On December 10, Journalism scholar Allissa V. Richardson (Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism) discussed empowering marginalized communities to tell their own stories, in conversation with UVA media studies professor Meredith Clark. Richardson’s research centers on how African Americans use mobile and social media to produce innovative forms of journalism, especially in times of crisis. Bearing Witness While Black explores the lives of fifteen mobile journalist-activists who documented the Black Lives Matter movement using only their smartphones and Twitter, from 2014 to 2018.
“Allissa Richardson’s impeccably researched book provides an eye-opening account of how African American citizen-journalists have harnessed the power of cell phones and social media to document the deeply entrenched nature of anti-Black racism in the U.S. Impeccably researched and engagingly written, Bearing Witness While Black raises the bar for studying how ordinary people work for social justice in their everyday lives.” ―Patricia Hill Collins, author of Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory
This program is part of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The initiative seeks to deepen the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the vital connections between democracy, the humanities, journalism, and an informed citizenry.
JANE KULOW: Welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring livestreamed author events every Thursday. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions on Facebook or Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the full schedule of upcoming events. Now, I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers.
Allissa Richardson is the author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism. She is an assistant professor of journalism at USC Annenberg, and a research fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Learn more at AllissaVRichardson.com.
Moderating today, Meredith Clark is an assistant professor of media studies at UVA, and a former newspaper journalist whose research focuses on the intersections of race, media, and power. Her award-winning dissertation on Black Twitter landed her on The Root 100, the news website’s list of the most influential African Americans in the country, in 2015. She’s a regular contributor to Poynter.org’s diversity column. Learn more at MeredithDClark.com.
Bearing Witness While Black tells the story of this century’s most powerful Black social movement through the eyes of 15 activists who documented it. At the height of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, African Americans filmed, and tweeted evidence of fatal police encounters in dozens of US cities–using little more than the device in their pockets. Their urgent dispatches from the frontlines spurred a global debate on excessive police force, which claimed the lives of African American men, women, and children at disproportionate rates.
Welcome Allissa, Meredith, and please tell us more.
MEREDITH CLARK: Here we go. Thank you so much and thank you to everyone at Shelf Life for having us today. It’s my pleasure to be here with my colleague and may I say, friend, Allissa Richardson from USC Annenberg.
Allissa, I’m so excited to talk with you about Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest # Journalism. We want to encourage people to submit their questions which we will take and entertain as we talk about the book, your work and what’s on the horizon for you. Let’s get started first Allissa by talking about the origin story of this book.
For those of us who have read it before, it begins with the compelling narrative about a very personal experience you were having and how that experience is part of the entire framework for the book and thinking about recording these stories about bearing witness. Would you take us back to that day, please?
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: Thank you, Meredith, it’s great to be in conversation with you today. Thank you for agreeing to do this. It’s really an honor to speak with someone who really helped shape the book so much in its early stages. Your work in Black Twitter, in the space of creating these alternative ways of telling stories and describing how those alternative ways are actually journalism, gave me the courage to put this into book format. I thank you for your work.
To go back to the origin story you’re talking about in the opening of the book, I discuss a time where I was in labor with my son. We were on the way to the hospital and as soon as we got there, it was pitch Black. I said, what is going on? I thought I had a birth plan. My husband was just panicking at the time because he didn’t know how to comfort me.
They said, it’s fine. It’s a scheduled power outage, but you will be in the dark for several more hours, probably about six or seven. At that point I really had to decide if I wanted to labor at home because they said that’s what I could do, or I could stay there. And I knew I was bringing forth a son into the world. I thought, are they going have the tools they need so that he’s okay. All those beginning worries that you have when a little person is coming.
And so after that, when he did arrive, many, many hours later, about 13 hours later, power was restored. I remember just looking at him and feeling a mixture of panic, as well as love. I say panic, because a lot of what people have been talking about in terms of having a Black son, started to take form in my mind in terms of not just being an abstraction but actually holding this little person and figuring out how are we going to keep you safe. I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about that too much. I was thinking, let me just get him through being a child first. Let me not worry about that.
