On Wednesday, Sean Reed's name began trending on Twitter. Reed, 21, was a black man from Indianapolis who was shot and killed by a police officer — and his death was allegedly broadcast on Facebook Live. The news of Sean Reed's killing comes on the heels of the circulation of another video showing the death of another black man — Ahmaud Arbery — who was shot and killed by two white men as he jogged in his neighbourhood. These graphic images of young black men being gunned down put into stark relief the dangers of being black in America.
Many on social media are calling these deaths “lynchings,” a term which was absent for much of the discourse around police killings of black people that dominated the news cycle in 2014 and beyond. Lynching is a term used to describe a murder by a mob (usually defined as three or more people) with no due process. According to The Legacy Museum, home of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which memorialises black victims of lynching in the US, more than 4,400 African-Americans were killed — and often tortured — by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. In over 99 percent of those cases, the perpetrators were never held accountable.
“It’s not hard to understand why so many people would describe [the death of Arbery] as a lynching,” Rebecca Kavanagh, a criminal defence and civil rights attorney, told Refinery29. “What is perhaps less understood is that a lynching doesn't have to look like that. Sean Reed being killed by police last night was just as much a modern-day lynching. Neither civilians nor police have the authority to execute people they suspect of crimes.”
Reports and Facebook Live video show that Reed was engaged in a high speed chase with a police officer (he titled the video “High speed chase lol”), which he was streaming to nearly 4,000 viewers. The video shows that he pulled over the car, imploring his viewers to "come get my stupid ass. Please come get me!” He exits the car and takes off running, with the phone potentially tucked into his waistband — the video is shaky at this point. Someone yells at him to stop, there is the sound of a taser, and then over a dozen shots are fired as Reed shrieks and falls to the ground.
According to police statements obtained by the Indianapolis Star, there was an "exchange" of gunfire around 6pm, though it was not made clear whether Reed fired a gun himself. In the video, at least 13 shots can be heard. In another video from the Indy Star, a detective arriving after the shooting is filmed looking at the bloody scene and saying, "looks like it’s going to be a closed casket, homie.” Indianapolis MPD Chief Randal Taylor denounced those actions at a Thursday press conference, but also said that online comments about exactly what happened “lack trust as to what occurred.”
In Arbery's case, while the video is new to many, the killing happened nearly two months ago. While the footage seems to clearly show two white men essentially hunting Arbery down in broad daylight as he jogged in his Georgia neighbourhood, the first DA, recused herself because of a conflict of interest, and the prosecutor she assigned to the case, George Barnhill, declined to bring charges. Barnhill's name may sound familiar — he was the prosecutor who brought charges of voter fraud against a grandmother who helped a first-time black voter. District Attorney Tom Durden was brought in after the video went viral and promised to convene a grand jury. On Thursday night, the two men who shot Arbery, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael were arrested and charged with with murder and aggravated assault.
The two videos have garnered national attention, more examples in a long line of evidence in which images of black death at the hands of white people or at the hands of the state (a stand-in for white supremacy) are somehow positioned as unreliable accounts by those in power.
While Americans often think of lynching in terms of “rogue mobs” in which the perpetrators “seem irrational and out of control,” Koritha Mitchell, an associate professor at The Ohio State University and author of Living with Lynching, tells Refinery29 that this narrative distorts the reality of the act and who participated in it. “Police, judges, and white-collar professionals were often part of lynch mobs and helped them get the job done,” she says.
Mitchell also points out that while official definitions of the term often define it as being perpetrated by three or more people, definitions of the term have changed over time. “Lynching is about insisting that certain folk aren't citizens and won't be protected, so having three or more killers involved doesn't matter nearly as much as someone being able to declare themselves judge, jury, and executioner and get away with it,” Mitchell explains.
Like lynchings of the past, the deaths of Reed and Arbery — and the countless videos of black Americans being killed that have circulated over the past several years — draw on a long history of images of black death and suffering being consumed by the public. Photos of lynchings were commonly shared as a way of advancing white-supremacist points of view or to terrorise and control black Americans — and rarely lead to a larger understanding of the losses and suffering sustained by the Black community.
"Gruesome images do not humanise and do not automatically inspire empathy. Black and brown people cannot go to such images expecting healing or acknowledgment,” says Mitchell. “Nevertheless, we live in a social media (and 24-hour news cycle) era, so there's no getting around the many ways people will deal with their urge to speak against injustice.”
In 1955, photos of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s brutalised body sparked national outrage, but they still were not enough for his white killers to be convicted. Similarly, while present-day videos may increase awareness of the deaths and put pressure on law enforcement to bring charges against the perpetrators, there is still a tragically low number of convictions in these cases.
“We know, historically and in the modern-day, local law enforcement fails to prosecute lynching cases, whether the perpetrators are white men who have deputised themselves, like George Zimmerman in the case of Trayvon Martin,” Kavanagh says, “or police officers who have acted outside their authority, like Daniel Pantaleo who killed Eric Garner, Darren Wilson who killed Mike Brown, or Michael Rosfeld who killed Antwon Rose.”
The videos of Reed and Arbery’s deaths are circulating the same week that Ida B. Wells won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for her investigative journalism bringing attention to the reality of lynching in the post-Civil War South, which New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said on Twitter is “wrenching evidence of the ongoing legacy of the extrajudicial killing of black ‘citizens.’”
In February of this year, the House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill, which specifically made lynching a crime — over 100 years after the first attempt to criminalise lynching. But it stalled after passing the House and has yet to be signed into law.
“If that bill had gone back to the Senate and been passed and signed into law by the president, this case could be brought under that legislation. But it hasn’t - which I think is testimony to the lack of urgency with which this country takes the killing of black people,” says Kavanagh. “I am concerned that the Ahmaud Arbery case will similarly fade from public view, with the coronavirus pandemic dominating the airwaves, especially if the perpetrators are not arrested now or the federal government doesn’t take immediate action.”
Lax firearm laws and Stand Your Ground legislation combined to create a lethal circumstance with few avenues for justice for Arbery’s family, but plenty of room to let perpetrators of racist violence off the hook. Research from Everytown for Gun Safety found that when white shooters kill black victims — as in the Arbery case — the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable 11 times more frequently than when the shooter is black and the victim is white.
“The federal government has the authority to prosecute these cases now. The Department of Justice should take over the prosecution of the Ahmaud Arbery case,” says Kavanagh. “DA Durden has shown he is not serious about prosecuting it. If he were he would not wait to convene a grand jury. He would arrest the perpetrators of the crime now, have bail set and hold them in jail until a grand jury could be convened.”
This story has been updated with the news that Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault on Thursday evening.