This commentary is by Narain Batra, a professor at Norwich University and the author of “The First Freedoms” and “America’s Culture of Innovation.”
Darnella Frazier, the17-year teenager who happened to be on the scene last year, captured the police brutality with her smartphone that shocked America; and energized the Black Lives Matter movement for social justice.
Darnella must have known the power of the image, the video that went viral and instantly global. In an Instagram post, she said, “If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth.”
When truth, however horrific, is visualized and emotionalized, and turned into a symbol and a slogan (I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe), it becomes a very powerful social force. It’s through momentous images that our lives become meaningful: Jesus on the cross; the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki; the sonogram heartbeat of the unborn, for example.
It wasn’t the first time that a Black American was brutalized, but the viral video transformed an ordinary man, a petty thief accused of using a $20 counterfeit bill at a store, into a symbol of utter Black hopelessness and helplessness. In a moment, the film flashed before our eyes the history of American society’s inhumanity to the Blacks: from Alex Haley’s fictional character Kunta Kinte who was roped around his neck like an animal and dragged from an African village into a slave ship, to a modern metropolis Minneapolis where police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck and squeezed life out of him.
Two interesting questions arise in my mind. What if Darnella had just stood horror-struck without using her smartphone? Floyd would have been just one more Black American killed by the police, who would have eventually, after routine internal investigations, justified the killing.
But that begs the question, because once a person — especially a teenager — has a smartphone in her hands, it’s inevitable that she would use it and share the video via Snapchat, Instagram or TikTok. Social media, through its drumbeating echo chamber capabilities, has democratizing power, the power to disturb the status quo and make us think over.
Again, what if Floyd’s face had been turned away from the camera? Floyd would have receded into anonymity and the video wouldn’t have shocked the world so much. It was the 9-minute-long film closeup that showed us the agony on Floyd’s face, “The face that launched a thousand ships,” metaphorically speaking, which gripped our imagination and wrenched our souls and challenged our humanity. No, no, no, this is not what America ought to be.
But Darnella’s instant video truth seems to negate the tremendous progress Black Americans have made since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said “I have a dream” that one day a Black American, Kunta Kinte’s progeny, would reach the promised land and would sit in the White House and rule over the most powerful civilization mankind has ever created.
The rise in Black Americans’ political power is due to the steady growth of their middle class. According to a Brookings Institute report in February 2020 by Andre Perry and Carl Romer, “Black people represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 61.2 percent of which are middle class,” which is “concentrated largely in the South and in large metro areas.”
The rising Black middle class — including intellectuals, professionals, entrepreneurs and businesspeople — has found media expression in shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the Huxtables of “The Cosby Show,” “The Jeffersons,” “Black-ish,” and many others. And then there is Oprah Winfrey, television’s mother goddess, whose endorsement, one might say, enabled Barack Obama to take his first step toward the White House.
Black Americans have a dominant presence in sports. Not only in football and basketball but also in other fields where some of them have become role models: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Simone Biles, to name a few. From jazz to rock to hip-hop, Louis Armstrong to Beyoncé, Black artists have made some of the most original and creative contributions to the world of music. Black Americans have created sounds that the world had never heard before.
Last year it was a Black politician from South Carolina, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Joe Biden’s candidacy rescued his lackluster campaign from the dustbin of history. Resurrecting his campaign from South Carolina, Biden, a most admirable centrist politician with a profound national vision and political courage, saved the nation from another four years of twitterdom presidency. Again, it was Stacey Abrams, a Black Democratic politician and a writer (author of the thriller “While Justice Sleeps”) whose Fair Fight Action organization to fight against voter suppression played a pivotal role in boosting the voter turnout in Georgia, which enabled Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to win the state; and Georgia’s 2020-21 Senate elections giving Democrats control over the Senate.
Black Americans have discovered their political power and they are changing America. Vice President Harris, “a history-making politician with big ambitions,” as Lisa Lerer of The New York Times called her, is leading the transformative change.
Nonetheless, teenager Darnella Frazier’s instant image, the pinned-down, tortured face of George Floyd, did capture the other reality of America — the systemic and persistent inequities of the criminal justice system from which Black Americans, and the rest of us, need liberation.