But four months later Mike Brown was killed. When I saw Lesley McSpadden, his mom wailing in the street. I can’t even call it crying. It just struck such a chord with me. I thought no matter how the world sees him, that is her baby and she probably had a birth story just like mine that she could recite. It really just hurt to see these shifting narratives around who he was, and his picture splashed everywhere. Even his postmortem images splashed on the news. I thought it was inhumane the way he was left in the road for all of those hours in the August heat.
Coincidentally, it was my first week of grad school as well. So I’m coming in thinking I’m going to do a dissertation on something totally different, and over the course of the time that I was in graduate school, of course the Black Lives Matter movement took off. And there was no way I could separate what I was learning in school, from what I was seeing in the street, and actually seeing when got home from classes and work to look upon my son and my daughter, who was two years old at the time. So having Black children and having to explain to them what was going on in the news really, really hit me hard, especially when I think about Dae’Anna
Reynolds as well. The book is dedicated to her. She was the four-year-old who was in the backseat when Philando Castile was shot by police. She was the same age as my daughter at the time. In the book, I almost bookend it, beginning with my son and ending with my daughter, who is precocious, likes to know what’s going on. But I shield them from a lot. That particular day, I was on my computer looking at Dae’Anna comforting her mom, Diamond, in the backseat of that squad car. I was crying along with her because I was thinking, no mom should have to put on this brave face. There’s a point in the squad car where Diamond Reynolds just completely loses it and starts crying and Dae’Anna says, “mommy stop crying I don’t want you to get shot too.” My daughter came in the room at that time. She said, “who was that little girl? What’s going on?” I was trying to close the computer screen. I said, this is time for us to have a conversation. I explained to her that the little girl’s daddy was no longer here and that we, as adults, had some work to do.
MELISSA CLARK: That’s a profound story, and one that resonates so much with your own personal stories, both the story that you had bringing your son into the world bringing and then introducing your daughter to the of the ugliness of the world. In the book we find that both of these stories also connect to your own personal story and how you began to see witnessing as something that was necessary for Black folks to do in order to draw attention to their stories and then to try and pursue justice for them.
In the first chapter you talk about this incident in 1991, and that if you’re a child of the 80s you remember very, very vividly. What was it that you learned in watching the tape of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD that connects with the work you’re doing now about us seeing, us witnessing, and then people finally caring enough to do something about what they’re seeing?
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: That’s such a watershed moment. I start the book with the Rodney King incident because it was the first time I became aware of police brutality as a kid. I was sitting on the couch underneath my dad’s arm, and he’s just like you need to watch this. My brother and I are like, what is happening? Why is he being beaten? My dad is an immigrant from the Caribbean. I remember him saying, my God, they don’t do these things to people back home. I was thinking back home? This is my home. What am I to expect? He didn’t tell me, at the time, the things he must have been up against. We lived in Prince George’s County which is on record as one of the most brutal counties for police brutality in the nation. It is the site that Ta-nehisi Coates set Between the World and Me. I grew up in a pretty affluent part of the country but it’s not immune to people being stopped, frisked and all of these things.
So, my dad didn’t go into great detail about what he had gone through because he had this stoic mindset that if I don’t talk about it then it won’t happen to my kids. But something broke in him that day. He said you need to know that this could possibly happen to you and I hope the officers are punished. And, of course, we know that they weren’t, and my dad was furious. They had all the proof they needed, and nobody cared. I don’t really see my dad mad often. He’s kind of a quiet guy. To see him that upset really upset me. I never, ever saw him cry any other time, except when his own father passed in 1994.
For me it was a world-shattering moment. I thought, again, this is somebody’s dad and I don’t understand why they would do this to someone. For me, as I got older, I started thinking about the notion of witnessing and what it means to bear witness as I put these pieces together, I first realized when I was writing this book that I had to create a historic arc. This didn’t really start with Mr. King. It goes back to these three overlapping eras of domestic terror beginning with slavery, giving way to lynching, to what we have now which is police brutality.
