“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” – Hamilton
In America, there is a media playbook for how to talk about mass shootings and guns. It’s so ingrained, late night talk show hosts have joked about it
There’s also a playbook when an unarmed black man is killed. Sadly, it’s being used in the case of Botham Jean. Jean was shot and killed in his house by an off-duty police officer.
Look at these two headlines.
The CNN headline repeats her defence as stated fact. We have no idea if she mistakenly walked into Jean’s house or not. That is her version of events and media outlets should have a higher standard of proof than the word of the suspect. By framing it like this, they create sympathy for the officer and not the victim. RT, by switching the order of the information and highlighting Jean’s innocence, is far more objective. In America, unarmed black men that are killed by police are presumed guilty. The thinking seems to be that police don’t have biases. As Harvard have shown, that isn’t true.
Next, look at this.
This is the CNN international front page. There is no mention of Jean. Neither is there a mention on the MSNBC front page whilst it is the 7th story on Fox. Minimising the story helps fuel a narrative that there is no problem. I have had American friends tell me that the race issue in the states is whipped up by coastal elites. I love my friends dearly, but the “race issue” is whipped up every time a police officer gets away with killing an unarmed black person. My friends aren’t stupid. They read the news, but, as I’ve shown, if the news doesn’t show the stories, their ignorance makes sense.
What the news have been unable to do this time is find the worst picture they can of him to make him seem like a monster. Jean was a devout religious man and worked for Price Waterhouse Cooper. So it is unlikely we will see an image of him in a hoodie like we did with Trayvon, or making a peace sign that is misconstrued as a gang sign, like we did with Mike Brown. And lest I be misconstrued, even if they could, it shouldn’t make the slightest difference. The point is that the images used are important in framing the narrative and there is a troubling trend in the media to try and demonise black male victims.
On the rare occasions when police are actually convicted for murder, they are still humanised in a way that is inconceivable.
Slager murdered Walter Scott, an unarmed black man. He lied about the altercation and planted his taser on Scott’s body. I know this because it was recorded. I also know that, had it not been recorded, Slager’s account, that Scott had gained control of his taser and he felt threatened, would have become the official story. Slager was convicted of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It was a barbaric crime and yet, the Daily Mail sees fit to not only have an interview with him, but give us the perspective of his wife, adding the detail that she “gave birth to the couple’s first son Isaac” and that “she is convinced of his innocence”. Respect is given to the police for putting their lives on the line. But that doesn’t mean that they should be given carte blanche to murder and be treated differently. It’s controversial, but I don’t want murderers to be painted as sympathetic characters.
As important as police reform is, it is just as important that how these stories are reported are also reformed. It is lazy reporting to take the police officer’s words as gospel. I have read articles that say that she mistook Jean’s apartment for her own and that she fired after issuing “verbal commands that were ignored”. Normally, the verb used to describe what she alleges is “says”. It should be “alleges” or “claims”. She is the suspect and her words should be treated as such.
This is why Kaepernick kneeled. He wasn’t protesting a flag or the military. He was protesting police brutality. The kind of police brutality that sees black men and boys killed for running away, playing with toys, or being in their own apartments. Botham Jean’s death shows that Kaepernick’s protest is needed now more than ever.