I don’t watch those “breathing while black” videos anymore, for health reasons.
I make a mental note that there is yet more cellphone footage of a black person having the police called on him for mowing the lawn, shopping at a store, staying at an Airbnb, playing golf or waiting at a Starbucks. And one of the most recent: This month, Zayd Atkinson was surrounded by police officers (one who drew his gun) while he was cleaning trash on his own property.
But to actually watch those videos positions me as a participant in the spectacle — that I refuse to do. It’s bad enough that any random white person can, simply by dialing 911, get the police to play a starring role in his or her racist fantasy. But it’s my choice whether to be a voyeur to the sick pornography.
I wish that the 911 racists would be charged with a crime like disorderly conduct, 16 counts of which were thrown at Jussie Smollett for allegedly lying to the police about an assault (those charges were dropped just this week).
Usually, though, the worst that happens when people falsely call the cops on an African-American is that they incur the rage of black Twitter.
People used #PickingUpTrashWhileBlack to voice their anger about the treatment of Atkinson. Officers told him to “just relax” while threatening him for cleaning his own yard.
To be sure, the shaming of creeps like BBQ Becky and Cornerstore Caroline is a powerful tool. Permit Patty resigned from her fancy CEO job after being lambasted for calling the police on an 8-year-old black girl who was selling bottled water.
But it’s significant that none of these people suffered any official moral condemnation from the government. Compare that with the spectacle that the police (and even the judge) made of Smollett, long before prosecutors dropped charges in exchange for community service and forfeiture of the money he paid for bail.
When the felony indictment was first announced, the Chicago police chief held a news conference to say he was “offended” and “angry” at Smollett. At the first court proceeding, the judge told Smollett he was presumed innocent, but added that what he was accused of doing was “despicable.” If convicted, Smollett would have been sentenced to up to three years in prison.
But when black folks get the police called on them for stupid reasons, they typically get treated more like criminals than the people who called the police.
What this means is that the criminal justice system is fine with assisting a white person’s racial harassment. If anyone has any anxiety about a black man, he or she can just dial 911 and the government will send someone with a gun over to respond.
But the system offers no recourse when a black man finds it hard to go about his daily existence without offering some conspicuous performance to assure everyone that he isn’t a threat — prominently displaying a work ID or crossing the street so a white woman won’t feel like she’s being followed.
To be clear, I’m glad that the “breathing while black” videos exist because they provide direct evidence that anti-blackness is alive and well in America. But as a black man, I already know that.
My problem is that those videos confirm that African–Americans might not be paranoid enough. The times we give folks the benefit of the doubt — perhaps the waitress was rude, not racist; it’s likely that the cop would’ve pulled over a white person, too — maybe we should not. An African-American could spend a Sunday afternoon binge-watching “breathing while black” videos on YouTube, and then not want to leave her house for the rest of the week.
“Torture-lite” is the human rights law term for humiliations that don’t leave marks on your body but put wounds on your psyche instead. That’s what was done to the Muslim men who were subjected to forced nudity at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The point, according to human rights scholar Gregg Bloche, “is to induce hopelessness and despair. … Small gestures of contempt … drive home the message of futility.”
The hip-hop artist DMX put it more succinctly in his 1999 song “Party Up”: “Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind.”
This is the intended effect of racialized policing on people of color. It’s to keep us in our place. It is to send the message that unless we are careful not to upset white people, armed agents of the state will be summoned.
That’s why I don’t watch the videos. I like to at least pretend that I am free, while all those ubiquitous cellphones demonstrate that I’m not. But regardless of the costs, I come from a long line of black people who refuse to stay in the places that white supremacy designates for us.
So when a “breathing while black” video pops up, for my mental health and blood pressure, I don’t take the clickbait. Not this brother. Not this day. Not over some mess that my people did not create and do not deserve.
Paul Butler is the Albert Brick Professor in Law at Georgetown University. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.” Follow him on Twitter: @LawProfButler.