Through each of these overlapping eras of domestic terror, you have Black witnesses who are trying their best to cry out and let you know what is going on. The thing that is different this time Meredith, in the past we couldn’t look directly in real time and report that to the masses. So for instance, I always refer to the scene in 12 Years a Slave where Chiwetel Ejiofor is hanging and the slaves in the background are going about their business. They are trying their best not to look, less they incur the wrath of the master. I think about lynching photographs and how we’re not on the fringes of those; there are no Black people cowering in the corner. We were likely fleeing town. There are so many journalistic accounts of 300-400 Black people all at once fleeing a neighborhood where a massacre was happening.
So now when I think about us being able to use this tiny device [smartphones] to do what we could not do for nearly 200 years, it moves me every time, because it’s doing a lot of work. It’s saying, I’m not going to let people forget your name. I’m not going to let people make up a story about how you passed away. And I am going to try my best to figure out who did this to you, so that the person who did it is not anonymous. Because for so long journalistic outfits would say this person died at the hands of persons unknown, and the “persons unknown” was the party line. You would see that all throughout the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Times Picayune in New Orleans, and all these places where I’m pulling different pieces of history to figure out how we did we report on this before. Three years of research later, I came to the conclusion that a lot of people got away with a lot of things.
A lot of those people were police in many cases. The earliest iterations of policing are actually slave patrols. And as I began to make those links between police becoming more professionalized and sometimes participating in lynchings, either as part of the Klan, or as crowd control, or taking pictures that would later become postcards. I thought using this device, again, is so powerful because it creates this counter gaze. It creates a form of sousveillance which is looking from below, and not surveillance. That this device [smartphone] would allow us to do that for the first time is amazing.
It’s not that we didn’t have it before. We had Ida B. Wells, who was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize this year, who tried to tally as many lynchings as she could in her lifetime. Many are second hand because she’s traveling from points north to points south to gather this information in a clandestine manner. But, to think we go from Ida B. Wells to a brave 17-year-old girl this summer, to think of Darnella Frazier in Minneapolis, thinking of pulling her iPhone 11 out, and having the bravery to stand there for nearly nine minutes, not moving, not narrating over it, but making sure that we see exactly what’s going on. It really moved the world.
MEREDITH CLARK: You mention something when you talk about this recording of George Floyd’s death and when you talk about Black witnessing. This isn’t just a term that you’re using to talk about seeing, watching, recording something. You’re actually speaking about a salient process where people are making decisions to bear witness to record a narrative as it unfolds and to keep it held together so that people will understand the bare truth about what happens. I wonder if you could explain for us the three elements of Black witnessing that you lay out in the book so that we understand that what we see on these smartphone videos is not just a matter of someone being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time depending on how you want to look at that. But it’s a conscientious choice that Black folks are making when they decide to turn the camera on actions front of them.
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: Absolutely, I’m glad we are going to walk through that process. I really developed this concept because I didn’t see any descriptions in the academic literature that would explain why African-Americans were doing this more than any other race. And I looked at many different data sets and saw we were over indexing on all the social media platforms. Our cellular phone ownership was on par with the Latinx community. Everybody else was far below with how we access the internet from our phones and use our phones. So, I thought what is all this activity? What are we doing with these devices?
The first theory I came upon was just called media witnessing. It really was from a Eurocentric frame talking about things about what Jewish Americans have been able to do. They have been able to successfully tie in all the atrocities that happened to them for more than 400 years, since the beginning of time really, to modern persecution. In the book, I talk about when a synagogue was attacked in Pennsylvania, how that was immediately tied to persecutions in the past, in the 1930s and 40s, and they are very adept at making sure that we never forget this is an ongoing problem, one that is not abating and it was on the rise at the top of this administration in 2016.
