The Link Between the Video of Ahmaud Arbery’s Death and Lynching PhotosRoundup
tags: racism, lynching, media
Grace Elizabeth Hale is a historian of twentieth century US culture and a professor of history and American studies at the University of Virginia.
William “Roddie” Bryan’s video of Gregory and Travis McMichael shooting Ahmaud Arbery is not the first image Americans have seen of whites killing African Americans.
In recent years, videos made by witnesses on cellphones or body cameras worn by law enforcement officers have circulated via social media and news sites. Like Bryan, the makers of these images have sometimes also been participants, and in this way, these videos have a great deal in common with lynching photographs made regularly from the 1880s through the 1930s.
What is different, however, is that Bryan has been arrested and charged with felony murder because of his participation. For what may be the first time, these kinds of images are actually being used as evidence to charge their maker with alleged crimes.
The history of lynching is essential to the conversation about Bryan’s complicity. One problem is that too many Americans, if they have heard the term much at all, have a limited and narrow understanding of lynchings as hangings conducted by mobs. Yet as African American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells and the NAACP long ago made clear, lynchers have killed their victims in a variety of ways.
While anti-lynching activists in the first half of the 20th century never completely agreed on a definition, three characteristics were usually required to label an act of violence a lynching: The victim had to die, two or in some cases three or more people had to participate in the murder and the killers had to operate under the pretext of delivering justice or upholding tradition. Most lynchings have been carried out by small groups of accomplices acting in relative private by perpetrators who believe they are justified because they are somehow upholding the social order.
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