Visualizing Ferguson

Tyrone Palmer
Sep 3, 2014 · 7 min read

Since the August 9th killing of 18 year-old Michael Brown, Jr. by officer Darren Wilson, the nation’s collective gaze has been fixed on the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s murder — and the subsequent uprisings by Ferguson’s residents and grandstanding by the Ferguson police force and national guard— has been a proverbial lightning rod of racial tension, tapping into a number of issues simmering below the surface of American race relations. It’s sparked conversations about the militarization of police, the media’s complicity in the demonizing of black victims, respectability politics in the black community, and the value of black life in a white supremacist society. Much has been (and will be) written about these topics, but one aspect of what’s happened in Ferguson that has not received much attention is the integral role played by visual media (and visual media technologies) in both the surge of protests and how they were framed.

Moreso than any other instance of police brutality since perhaps Rodney King’s brutal beating at the hands of the LAPD in 1991, Michael Brown’s murder has galvanized the public into action. In cities throughout the country—and the world— marches were held in solidarity with the Brown family, as demonstrators urged for the arrest of Darren Wilson and the end of police brutality and excessive force. Palestinians tweeted Fergusonians tips on how to deal with teargas; celebrities such as Jesse Williams, Talib Kweli, and John Legend used their platforms to speak out on the injustice. The fact that so many were willing to fight for the right of black people to live is endearing, particularly in a society in which black suffering, black pain, and structural violence against black bodies seem almost quotidian—so endemic as to be an essential part of the American project. As the sobering hashtag #Every28Hours reminds us, what happened to Michael Brown is by no means extraordinary—Brown’s name joins what Jelani Cobb termed the “grim roll call” of black (male) victims of extrajudicial murder and state violence. And, as if to underscore this point, just ten days later and five miles away, St. Louis police, in a textbook display of excessive force, killed 25 year-old Kajieme Powell, who reportedly suffered from mental illness. Yet still the conversation is fixed on Ferguson and Brown—something about what has transpired in Ferguson feels different. The constant stream raw footage and visual media is the main reason for that difference.

The events in Ferguson have played out for most through a series of indelible images and videos: the image of Michael Brown slain in the street, blood running down the sidewalk; the video (see: left) of Michael Brown’s lifeless body being dumped in the back of a police van; the livestreams of protests which showed first hand officers tear-gassing peaceful citizens; a photo of officers in ‘surplus’ military garb pointing assault weapons at protesters as the McDonalds golden arches shimmer in the background; a protester with his hands up being accosted by cops with automatic weapons, fuck the police scrawled on a nearby mailbox; two men pouring milk into a fellow protester’s eyes in order dull the effects of tear gas. In a time so saturated with images—on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, billboards, et al.—the images out of Ferguson have truly stood out, rising above the hum. But why? Beyond the aesthetic value of these pictures, these images have revealed to a many deeply disturbing truth about this country that it had, before now, been all too easy to ignore; a return of the repressed, if you will.

An assortment of images from the Ferguson protests.

In No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, scholars Robert Hariman and John Lucaites speak on the potential of the iconic image to “bear witness to something that exceeds words…[have] distinctive influence on public opinion…[and depict] the dynamic negotiations that are the rich, embodied play of societal power relations in every day life” (Hariman and Lucaites 1,7,9). The examples they point to, which include “Girl With Napalm” and “Tank Man,” offer a rich history of 20th century political discourse. While it may be too early to point to which images from Ferguson will stand time, Hariman and Lucaites’ description of the potentiality of the iconic photograph is helpful in understanding these images as a whole. Through the actions of the Ferguson police department and National Guard, the wider American public has become unequivocally faced with an America that black people know all too well. These images out of Ferguson, at once spectacular and mundane, have forced the public-at-large to confront the prevalence of state violence against black people in a way that they haven’t before. While black people live within what theorist Christina Sharpe calls the “carceral continuum”—with threat of state and structural violence looming in all aspects of black life— many Americans respond to black protests about police brutality with indifference or denial. No longer is that a defensible response.

One need only to look at the incredulity in response to the images out of Ferguson to gauge just how much these images have troubled the public’s conception of America. Statements such as “ Is this America or a third world country?”; “Ferguson looks like a warzone”; “What they’re doing there is Un-American” were widespread. Yet, as the images show, what happened (and continues to happen, lest the petering out of traditional news coverage make you think otherwise) in Ferguson is essentially Amercian— replete with all the contradictions and the iconography (e.g. so many of the images out of Ferguson have the McDonald’s logo lingering in the background) that such a description entails. That such a spectacular display of force against peacefully protesting citizens can happen against the backdrop of an idyllic suburb—lined with strip malls, McDonalds, and QuickTrips—is the primary source of discomfort for many people. The images out of Ferguson, then, have shown the relations of power in America as they truly are—police in soldier drag, with guns drawn on unarmed citizens.

Demonstrators gather outside of the CNN headquarters in Atlanta in protest of the network’s coverage of Ferguson.

The importance of the image in Ferguson is not just relegated to photographs— visual media technologies such as Livestreaming and platforms such as Vine and YouTube have been of immense importance in the breaking of Ferguson as a story. A recent piece on NPR highlighted the value of the livestream to the Ferguson protests, deeming it a “new way of watching” which has pointed to the inefficacy of traditional media outlets. For Ferguson, visual media technologies have acted as correctives to the misrepresentative coverage, deeply embedded biases and outright erasures of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, et al. (The hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which pointed to the ways images of black victims are manipulated in order to demonize them, is a prime example of this). Thanks to livestreams and Vines, Captain Ron Johnson, who had become the face of the Ferguson police presence, could go on live TV and say things such as “there was no tear gassing tonight,” and “the protesters provoked the officers” and be immediately contradicted by visual proof. As hard as they tried, the Ferguson police could not control the imagery or optics and, therefore, they could not control the story.

More images form the Ferguson protests.

Given the the history of the relationship between blackness and visual technologies— one marked by surveillance and abject state-sponsored violence— the fact that the largely black populace of Ferguson has made use of these same technologies to point to abuses and injustices perpetrated by the state is a perfect example of inverse surveillance—or, sousveillance (read: for more on this concept, see the work of Simone Browne). This practice of turning the cameras back toward the oppressors and using visual technology as a means of forcing accountability shows firsthand the transgressive potential of such technologies.

Clearly the long-term of effects of what is happening in Ferguson have yet to be seen, as the coming weeks, months, and years will be filled with new developments, protests, and—unfortunately—more cases of police brutality. However, due primarily to the strong visual imprint they have left, it is doubtful that anyone will soon forget the Ferguson protests. One apparent touchpoint for the Ferguson livestreams is the live footage of Vietnam War that played all over America’s television screens—the latest visual technology at that time. Much like that moment in history, the events of Ferguson have the potential to be a transformative and radicalizing moment for an entire generation.

Tyrone Palmer is a Brooklyn-born, Chicago-based writer. He (occasionally) enjoys things. Follow him @yngblksocrates (Twitter/Medium).

    Tyrone Palmer

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    a contemplative black youth in a ghetto hat.

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