So when I think about how those histories are woven together and how it takes work to remind people that these are not new things, I thought, this is something that my people do all the time, but I don’t see it anywhere. I thought, how is Black witnessing different? Media witnessing said, the farther away that you are from the incident, the least affected you are. All of our classic literature says, if you’re viewing it second hand, you’re not likely to be moved as much. I know that not to be true. I knew that as 9-year-old sitting next to my dad who was crying because of Rodney King. I knew that when I saw the uprising in L.A. that resulted when the police were acquitted. I knew that in Ferguson when I saw Black people who didn’t know Mike Brown personally, traveling from all parts of the country to try to help and to try to protest. I thought this needs a new theory, a new concept.
So, Black witnessing has three parts. It has an editorial investigative stance; it is sousveillent – it looks from below; t tries to figure out why did this happen? What are the structural things that happened that put this person in harm’s way? It doesn’t attempt to victim blame. It doesn’t attempt to get into the person’s background. It says, what inequity here caused this person to die, because the punishment did not fit the crime. That’s the first thing.
The second part is that it hacks or hijacks any social medium necessary to get the job done. In the beginning, this is why your work was so foundational, Black Twitter was the space to do that. I know it was called Black Twitter, but my dissertation committee was like, is this really a thing? I was able to pull your dissertation out and say, actually it is. From there we built the platform that using those different social media platforms are what enable us to get the word out quickly. Almost in a way that a newsroom would.
The third element is that it does a ton of work across social strata. You’re most likely to see working class Black people and wealthy, famous Black people, like Lebron James, in the same fight. There’s no separation. It goes back to the old African saying, I am because we are. Black people have this unique way of looking at family and looking at the world. We call each other sis and brother even though we’re not related by blood. So that, I thought, was unique to tie all things together and look at an editorial and sousveillient gaze from below that is trying to – looking at someone hijacking any kind of social medium they need to get things out. And I’m looking at them rely on these interlocking spheres of discourse amongst different classes, ages, physical locations throughout the diaspora of Black people. I didn’t see that any place else; that’s what inspired me to write.
MEREDITH CLARK: I want to remind folks you are welcome to pop questions in the Q&A. We would love to hear directly from you. Questions that you have for Allissa about the book, about her work, about her background. Allissa was a mobile journalist, herself, one of the pioneers of mobile journalism and mobile journalism education which she taught in the United States and on the African continent. As we continue our discussion, now that we have an understanding of what Black witnessing is, I was wondering if you could tell us more about the witnesses who were part of your research for this book.
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: It’s a great question. I had a lot of fun getting to know all of them. There’s 15 activists in the book. I spent varying lengths of time with them. Some of them I grabbed coffee with for one day, others I spent several different occasions following them around. I’m proud that I was able to get a cross section of our family: young people, older people, East coast folks, West coast folks, members of LGBTQ community, who are outspoken about being named as such. They said so many of their contributions had been hidden before because the Black church was in charge of all our activism and was scared that the message would get muddled if people like Bayard Rustin, for example, were ‘out.’ They insisted I put in the book that this is a queer led movement. I said I will.
People like Alicia Garza were generous with their time when she came to Maryland when I was in grad school. I attended a restorative session she had for activists there and was able to grab lunch with her and talk about what it was taking to get this movement going. She was one of the foundresses of it. I talked to people like Eve Ewing and Clint Smith, who I came to know on Twitter, who were fantastic writers during this time. They were churning out content in the same way that seasoned journalists would on kick starter-led organizations called Seven Scribes. I was reading Seven Scribes which was like a digital magazine for a lot of news. I thought I would interview them and found out that Eve was one that graduated from Harvard and Clint was still there. They were intent of writing the news as they saw fit and pretty soon the New Yorker and all of these hallowed places came calling.
And people like David Banner. It was really fun to get some of the hip-hop artists who rose as intellectual leaders during this time included in the book. He was gracious enough to talk to my class one time. He spent an hour with us describing what the movement meant to him.
