When Witnessing Becomes Activism

Protestor’s at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. PHOTO BY BRAXTON DANIELS

In May of 2020, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier was in front of a local market in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when she saw a White police officer pin a Black man to the ground. She pulled out her phone and pressed record and stood there for more than nine minutes, silently documenting George Floyd’s murder. Frazier’s split-second decision to hit record and then to upload the video to the internet galvanized the country and the larger global community in the fight for Black lives.

That decision also made her a witness, enabling viewers around the world to count the minutes that Derek Chauvin had his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck. To hear Floyd call out for his mother. To witness, as Frazier did, what it is like for a Black man to die at the hands of the state. And, importantly, this video became a key piece of evidence in the conviction of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder.

As a political scientist who studies protest, I decided early after Donald Trump’s election that I would write a book documenting the protest movements that emerged over the course of his presidency. I have traveled to protests and community meetings across the country, having conversations and conducting interviews to better understand the way protests emerge and sustain themselves. Over the course of this research, I became particularly interested in other players who are part of the protest scene: the photographers, writers, journalists, and documentarians—like Frazier—who capture the moments of activism and transmit their stories to the broader public.

Along the way, I came to see the ways in which positionality plays a key role in how witnesses interact with protests and their precipitating events, and how witnesses’ portrayals dictate how these events are interpreted and remembered by the broader public. Witnesses, whether by accident or vocation, help shape how societies understand social upheaval and respond to social change.

Tanya Taylor, documentarian. Courtesy of Lee Tonks Photography

Who Documents Protests?

Witnessing is an important, if not always intentional, role. After George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin in 2020, thanks to Frazier’s video, protests erupted across the U.S. and globally. Amid the upheaval of recent years, countless others have found themselves as accidental witnesses. This is part of a pattern that Allissa Richardson, a journalism professor and scholar at the University of Southern California, documents in her book Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, & the New Protest #Journalism. Richardson refers to these videos as a “shadow archive,” where Black citizens record aspects of police violence that at times contradict the official police record.

Although Frazier’s video of the George Floyd murder is the most well-known example, there are dozens of citizen journalists whose videos have gone viral, including videos of deaths at the hands of police, such as Philando Castile, whose fiancée streamed the fatal conflict to Facebook, and Freddie Gray, whose death in Baltimore was captured by a neighbor, just to name a few. These have become a vital source of citizen accountability and creating moments of transparency in a system that has overwhelmingly favored police in the past. These witnesses use their journalism as a form of protest: The act of bearing witness to atrocity and making sure those films see the light of day is in itself a form of activism.

Other witnesses come to the role through their art. Braxton Daniels III is a photographer and the founder and owner of Studio 45 in Mansfield, Ohio. After George Floyd’s murder, he heard about the local protests being planned but didn’t intend to go. He ultimately decided to attend as a photographer, and Daniels says he was struck by the number of people who he says “understood the assignment.” Two girls, for example, had written in heavy black marker the names of everyone killed by police that year. By showing up and using protest signs as a medium for creative expression of their anger, demonstrators had captured and communicated the essence and seriousness of the moment and made their own art to protest the killing of unarmed Black people across the country.

Other witnesses stumble into the role through organizing. Documentarian Tanya Taylor was part of the Black Lives Matter protests in her small town in California during the summer of 2020. She listened as a Black mother from her neighborhood approached the podium and, in a shaking voice, told the crowd about how she lived in fear every day that her autistic son would be pulled over by the police while driving. The woman’s words were drowned out by counterprotesters screaming and yelling slurs.

At that moment, Taylor says she felt a powerful urge to document the stories and to preserve them for calmer moments when audiences could better hear and absorb them. She wanted to capture the fleetingness of a moment of protest and preserve the grievances of residents of the town. And so she produced the documentary Black in Mayberry, which won the Best Documentary award from the Marina del Rey Film Festival. After the documentary premiered in May of 2021, the town began to talk about race in a different way. Taylor was particularly surprised at the reaction from White residents, who she says approached the screening of the movie with an open mind and afterward opened conversations with other people in the town.

Still others, like journalists, come to the act of witnessing more intentionally. Journalists are often assigned to attend protests and document what they witness, creating a record of the event. In August of 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His body was left in the streets for several hours. Brown’s killing set off weeks of protests. As the protests grew larger, I closely followed the Twitter feed of Wes Lowery, a journalist who was covering the protests for the The Washington Post. Two days after he arrived in Ferguson, he was arrested, and he used Twitter to document his arrest. He later wrote and spoke about the ways the police were willing to violate freedom of the press.

Bruce Shapiro, a journalist and the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, says although some journalists are ideologically aligned with the protests they are covering and see their journalism as a form of citizenship, others are dedicated to broader ideas about truth: the act of witnessing and documenting all major events is important in creating a record and a history of the present that helps explain vital issues to the broader public.

Braxton Daniels, Photographer. Photo courtesy of Braxton Daniels

Obligations of Witnesses to the Audience

The public depends on witnesses for insight into protest events. But every witness, whether a journalist, artist, or accidental observer, has to grapple with questions of positionality: how an individual’s identity impacts the way they report on a given issue. “With the aims of [modern] protests, very often the protesters are demanding accountability for injustices that reporters themselves experience,” Shapiro says. Whether it’s sexual harassment, abuse in the workplace, or institutional racism like “driving while Black,” Shapiro says reporters are increasingly finding themselves in positions where they are covering issues that they are affected by on a deeply personal level.

