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Letter to the Editor: What it means to witness

Content Warning: This article contains themes of interpersonal violence and death.

By now, many of us have seen part or all of the video of the killing of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. Many of us mourn with his family and with Black Americans across this country who experience state violence.

For some of us, this digital witnessing may not have been by choice — we may have seen the video in a news story or in Twitter or on TikTok. We did not seek out the video but were still captured by it. This type of digital witnessing has become unavoidable given that we live with our phones ever by our sides.

To witness something is to become bound to it and to the community of individuals who witnessed the event with you. John Durham Peters has gone so far as to suggest that “To witness an event is to be responsible in some way to it.”

To be responsible to it.

What does it mean to become responsible for the witnessing of an act of state sponsored violence? How are we, who are removed physically from the event, to act upon this responsibility?

Here’s one way: Do not continue to circulate the video of Tyre Nichols’s death. Do not turn this tragedy into a digital spectacle. Others may do that (and likely have already begun doing that), but you do not have to participate in this spectacle. You do not have to re-share an image or a snippet or the video in its entirety. You do not have to participate in the turning of a murder into a meme.

What you could share are the videos and images and stories already being shared about who Tyre Nichols was as a man. Share the video showing him flying on his skateboard. Share the photos of the loving father. Witness the man, not just his death.

You could also share the work of activists and scholars who are working on the issue of police violence. Elevate expert voices who can provide context and perspective. Seek ways to learn and avoid adding fuel to an already raging fire.

And check in on your friends. We have lived through so much trauma over the last several years. Between COVID, political violence and the violence experienced by marginalized communities, there’s a lot of hurt and a lot of sorrow. We get through the trauma by caring for one another.

We must care, too, how we can for the victims.

Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski have pointed out that witnessing is an inherently political act. However, they note that “on the field of media witnessing the victim is the one who gives the most powerful account.” Though the always-on media environment in which we live means we sometimes witness things we’d like to avoid, it also means that victims who are so often missing in news stories of violence are not forgotten.

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Tyre Nichols. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. Tamir Rice.

We witnessed their deaths and by continuing to tell their stories we serve as witnesses to their lives.

What it means to be responsible beyond that, I don’t know.

What I do know is the realization of a better world cannot happen if we ignore this responsibility — a responsibility that binds us all together and serves as a reminder that the work of creating a better world cannot be done alone. 

— Rosemary Pennington, Associate Professor of Journalism

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