And then there were really great surprises. Like Ieshia Evans who had an iconic standoff with Baton Rouge police. She’s in a sundress and he’s in war gear. I remember seeing that on the news stand I was lecturing in Italy and trying to find extra copies and they were all sold out and the guy who ran the booth wouldn’t let me have his copy. I thought if I could remember her face I could find her. We’ll use our journalistic skills. After about two months of digging I found her, and she talked to my class.
And there’s Brittany Packnett who considers herself what we call the day one. She was on President Obama’s 21st Century Commission for Policing. And there’s so many different voices here that I just…oh and one more I should really mention, Chris Stewart was really gracious. He’s the family attorney for Alton Sterling and Walter Scott and now George Floyd. He allowed me to talk to him on many occasions about what was going on with the cases, what he could reveal at the time. And how it was wearing on him and how he was making conscious decisions to take the media by the reins, do and his own reporting when he saw things wrong. There was a lot of cross section people involved.
MEREDITH CLARK: You mention this last witness talks about reclaiming media because of the way it is wearing on him. I wondered if you could talk about something that, you know, many of us are trying to grapple with even now in the after math of seeing George Floyd’s life being snuffed out this summer. How are people coping with the things they are seeing and doing this work of Black witnessing?
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: A lot of what we were talking about as I was writing the book was these informal offline networks of support. So many of the activists had these threads. These private threads that they share on text message in encrypted spaces and they grieve together. They have these meetings that they convene that have nothing to do with activism and everything to do with restorative spaces. Without revealing too much about the practices, I found that a lot of what they do is not on camera. A lot of the work they do is not on Twitter. It’s not on the news.
A lot of the things they do fall under the category of providing a lot of comfort for their neighborhood. So for a lot of the activists, for example, the ones who started in Ferguson, before all of the media descended on the town, there was what we saw in Portland. This wall of moms. Of course it wasn’t called a wall of moms because it was Black mommas. Those mommas really rallied around Lesley when Mike was laying in the street because they wouldn’t let her pass the police tape to see if it was him or to see if he was okay. She didn’t know anything. So these moms were rallying around her to make sure she was okay. So, they were the ones kicked off the protest. When I think about the work that was done by a lot of activists, long after the cameras are gone, continue to check on her to make sure she was okay. Now they’re doing the same thing for the Floyd family, continuing to check on Gianna to make sure she’s all right. They are doing those campaigns that no one thinks about in terms of raising money for her to go to college.
So those kinds of things that aren’t widely reported are the work of activism as well. They fall hand-in hand with the witnessing. That was an unexpected twist to see there was so much of that still happening even though people were in pain. Even though we were in a space of grieving there’s still so much organizing that was done. I remembered, you know, this is probably how our ancestors pressed on in the face of so much adversity in the civil rights movement. And farther back. There was not a pause to just sit and be sad. There was always someone who, while that person was stuck or sad or depressed, another person was doing work for them on their behalf. So I saw a lot of that happening in this activist space. Another beautiful thing I saw is the elders stepping up.
So I started working this summer on bringing the book to life and kind of this docu-series for Facebook and Oculist. It’s called “In Protest.” We visited four American cities to see what the activism looked like now. When we went to Minneapolis, one of the co-producers is from there and he knew someone who knew Diamond Reynolds’ mom. He said the care that was extended to Diamond Reynolds around that time, because everybody knew it would be triggering to see George Floyd die this way in the same city Philando Castile lost his life. I found so touching that people would still reach out to her and remember her in that moment and that her mom would do the all the speaking on her behalf. She’s still grieving even though it’s four years later. That was the love of her life. This activism takes so many different forms. It takes the form of standing in the gap when you need to when the person who is most affected can’t press on at that moment and they pick up that baton and do the work for them using any of the tools they have at their disposal.
MEREDITH CLARK: What would you say the work is now? I want to talk a little bit about, you know, of course the Black Lives Matter movement and how it’s progressed and how now a phrase that four years ago was widely reviled is now widely embraced. What were some of the actions, some of the tools that you see that have contributed into, I guess, bringing everyone else in society along, and making them a part of this activism journey?