Whereas “traditional” newsroom editors have had a tendency to avoid assigning reporters to covering stories they identify with, Shapiro says a new generation of journalists is pushing back, adding to the voices that have long been insisting that Black reporters should cover Black Lives Matter protests. Over the past few years, he says #metoo and BLM have changed the nature of the debate as journalists and other public intellectuals have destabilized the assumed neutrality of Whiteness and masculinity. White people have a “stake” in Black Lives Matter protests just as much as Black reporters do; the only difference is that their stake is often to defend the status quo.

Objectivity, whether in reporting or writing, is a myth. If there are no “objective” ways to cover complex social moments like protests, the conversations turn instead around ethics, fairness, and equanimity. If we admit that being an impartial witness is impossible, then we can move beyond whether positionality affects storytelling to instead think about how positionality might affect storytelling, which is a much more interesting question.

A witness’ life experiences, training, socialization, and demographics all provide a lens through which reality is viewed. These experiences, then, filter understandings of protest events and how stories are told. For example, when does a protest become a riot? If police march in solidarity with protesters but then spray them with tear gas later, which of those images is real? In moments where police and protesters both stage media events to win the hearts and minds of the public, which versions of events are genuine? Harder still is capturing those nuances in a moment or a headline.

Art, too, presents questions about impartiality and truth telling. Although the public often believes that artists who are representing protests have political biases, Daniels and Taylor push back on the idea that they have agendas. They both understand their work as part of the historical archive. As Daniels says: “You hear people saying the history books were written by the winners. You got the word of mouth, pen, and paper. How valid is that? I think raw images, raw footage, are the only true time capsule.”

Both artists aim to provide material for an audience to consider and to empower the audience to become more empathic and informed, and their positions more nuanced, after coming into contact with their art. And shouldn’t that be the goal of witnessing at large? By putting aside the myth that witnesses can be objective, they can free themselves to tell more complicated stories, to create more complicated art. By inviting the public to reason through the complexities of a moment, witnesses can reject overly simplistic depictions of nuanced social moments.

Photo by Braxton Daniels

Impact on the Witnesses Themselves

“Black Lives Matter might not have become the largest social justice movement in American(?) history in 2020 without the world seeing George Floyd’s fatal police encounter for themselves,” Richardson wrote me in an email. But she considers the impact of witnessing on the witnesses themselves to be an ethical dilemma. “Where is the line, though, between voyeurism and strategic witnessing for justice; between humanizing the victim yet recognizing that circulating their last moments is a profane act? Where is the democracy in bearing witness while Black if federal police reform is a nonstarter?”

Although there are occasional “victories” in the movement, such as the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the police officer responsible for George Floyd’s death, the lack of structural and institutional reforms has left witnesses burned out and constantly at risk of what Richardson calls re-traumatization.

Shapiro points out that journalists, too, experience post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rates of first responders. He described journalists as being “constant witnesses to the pain of others,” covering car wrecks, bridge collapses, fires, deaths, and illnesses in our communities on a grand scale due to COVID-19. He added, “The last year has been a period of open-ended, unremitting stress, and protests have added a huge burden of open-ended, unremitting stress. Reporters who covered the first waves of social protests and Black Lives Matter protests with some hope are feeling exhausted like everybody else and are worried about the future.”

Of course, the past few years have been a particularly fraught moment to be documenting protest: Early in Trump’s tenure, he declared open season on the media, endangering the lives of reporters and other documentarians. After a local Missouri newspaper covered Daniels’ show of Black Lives Matter photos, he received a barrage of hateful comments online. “It was just pure backlash about how I hated cops,” he says. Daniels ultimately shrugged off the comments, but they made clear the personal stakes of making political art. 

The week before Black in Mayberry premiered, Taylor, too, received an anonymous threat: If she didn’t stop the screening, the show would be bombed. Taylor met with the FBI and local police. The museum and film producers beefed up security and went on with the show. She is proud of the decision to move forward with the screening but is still shaken by the incident. In the end, Taylor says she was changed by the act of witnessing: She came to see her role as getting more social justice-focused art into the world. She is now starting a foundation to fund anti-racist art.

Academics who study protests are often changed by their work as well. As I interviewed protesters and activists over the course of the Trump administration, I constantly readjusted my perspective as I critically reflected on which voices were allowed agency in my research and which remained silent. Providing an authoritative or objective account of a complex, multidimensional movement is impossible: Instead, providing room for multiple truths to exist within an account is a harder and more painstaking but critically important job.

Whereas Taylor has decided to focus her energy on social justice, Daniels, in contrast, hopes his days taking pictures of protests are behind him. He considers the pictures he took of the Mansfield protests an important time stamp, an artifact to compare with the past, which is why he took them in black and white. One of his pictures in particular has stuck with him—a young boy standing on a street corner, wearing a face mask, fist raised. “I was proud to have that moment,” Daniels says. The picture echoed the Black Power pose seen in countless previous generations of protesters, he says, “but once again, here we got a kid—same pose, same position, just different clothing.”

“Everyone thinks [the civil rights movement] is a lifetime away,” Daniels says, “and it’s really not.”

Still, Daniels is determined to keep his critique of injustice separate from his art. He envisions a future world where Black artists can create art for art’s sake without feeling the burden of having to document tragedy. For his next project, Daniels imagines taking pictures of people in his hometown and asking them simpler, more beautiful questions, like “When did you first fall in love?”

KELLY CLANCY is an Austin-based political scientist whose research focuses on social justice and the politics of protest. She is also a creative non-fiction editor and writer of the forthcoming book, Everyday Activism: Stories of Anti-Trump Resistance! You can read more about her work at www.kellyaclancy.com

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