Bearing Live Witness To Tragedy -- And Change

I was onYouTube earlier, taking in President Obama’s most-eloquent, heartfelt speech at the memorial for the five Dallas police officers so tragically gunned down while they were on duty at a peaceful protest of the two senseless deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement that had happened just days before. Listening to the president, I also thought about Philando Castile, the Falcon Heights, Minn. resident whose last horrific moments of life were broadcast on Facebook Live by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds from the passenger seat of the car. That nightmarish video has been viewed by more than 6 million people.

When Facebook Live was launched to the public in April, it was promoted as a lighthearted tool for video fun and games. As Kate Knibbs noted in “Facebook Live’s Identity Crisis,” a smart essay in “The Ringer” about social media and the “triptych of violence” we witnessed last week, the viral sensation that put the new tech on the map was “Chewbacca Mom,” showing a happy Texas homemaker broadcasting herself prancing around with a Chewbacca mask. Of course, the sublimely silly is not going to go away anytime soon. Nor should it. We need respite from so much grim injustice.



I’m know I’m not the only one who sees a connection that’s more than coincidental between recent events and Facebook’s announcement of a change in algorithms that determined users would see more dancing cat posts by family and friends rather than the cold, hard, violent facts of the perpetual news cycle.

Still, Facebook Live, like other streaming tools and social media platforms, quickly became another in a series of essential reporting outlets bringing the most crucial issues of our time up close and personal for everyone who has a screen. The murderous assault on the Dallas police, the deaths of Castile and that of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge — both at the hands of the police — and scores of other seemingly avoidable act of gun violence, have become a streaming staple. I’d argue it’s of prime importance that cameras bear witness to all the madness and injustice.

If you’re like me, you have children who are teenagers or young adults, who are watching all this pixelated murderous hate, and are hearing their anger, sadness and frustration about the racism and violence that is epidemic. I’ve heard pundits attempt to compare what’s happening now to those events in the 1960s, when images on the evening news — showing police violence against those protesting for civil rights or against the Vietnam War — spurred social change.

But what young people, perpetually glued to their screens big and small, are experiencing currently in real time in an all-too-real world is exponentially more graphic and pervasive than at anytime else in history. We’ve traveled media eons from that era. We are even light years from 1991, when an inexpensive lightweight video camera caught the beat-down of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. And remember: Decades ago, these haunting images hit us once or twice per day; now, such pervasive, era-defining awfulness keeps to no such schedule.

The question I keep hearing from my kids and their friends — who, I imagine, would remind me that the police officers in the Rodney King case were exonerated — is, how much progress has truly happened because of our ability to bear video witness in real time? My answer would be that huge change happens much more slowly than the speed of images. Still, sometimes hope can be born out of the worst tragedies when the whole world is watching.

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