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: That’s great question. In our Comm. Studies we have this theory called the Overton window, when you talk about something enough, eventually it will become normalized. In the beginning people did not want to embrace that phrase Black Lives Matter and Alicia Garza talked to me at length about it being hijacked by All Lives Matter and these kinds of things and she was upset about that at first and put out her own story to really clear up the fact that this is why we’re saying these words. Because even though all lives should matter, we’re seeing that some just don’t. And so when I first put out the book I thought, when I first started writing I thought this will probably be a historic capsule. This will be a blip. This great moment in time and we know work is still continuing when the media have lost interest in it. But then two weeks after the book came out, George Floyd is killed, and it’s suddenly relevant all over again. So that is heart breaking to know that these kinds of things are cyclical and the story in some ways won’t end.
It was difficult to write knowing that every time I would think I’m getting close to a conclusion another name would be added. And their family. People who look like your uncles and daddy and brother and it’s frustrating to see the same outcome of police getting away with it. The work now for me is naming a lot of these things. Of course, we know now that Black lives matter. We know now what the work is.
And I’m a very spiritual person. I believe we were put in a position this year where we had no choice but to look. There was no way to look away. And in this pandemic everybody is frozen at home. Sports are done for the moment. Entertainment was on pause. Everybody was looking at the same couple of channels to get information on how to stay alive and healthy. And here we are, at a position where we can’t rely on our regular distractions. I think it woke a lot of people up. A lot of people who would have preferred to look away ordinarily. The work is now that we have people’s attention, make sure they have the language to understand what reform looks like. And in many ways it can’t be just boiled down in small pithy things like “It can’t wait” or “Defund the Police.” Those are starts. Those are great hashtags, and they distill what it is you’re trying to accomplish. But, because this is such a weighty issue and in many instances a state by state issue we really need federal reform at this point. I think a lot of people within this movement will be pushing our new administration, our incoming administration, to make some moves at the federal level in terms at the very least keeping record of who has a very horrible disciplinary record.
There’s no national database for that. There’s a national database for driving, if I’m a bad driver that’s out there from state to state. That doesn’t exist for someone who is authorized to take a life. I think that kind of work is going to be essential, this federal organizing. Also coalition politics is going to become more important. As I stated, this movement has been unapologetic Black and queer. A lot of that work is being recognized that the women, Black women especially, have been the engine of this. We can’t be forgotten after the polls. After we organize and get everybody to come to the polls and vote and come out in droves. We can’t be forgotten. And so I think that Black women, you’ll see will continue leading this movement and also encouraging others to form coalitions because we’re stronger together. That is reminiscent of the 1960s. In 1968 there was so much work done with the Black panther party and there was the brown power movement in California with Mexican-Americans who were inspired by the Black panthers and wore brown berets instead. So you see that kind of coalition politics .of Stokely Carmichael coming down from Oakland to talk to them, to educate them, to tell them this is what you do if you feel upset about something. In Chicago, you have a large amount of the Latinx community rising up there at the same time. And you have what they call the Native American movement, the red movement was big at the time. Asian Americans were active in 1968. Everybody at that time had some kind of organization and some kind of mission that centered around civil rights. And they were banding together in ways that quite frankly scared everybody because they thought, if they get together what’s going to happen.
And there’s tons of declassified documents from the FBI from the Cointel Project that talk about dismantling the tight relationships that Black and brown people were forming. That is the work of the future. A lot of what we saw in the last administration attack so many people and so many people were left feeling afraid for their citizenship. I think what we saw this year, even though it was a very tight margin, were people willing to listen to each other and work together. What we saw this summer especially was multiethnic coalitions in the streets who were locking arms and defying, in many cases, death because the pandemic was still raging. The work there in terms of the national scope, I see Black women still being at the forefront because we are battle tested and organizing in many ways. We’re now more visible and the coalitions will start to become stronger I believe to dismantle a lot of this systemic racism that we’ve seen for so long.
