have at least these tools at our disposal. There may be ebbs and flows or at least shifts in how we respond to these technologies, but there will never be a moment where we’ll go back to only the state having surveillance or where people aren’t vigilantly trying to hold the powerful accountable through whatever technology we have at our disposal.
Brewster: The history of technology tells us two things happen: One is that we adjust to the vocabulary of the technology to begin to understand and use it better, and become better at receiving it, too. The other more dangerous thing is that we become a little numb to the effects of it and in that case, I worry.
There is that danger and more tools will be invented but it comes down to how you use them: Are we using them constructively? Are we choosing our curators—these people who believe in justice and equality? Technology is amoral, and it requires us to oppose its morality upon it as human beings.
LaShawn Williams is a Chicago-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @MsWilliamsWorld.
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