MEREDITH CLARK: Thank you. As we get ready to wind down we’ve got just under 10 minutes left. I again, want to encourage folks, if they have questions about the book, about Allissa’s work and about what she’s working on next to type those in the Q&A box or in the chat box. So that we can entertain them before we go.
You mention the work that Black women do and have done and Black women being at the forefront of this movement. There is a very compelling vignette that you tell towards the end of the book about telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And it kind of brings a number of moments from the book, a number of threads full circle. It touches on coming back to this space that you first encountered as a child watching the aftermath of Rodney king’s assault and the full circle moment for activists in that community who had been advocating for so long against police brutality, finally having a moment and having their day to confront those forces head on.
I wondered if you would mind reading a bit from that section for us and then as we wrap up today I’ll ask you about your next project.
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: My mom is a Christian woman and when I first got the job to work in L.A. at the Annenberg School, she said, you’re doing Lord’s work. I said, why do you say that Mom? And she said, don’t you remember you open your book talking about Mr. King. Talking about Rodney King and now you’re going to be driving on the same roads to work. I had not thought about that. She said, you have to, once you get there: drive on some of those roads.
You’re a journalist, go through and see where a lot of these things took place. I had never been to L.A. before that. I had been to Disneyland once and that was it when I was in middle school. This vignette really talks about a moment where I was invited to come to a sheriff’s meeting. He had a conference, the LAPD sheriff, and he was starting this oversight commission due to Patrisse Cullors’ work, one of the foundresses of Black Lives Matter has pushed for this oversight commission forever. It finally came to fruition and they invited me to speak.
On the morning of October 15, 2018, I drove along the same California freeway that Rodney King travelled that night in March 1991. I was sitting on the 210, crawling along in the Los Angeles traffic and thinking about what I would say to a room full of community activists in about an hour. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department had invited me to its first ever Civilian Oversight Commission community policing conference. The commission, formed in 2016, was the hard fought for byproduct of Patrisse Khan Cullors’ activism. As one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matters Movement, she had woven her decades-long activism to end police brutality into her newfound international platform with incredible results. The same city that was once home to one of the nation’s most brutal police departments now led the nation in the establishment of a first-of-its-kind citizen-led group that was designed to evaluate police misconduct. I was intrigued by the idea even though I thought the phrase “civilian oversight” was a misnomer. I didn’t think we needed more looking from on high—it was the gazing from below that fascinated me.
As I entered the venue that day and waited in the green room with the other panelists, I felt inexplicably uneasy. Although I traveled many of the infamous streets on which the LA riots took place on my way into work at the University of Southern California every day, I had managed to compartmentalize my historical references of the LAPD and Rodney King to old memories of myself sitting with my family, watching the city go up in smoke on television. That I would one day be sitting in a room full of these officers from the same police force felt incredibly overwhelming. On this day, the LAPD was not an abstract concept, or even something I could view from afar. The LAPD that day, and every day, was real people walking around, talking, laughing, and getting coffee from the refreshments table in the back of the room. Holding the door open for me. Smiling at me. I excused myself from the green room and found a restroom. I felt a heaviness in my chest, yet could not cry. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I felt at that moment that everything I had witnessed—as a Black witness myself—had brought me into a space where I could speak finally to police and activists at the same time, in hopes of making change.
Something shifted during that Civilian Oversight Commission conference for me. When I emerged from the restroom, and gazed upon activists and victims’ families wearing “dead man’s T-shirts,” I realized that Black witnessing is something that we must protect. As police bodycams vie for the roll of the “official record,” and as Black witnesses increasingly are intimidated or punished for looking, the United States must continue to consider the message and the footage from the people who put themselves in harm’s way to capture an alternative story. This is an old story, after all. It’s a story that was told long before me—through slave narratives, Black newspapers and magazines, urban radio, televised Civil Rights-era news broadcasts, Black blogs and websites and, now, by witnesses with smartphones. For so many decades, African Americans have leveraged the story telling technologies of the day to create a brand of advocacy journalism that has impelled change—even if the instigators did not live to see it happen.
As I prepared my notes at the dais, I readied myself to tell the audience of activists and officers that there’s a dual revolution now, which blossomed at the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Just when African Americans wielded smartphones to reimagine protest journalism police added another vantage point. Body cams became the latest evolution in the visual arsenal of policing, rounding out the collective gaze offered by their helicopters, dash cams, surveillance footage, and street corner-blue light cameras. It’s a small wonder scholars deem this the era of “toutveillance,” where everyone is watching someone.
This war of the gazes will be resolved neither readily nor easily, I told the Civilian Oversight Commission that day. I am inspired however by the 15 activists I interviewed for this book. They know that the same city of Baltimore, which blessed Frederick Douglass with freedom, also extinguished the light that was Freddy Gray. They know that the same city of New York where Ida B. Wells sought refuge from Southern Horrors, also shook its Brooklyn Bridge with rage over Eric Garner. They know that Florida, which was home to the first all-Black town of Eatonville, also allowed Trayvon Martin’s killer to go free. They know that Ohio, which was a bastion of Black prosperity during the Great Migration, also snuffed out the lives of Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and Marshawn McCarrel. They know these things.
But they also know that the same city of Oakland that took Oscar Grant, also birthed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. They know the same Chicago that killed Laquan McDonald also boasts a street bearing the name Ida B. Wells. They know that the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston which buried nine of its congregants after a heinous hate crime, was founded by Denmark Vesey—an organizer of one of the largest slave revolts that almost was. They know these things also. They told me so. The 15 activists told me they will not look away even when their hearts are broken. They will not look away even when the movement’s progress comes in fits and starts. They will not look away even when the hashtags stop trending or the videos threaten to make us numb. They will not look away even when the convictions do not come.
When they continue to bear witness to police brutality, they create a shadow archive for future generations. When they continue to bear witness, they help all of us connect historic dots between human rights injustices then to human rights injustices now. When they continue to bear witness, they will the kind of world they want into existence. It is in this unbroken historic chain of looking that I now find the ready answer when people ask me if bearing witness while Black still matters. If seeing still matters. If filming still matters. For the sake of the record, in the name of the dead, and in honor of those who are still livingand still fighting for changethe answer is, simply, yes.
MEREDITH CLARK: Allissa thank you so much for that reading. This is such a moving section to me because it’s the culmination of not only the work you’ve done to put this book together and to commit these stories to the historical record, but as you point out, it is a definitive point in the work that our ancestors have done to make sure that our stories are told. That they are told accurately, and fairly in a way that is culturally competent. We thank you so much for your time today.
We have one question. Unfortunately I don’t think we’ll be able to get into future work. But one audience member asks, is there a group to support that you can recommend that is involved in federal change specifically where it concerns the police? So folks are looking for ways to get involved thinking about police reform at the federal level. Do you have any recommendations about where folks can look to lend their support?
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: Yes. I definitely urge people to contact their congresspersons. I think it’s an underutilized thing. They do listen. I have seen so many instances in my home state of MD, when people are pressured they react. And here, now that I live in L.A., I have seen Congressman Waters in action. I have seen her with these listening tours and really having people vent to her and taking each and every one of those calls. It matters.
I think we have become so aware, even more aware of what matters at the state level as we watch this election, and we watch which state was going to do what. At the state level it’s so important. No matter who is president, if you don’t have that majority in the house and the senate to get things done there will be no consensus. So if we really want federal reform, we have to put pressure on each of our representatives in the lower house and upper house.
ALLISSA RICHARDSON: Thank you so much.
MEREDITH CLARK: Well it’s time for us to wrap things up. I want to thank my friend and colleague, Allissa Richardson for being with us today.
Thank you all for everyone who tuned in. We ask you to please consider buying BEARING WITNESS WHILE BLACK from your local Black book seller. You can check out future Shelf Life events from the Virginia Festival of the Book taking place every Thursday at noon. Learn more at vabook.org. Thank you.